I saw a post that piqued my interest on Facebook this morning. It was a Horse and Hound article about how breastplates can negatively affect the way horses jump. Clearly it did more than just pique, it’s ruffled my feathers enough to break me out of my blogging ennui. Thank you, bad science!! You’re just what I needed.
well, that and this adorable mug
So, let’s take a look at this article by Horse and Hound. I’m not going to blame H&H too much for this reporting, since they aren’t science reporters and are really only able to work with the information they are given. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is actually sponsored article, and if they didn’t disclose that information it is unethical. However, H&H is bound to know that, and so this particular article is probably not specifically sponsored — more likely, Fairfax gives H&H some large sum of money for general advertising and this article is being played off as a general reporting piece. You will notice that the first suggested link after the article is about a girth “scientifically proven” (ever scientist’s favourite two words) to improve the way horses go.
The TL;DR of this situation: this is not science, this is an advertisement.
There are so many glaring red flags in this “study” that I can hardly list them.
There is no link to a peer reviewed journal article, or any data, figures, or any other “scientific” measures of difference. The article does point out that the horses took off “closer” (no measurement) and landed “closer” (no measurement) to the fences, thus increasing the flexion of and strain on their hocks and other joints (no measurement).
The “researchers” (Fairfax) even provided a handy-dandy little image that demonstrates how different the arc of the horse is. No matter than in the “better” image the horse has already started to take the forward part of the landing stride with his front feet and that is where they measured his “landing” point from, and in the “bad” image the horse is pictured at a different part of the landing phase, and his landing point is measured from the foot that is further back. Plus we all know that every horse jumps every fence the exact same every time, and nothing but equipment ever influences this — not rider balance, approach, speed, or general attitude on the day!!
All’s fair in marketing and “research”, right?
And what about those oh-so-critical study numbers that people are always reporting. Things like sample size, p-value, effect size, or even the dastardly value of measurement? “Significance” (their scare quotes, not mine) is all well and good, but if the effect size is less than 1%, who gives a shit?! Wow, excellent, I can improve my horse’s bascule by less than 1% by spending $350 on your special piece of equipment. Talk about promoting a quick fix.
There is that upper-level rider’s testimony. He says his horses jump so much free-er in front, and he can feel it. But really, humans are biased and fickle things, and just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is true. Especially not subjective, un-measurable things like the feeling of a free-er jump that might be influenced by free product or small piles of gold coins.
It’s probably just me, but damn am I sick and tired of the lack of science that goes on in the equine industry! We all want to do the best for our horses, and I get that. But a little bit of testing, common sense, and critical thinking goes a LONG WAY with this stuff. Fortunately, many readers of this article already figured that out.
And finally, one additional pet peeve: If it’s real science, nobody is ever going to use the phrase “scientifically proven” to talk about it. Scientists don’t use those words because science is always changing and adapting.