The “Expert Syndrome” Revisited

Dilbert cartoon about an "expert"

I hope Mr. Adams doesn’t mind me sharing “Dilbert” with you, but recent events prompted a return to the topic of experts in the horse world, and these particular cartoons seemed especially appropriate! I’ve commented about this problem before in my article entitled The “Expert Syndrome”, and decided to revisit it after a couple of experiences last week.

First, I was visiting the facilities of a trainer whom I’d never met before, and was listening to her talk with one of her clients. They were discussing how and why horses react in various situations when the trainer said, “Now, unlike human beings, the horse’s adrenal gland doesn’t work unless their head is up. Otherwise, it doesn’t secrete anything.”

Wow – that one really threw me! I’d never heard of “position-dependent gland secretion” before, and it seemed highly unlikely. But I am well aware that I am neither a biologist nor an endocrinologist, so I didn’t want to rule out the (seemingly-very-remote) possibility that the trainer was correct. So I called my friend Dr. Bruce Nock, who’s a professor of neurobiology in the psychiatry department of Washington University’s School of Medicine, where he conducts research on stress – the effects of which are intimately connected with the operation of the adrenal gland (Bruce also happens to run our Liberated Horsemanship training programs). And (after he finished laughing,) Bruce confirmed that the whole notion of the horse’s adrenal gland only working when his head is up is, indeed, complete nonsense!

On the surface, though, you can see how someone could relatively easily buy into that story because it sounds somewhat plausible based on our experiences with horses: they appear calm when their head is down, and excitable only when their head is up. But the perpetrator of this myth would seem to be confusing causation and correlation. Just because we typically experience events as occurring together does not mean that one causes the other to occur. And this episode ended up jogging my memory about a similar story from nearly 20 years ago…

Back when I was a relatively new horse owner, I was riding my rather-excitable horse in the indoor arena when another rider remarked that horses spook because they perceive objects as being “larger than they actually are,” which tends to frighten them. “For example,” she stated, “when a horse sees a dog, it looks to him to be the size of a pony!”

Frankly, I didn’t even know how to respond to that because it defied not only the most basic principles of optics, but of logic as well! And yet the woman said she’d recently read it in one of the more popular horse magazines. Back in those days, I was inclined to believe she’d simply misunderstood something the author had written, because I couldn’t imagine anyone with even a modicum of common sense writing anything so preposterous. But the next day, the woman brought me the feature article, written by a veterinarian, which “explained” how horses’ vision works and how they perceive the world. It certainly affected my vision – it was an eye-opening example of what I’ve come to recognize as a very real problem in the horse world.

Given the circumstances, I could hardly fault that horseperson for her confusion. Granted, she should have questioned such a patently absurd claim. But how can I blame her for repeating what she’d read in a leading publication that should have had procedures and policies in place to prevent this sort of thing? She had every right to expect accuracy in what she read. Yet, here was an article with not just a relatively minor and understandable mistake: a misplaced decimal point or an incorrectly-labeled drawing. This was an entire feature article whose fundamental premise was dreadfully flawed, written by some presumably well-intentioned person who should’ve stuck to writing about what she knew, instead of presenting illogical speculation as fact at the readers’ expense.

Dilbert cartoon about an "expert"

My point is this: real experts aren’t born; they’re created. They’ve had extensive education(formal and informal) and experience, and can always back up their claims with facts about their education, experience, and the subject matter under discussion. They never rely on the following three “credentials” or their variations as evidence of their expertise, as is all too common in the horse world:

  1. I love horses
  2. I’ve been doing this for many years
  3. I’m an expert in this subject, so I must be an expert in that subject

We all have an obligation to not just accept everything at face value, and, especially, to not pass it along without questioning its origins and accuracy. A few days ago, I noticed a Facebook post by my wonderful friend Jessica imploring people to stop sharing information about a particular group of horses because the situation had been resolved and the information was no longer correct. I admire and respect her for that, and wish more horsepeople took that initiative! And while that situation as well as the ones I’ve been sharing are probably relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things, other types of misinformation can lead to much more serious consequences, and not challenging it can very possibly put the safety and welfare of not only yourself and your horse, but of others and their horses, at risk. I’ll close with a much more serious and extreme example to really demonstrate this point…

I once spent a day helping a farrier fine-tune his trimming skills. This gentleman had been a shoer for quite some time, and had an impressive collection of leg and foot bones he carried around with him. As he was showing me his collection, he pulled out a pair of coffin bones with well-defined, nearly horizontal, grooves on their front faces. I’d never seen anything like that before, and asked him where the grooves had come from. He explained that a client had had a horse that foundered – extreme laminitis where the coffin bone has moved out of position – and a friend of the client told him that his horse’s pain was caused by “pressure building up inside the hoof.” So the client promptly pulled out his electric reciprocating saw, and sawed through the front of the horse’s hooves.

I absolutely cringe when I think about the pain that horse had to have experienced; already in the midst of the most painful condition a horse can endure, and someone decided it made sense to saw into his feet all the way into the bones! I can only hope they ended his life quickly and humanely.

What we choose to believe, and what we choose to share, matters, because actions nearly always have consequences, and lives may quite literally rest in your hands.

Please choose wisely…