The “Expert Syndrome”

One of the constant frustrations I encounter is nicely illustrated by the preceding clip from the 2004 – 2008 television show Wildfire. No, I’m not talking about chipped hooves and the common perception that they’re a problem; I hope I’ve adequately addressed that issue in earlier posts. What I’m talking about instead could perhaps be called the “expert syndrome,” which is when someone with a small amount of knowledge in a particular subject area feels qualified (and compelled) to offer his or her opinion on the subject to an extent that’s far in excess of what he or she actually knows.

I want to be absolutely clear here that I am not saying these people are stupid or incapable of learning. I’m talking about the gaps every person alive has in his or her knowledge. For example, I’m probably the most ignorant person on the planet when it comes to sports. I have no interest in the subject, and I know nothing about it. But most importantly, I know I know nothing about it and therefore refrain from commenting on it. That distinction is the subject of this article.

The “expert syndrome” is extremely common and certainly not confined to the horse world. For example, when I worked full-time designing professional audio products, a colleague once complained that a reviewer for the leading industry publication had written a rather bad review of one of her company’s new products, describing in technical detail a very specific problem with its performance. So she had the engineering department measure and re-measure samples of the product in an attempt to identify and fix the problem. Trouble was, they couldn’t find the problem; in spite of their $100,000-plus testing facilities, they simply couldn’t get the problem to show up. After about a week of this, she called the reviewer to ask him about the test conditions he’d used  to test the product for the review. His answer? “I didn’t actually measure anything, but I heard the problem while listening in my living room.”

I won’t even bother describing the differences between objective measurements done under very controlled laboratory conditions and one person’s subjective opinion in his living room, but I’m sure you get the idea. The more amazing part of this situation is not that he gave very specific numbers in his review as if he’d measured the product, but that he apparently thought nothing of writing a bad review of the product (which could’ve had dire consequences for the company) based on absolutely no objective information!

In the equine world, this often translates to some trainer or owner freely offering advice or making some proclamation as if it were based on actual data rather than anecdotes or speculation. Yes, I know it’s just a television show, but how many Wildfire fans nevertheless ended up believing that horses must be shod to avoid “risking a chip”? Even within the story line of the show, there’s nothing about this young woman’s history that would put her in a position to make such an authoritative comment on hoof care.

Some folks at Cornell University have actually measured this misperception of self- knowledge, and reported their findings in a paper authored by Justin Kruger and David Dunning and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“. In this study, the authors asked people to assess their knowledge of a particular subject area, and then tested them on that subject. Following the test, they also asked each participant to assess how they thought they’d performed on the exam. The results for logical reasoning ability are reproduced below –

Graph of perceived versus actual ability

As is obvious, the people with the least amount of subject knowledge grossly overestimated both their knowledge and their test performance. And not just by a small amount; their actual knowledge ranged from approximately one-half to only one-sixth of what they thought they knew! That truly frightens me, because the data suggests that half of the population overestimates its knowledge of a particular subject to a very significant degree.

The big problem, as the title of the paper points out, is that people don’t know what they don’t know. Based on their study, the authors make four “predictions” about the connections between competence, metacognitive ability (the ability to “know what one knows”), and inflated self-assessment, which I’ve summarized below –

  • Incompetent individuals will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria when compared to their more competent peers
  • Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it, whether their own or someone else’s
  • Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability
  • Incompetent individuals can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize they have performed poorly

So the bad news is really the inability of these “experts” to know they’re not experts, which means it falls to the rest of us to try to sort things out. And that’s not always easy to do, because if we were experts in the subject area in question, we wouldn’t be seeking the advice of others! So it’s almost the classic “Catch-22.”

What can the horse owner do? Well, the study shows us that as a person’s actual subject knowledge decreases, his or her perception of their knowledge increases. So the most questionable sources would seem to be the individuals who freely offer advice about aspects of equine management that, logically, one wouldn’t expect them to have knowledge of, have nothing in their backgrounds that suggests knowledge of the subject area in question, and/or otherwise offer vague credentials such as “because I love horses” or “because I’ve been around horses my entire life.”

Unfortunately, and contrary to popular opinion, this also includes many veterinarians when it comes to hoof care. Logically, a veterinary student cannot spend much time on any particular aspect of the horse, since, in four years’ time, they have so much to learn – mostly about small companion animals. It’s not possible for them to spend more than a very small fraction of their time (maybe a class or two) on the equine digit. Yes, we horse owners tend to expect them to have the knowledge, but it’s simply not logical to assume they have it. After I posted Toy Story, I received a number of comments from horse owners and other hoof care professionals lamenting about similar experiences. Here’s one comment from a very well-trained and highly-experienced trimmer –

When I began to trim I asked my farrier, who had moved away, about barefoot trimming. He told me to keep records of at least the first year of my trimming and figure out what the success rate was for lame horses that I trimmed. He had spent years as the orthopedic shoer for the Florida vet school. He told me that the vet/farrier combination had less than a 30% success rate for bringing lame horses back to soundness; that most of what they did was simply extending the horses’ usability for a couple more years. My first year of trimming had an 85% rate in returning horses to work under saddle, many of those with a veterinary recommendation for euthanasia, After that, I was off and running with barefoot trimming.

Board-certified veterinary surgeon Neal Valk, who teaches in our training program, has told me similar things; that, even as a “super vet” from an education perspective, he was taught very little about hoof care, and what he was taught was aimed at getting a bit more use out of a horse, with the full knowledge that once the owner went down the “corrective shoeing” route, it was only a matter of time before it no longer “worked.” But this post has gotten much longer than intended, and I’ve got to wrap it up!

