Rather than dismissing a study because it covers something you “know,” take the time to read about it to see what else there might be to learn.

- By Christine Barakat

What we know and don’t know

“We already knew that.” “Smart horse owners have known this for years.” “Duh.”

Every few months such comments ---or ones of similar sentiments ---will be left on EQUUS social media after we’ve posted an article reporting on new research. Sometimes the comments are paired with an expression of frustratio­n that a research institutio­n is “wasting” money by funding studies into a topic that the person commenting feels no longer needs to be examined. As both a journalist and a horse person, I find these comments to be dishearten­ing to read.

This happened most recently in response to an article about research exploring the link between cresty necks, insulin resistance and laminitis (“To Predict Laminitis Risk Look at a Horse’s Neck,” Medical Front, EQUUS 499), but I’ve also seen it pop up as a reaction to studies on colic or behavior

or hoof care, in particular. I’m certain numerous people have had these “I knew this” thoughts over the 43 plus years that EQUUS has been reporting on veterinary research, but with the rise of social media, instant feedback and general snarkiness, it seems more common these days.

Part of this reaction, I think, comes from the natural inclinatio­n of people to feel as if they are already smart and informed. Knowing things “already” makes us feel like we are providing the best possible care to our horses--and the desire to do that is admirable. But an out-of-hand dismissal of research that confirms what horse owners have long observed ignores the nature of scientific inquiry. And this mindset can end up hurting horses in the long run.

For starters, it’s important to scientific­ally confirm those things that horse owners “know,” because sometimes what we know is wrong, even if it’s common practice.

Without scientific research, for instance, we might still be withholdin­g water from overheated horses for fear they may colic or tie up. Remember, for the longest time “everyone knew that.” But research conducted in the leadup to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta found that drinking cold water or being bathed with it not only causes no harm to hot horses, but it helps them recover from exertion more quickly and prevents potentiall­y deadly heat stress.

But even when an experiment simply confirms the long-standing observatio­ns of horse owners, the research is still valuable and worthwhile. That’s because science builds on our body of knowledge. Studies, even those focusing on seemingly mundane topics, collect data---not anecdotes, but that’s a

subject for another column---that can advance the understand­ing of an issue and form the foundation for more research that may ultimately lead to improved diagnosis and treatment.

Beyond that, there’s value in confirming previous findings. Researcher­s aim for their studies to be replicable, meaning that another group can conduct the same experiment and produce comparable data. That affirms the reliabilit­y of the conclusion­s.

The study about cresty necks, for instance, confirmed the validity of a “cresty neck score” in predicting a horse’s ability to regulate insulin in their bodies. This means the cresty neck scoring system is reliably enough to be used by other researcher­s looking into these issues---just as the Body Condition Scoring System has been used in hundreds of studies since it was developed by Don Henneke, PhD, in 1983.

Yes, horse owners may have long known that ponies with cresty necks are more likely to develop laminitis, but this study moves us toward an understand­ing of why and to what extent. What’s more, it provides a system for objectivel­y identifyin­g those ponies most at risk and likely to benefit from laminitis-prevention efforts. The data generated by that study could even ultimately contribute to future work that cracks the code on metabolic laminitis, a breakthrou­gh that would mean that no horse would have to suffer from this terrible condition ever again.

So the next time you see a study about something you “know,” resist the urge to turn the page or scroll by. Instead, take the time to read the findings. There might be something else there that you can learn.

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