What we know and don’t know

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.

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

Every few months such comments—or ones with a similar sentiment—will be left on 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 research into a topic that the person commenting feels no longer needs to be examined. As both a journalist and a horse person, these comments are disheartening to read.

This happened most recently in response to an article about research exploring the link between cresty necks, insulin resistance and associated laminitis (click here to read it), 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 people have had these “I knew this” thoughts for the 42 years EQUUS has been reporting on veterinary research, but with the rise of social media, instant feedback and general snarkiness, I feel it’s more common these days.

Part of this reaction, I think, is that people like to feel like 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 comes from an incomplete understanding of the nature of scientific research and, ultimately, a mindset that can end up hurting horses in the long run.

For starters, it’s important to scientifically confirm what 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 dangerously overheated horses for fear they may colic or tie up simply because “everyone knows that.” Research conducted in the lead up to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta found that not only will drinking or being bathed with cold water not harm hot horses, but it helps them recover from exertion and prevents potentially deadly heat stress.

But even when scientific research 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 of the most seemingly mundane topics, collect data—not anecdotes, but that’s a subject for another column—that can be used as the basis to further the understanding of an issue and form the foundation for more research that can lead to better diagnosis and treatment. It’s also important for science to confirm previous findings. Researchers aim for their studies to be replicable, meaning another group can conduct the same research and produce the same 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 scoring system can be reliably and consistently used by other researchers looking into these issues—just as the Body Condition Score developed by Don Henneke, PhD in the mid 1980s has been used in hundreds of studies since.

Yes, horse owners may have long known that ponies with cresty necks are more likely to develop laminitis, but this study moves us towards an understanding of why and to what extent, and it provides a system for objectively identifying those ponies 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, making it so no horse has to suffer from it again.

So rather than dismissing a study of something you “know” and continuing to scroll by, take the time to read it to see what else there might be to learn.




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