I see this lack of actual knowledge and the subsequent propagation of misinformation as a very real problem in the horse world, and I like to discuss this topic in my workshops because I want horse owners to not only be able to recognize suspect information when they encounter it, but also to halt its spread when possible. So question everyone and everything, and do your level best to share only well-researched sources of information supported by objectively-credible credentials. We all have an obligation to our horses to stop inaccurate information.

Please do your part.


  1. Sandy Judy says:

    This is from the 1999 AAEP proceedings, Andrew H. Parks, MA, Vet MB writes in his paper, Equine Foot Wounds: General Principles of Healing and Treatment:

    “Most equine clinicians are familiar with the healing and treatment of traumatic wounds to the distal limb, proximal (above) to the foot, because the general principles of wound healing are well taught in veterinary schools. This receives constant reinforcement as these wounds are a weekly if not daily occurrence in general practice.
    Foot wounds, although less frequently encountered, are not uncommon. Unfortunately, they are often treated hesitantly by practioners, presumably because of misunderstanding or unfamiliarity, so that the treatment is ineffective. This is probably because :
    (1) little time is spent relating the principles of healing to the treatment of foot wounds in already overcrowded college curricula,
    (2) the morphologic differences between the integument of the foot and skin is confusing, and
    (3) experience with management of such wounds in practice is less common. Unfortunately, there is little or no information from research on the way foot wounds heal, so that practical treatment of foot wounds must be based on experience and extrapolation from research on skin wounds.”

    • Steve says:

      Great comment! For those who might not know, the AAEP is the American Association of Equine Practitioners – the organization of veterinarians who primarily service the equine world. This paper, admittedly intended not the horse owner but the equine vet, contains one of the rare admissions about the lack of proper education when it comes to the equine digit.

      The “trick” in all of this is to get the typical horse vet to acknowledge that they really don’t have the knowledge necessary to properly diagnose and treat hoof problems. This is a perpetual battle for every hoof care professional, because owners naturally want to believe the person society tells us has the training: the vet. But as I keep trying to point out, that’s simply not logical.


  2. Sandy Judy says:

    I have reread this blog post several times and quoted you on my web site.:-) And however much it seems throughout my web site that, although I am guilty of criticizing vets and farriers, I remain acutely aware of my own limitations and always try to give the person with whom I am sharing my knowledge (gained from books, SHP course, clinics, other trimmers and experience), the best I can with the highest level of competency that I have achieved thus far. I always let them know that I am still learning and that the field of hoof care and veterinary care is still evolving from Dark Age ideas of shoeing and “bleeding out the bad blood”. But I also believe that “argue for your own limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours” from the Reluctant Messiah. Owners expect a certain level of confidence in their trimmer (especially if they doubt the benefits of barefoot in general) and i have found that being brutally honest about their horse’s prospects of health as I see them based on my knowledge and experience, can sometimes create doubt in my competence as a hoof care professional.(Kill the messenger!?) Especially if this conflicts with their conventional vet and farrier care to date. So its a fine balance. I always encourage clients to learn and think rationally, research and use common sense. And usually, the proof is in the pudding. When their horse becomes sound after all the conventional veterinary and farrier efforts failed, it’s a matter of other people touting our competency via testimonials.

    • Steve says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more! In fact, if you go back to the second post I wrote entitled Why Me?, you’ll find I wrote the following with respect to my own knowledge –

      …I must confess, though, that after more than 17 years of intensely studying equine hooves, I feel as if I’ve got a solid handle on only about 20 – 30% of what I believe one really needs to know to be 100% successful at understanding every hoof one encounters. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think anyone has a better grasp of it than that.

      And I continue to believe that’s the case. Owners are, indeed, in a terrible position because they’re not sure where to turn, and our advice often (maybe “usually”?) contradicts what they hear from the vet and the farrier. We have to be as supportive as possible, and make every effort towards helping common sense and logic prevail. When Jaime Jackson first started natural hoof care, many of his clients were owners who’d exhausted every other hope for their animals, and turned to him in desperation. Fortunately that’s changing, but it’s still a long, slow road!


  3. Sandy Judy says:

    I just attended a Hoof trim clinic with many of my trimmer peers, and a few vets and farriers, by a well-known couple who have been instrumental in the barefoot movement. It was embarrassing that it very much appeared that the fellow giving the presentation did not do any preparation for the talk. A message that is poorly constructed and delivered, even though it may be a valid and important message, is not received well. I’m sure many clinic attendees will only remember how nervous the man was and how many “ums” and You knows” were in his speech. Add to that his constant disagreements with his wife/co-presenter on what his slide show was not doing, his constant apologies and self-admonishments, all made for a tedious and ineffective presentation. Even the trimming demos lacked definition in pointing out before problems and after trimming effects. So we, as trimmers and movers in the Barefoot movement at large, even just with clients and especially when presenting a program, need to have a prepared and effective argument. If we need to join toastmasters or go to YouTube and learn how to make a presentation, then that’s what we need to do.

  4. Steve says:

    Interesting! I can’t think of any well-known couples who’ve been instrumental in the barefoot movement, although I can think of several couples in which the partner would claim to be instrumental. At any rate, I’ve suffered through those sorts of presentations as well. Successful teaching is, indeed, a combination of skills – intimate knowledge of the subject matter coupled with the ability to express that knowledge in a clear and unambiguous manner. Many people have the former; far fewer have the latter!

    Thanks for your comments.


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