If science were a horse, it would be an abused and neglected one. This horse would be taken advantage of and used as a vehicle to get humans where they want to go. It would be promoted as a Super Horse, treated like a Vaudeville act, and leveraged to win an argument or make a sale.
A sorry state for what should be a wonderfully valiant creature. No wonder media consumers have become so skeptical about science. Research has been reduced to sound bites and weaponized to serve the myopic self-interests of, in this case, the horse industry.
It was this recent post by Kentucky Equine Research that got my knickers in a twist:
Headlined “Radios Cause Gastric Ulcers,” KER cited an Australian study that found that racehorses are more prone to ulcers if the barn radio is on. The horses do even worse if they are listening to talk radio as opposed to music. KER suggested buying their product Rite Trac for ulcer issues and perhaps turning off the radio.
KER didn’t bother linking to the research.
But I found it. The study was funded by the Australian government and conducted by Guy Lester, an associate professor at Murdoch University for the Rural Research Industries and Development Corporation. The goal of the 2008 project was to recognize and analyze risk factors for gastric ulcers in racehorses.
Lester et al noted:
- City horses fair worse than country horses.
- Horses with turnout do better.
- Horses that spend time with other horses do better.
- The longer horses are in training, the more likely they are to develop an ulcer.
- Certain trainers have higher rates of horses with ulcers.
- Oh, and by the way, radio noise (which is more prevalent at those aforementioned city barns) seems to be a minor factor.
Can we be assured that the study’s authors knew what they were doing and, in the words of Dr. Frans de Waal ‘knew their subjects intimately’ before studying them?
For instance, the authors acknowledge that horses got ulcers when taken in from turnout and stalled for seven days. But despite the widely acknowledged consensus on horses’ need to move a lot and be with herd mates, they attribute the developed ulcers to altered feeding behavior, not the reduction in mobility and herd interaction.
The study was neither conclusive nor well designed, but it nonetheless had some salient points, which were, in turn, virtually ignored by KER.
Because of people’s interests in making money and serving their own, very human agenda, priorities get turned upside down. Bad practices are routinely justified. Rationales are put forward with conviction. All while the horses’ best interests are swept under the rug.
What a shame if the outcome of this “research report” and the subsequent spread of it, like bad gossip, through social channels results in:
Horse owners feeling righteous about their perpetually stalled horses because they’ve now turned off the radio.
Horse owners feeling okay about their chronically stressed horses because they’ve ordered Rite Trac.
We can do better.