Fred Holcomb is a horseman, BHPS steering committee member, and farrier currently living in Bozeman, Montana. He completed equine research at a Wyoming ranch and Davidson College.
In this guest column, he reflects on our need to understand equine research as a process, not a be all, end all.
By Fred Holcomb
I am a nerd. I get jazzed about equine biomechanics and watch slow motion videos of my roping to improve technique. I enjoy knowledge and appreciate healthy skepticism. Think of me as Bill Nye, the Science Guy with a cowboy hat.
I recently attended and worked at the first Best Horse Practices Summit in Durango, Colorado. As you might guess, it was an intellectual playground for a horse nerd like me; it was a fantastic venue for horse people of varied experience levels and disciplines to come together, corroborate findings and seek knowledge.
One of the more important discussions I had that weekend was with the BHPS director Maddy Butcher.
Before her opening remarks, we were discussing what we hoped this conference could provide for its attendees. My simple answer was that I hoped it would help attendees see science as more of a verb than a noun. You can’t say something that broad to Maddy without being pressured for clarification.
So I further explained:
A pitfall in the world of clinicians and trainers is for name, reputation or even mannerism to supersede ability. Plenty of well-intentioned riders who hope to improve their horse work fall prey to the marketing and fanfare surrounding one trainer or another.
Within certain groups, a conversation becomes more about who said it than what was said. My fear was that the Summit could for some become the next unquestionably “true” movement instead of an event that inspired questions, debate, and critical thinking.
I was worried that “science” could become the next object for a cult following within the horse world. Instead of, “I know I am right because Cowboy Bob does that” it could become “This is true because Science says so.”
It’s more complicated.
Yes, objective research should inform what we do. But replacing the trendy clinician with a lab coat-wearing PhD does nothing to improve the process if either message is consumed as infallible truth.
My hope, I explained, it that people better understand the importance of the scientific process.
Science is mode of examination, not just a body of knowledge. Merriam-Webster defines science as, “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.”
Science is wrong all the time. There have been times in our history when top scientists thought that the world was flat and that bloodletting could cure everything. There have and will continue to be plenty of times when our “knowledge of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation” is not what is actually going on.
But it’s the process of careful, continued study that allows us to synthesize information and more accurately observe our natural world.
Understanding the process allows us to engage with a research methodology, to question or accept findings, and build informed opinions. That’s precisely what I wanted to enjoy at the Summit with my fellow attendees. I hoped that the Summit would create a bunch of scientists, not a bunch of blind consumers of science.
There are a lot of opinions out there on how to deal with your horse. Some opinions come from experienced and capable horse people and researchers who are trying to share their best answers to today’s problems. Other opinions come from figureheads and pseudoscientists who are trying to validate their beliefs or make a sale.
It’s up to you, the skeptical horse owner, to “experiment and observe” as you establish or alter your handling practices. What is true today could be completely false tomorrow in the eyes of the most current research. But understanding how to use science – the process – to question and validate will ensure that you are doing your best to house, feed, and handle your horse.
Science isn’t the answer. It’s your way of finding today’s best guess.