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Revealing One’s Ignorance

Posted by vwkoch, 01 December 2009 · 149 views

Horse Handling Thoughts
One of my pet peeves is people who use technical terms incorrectly. Technical terms in “applied science” fields tend to become popularized and used improperly by people who don’t really understand them. Sometimes, they’re used improperly as useful (but totally incorrect) euphemisms for words to be avoided. For example, many people will say they’re using “negative reinforcement” to avoid admitting they’re using punishment. In reality, if the objective of an action is to decrease the preceding behavior, the action is punishment. Negative reinforcement is the act of rewarding an animal by taking away (“negative” is used in the mathematical sense) something it doesn’t like (e.g., the person stops threatening it with a whip). The person’s action might be the same in both cases (threatening the horse), but it occurs BEFORE the horse’s behavior in negative reinforcement and AFTER the horse’s behavior in punishment.

Some people will also say they’re using “positive reinforcement” because they don’t want to admit they’re using negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is rewarding an animal by giving it (adding) something it likes (e.g., a treat) AFTER it performs the desired behavior. Chasing a horse around a round pen till it does what you want, and only then letting it stop, is NOT positive reinforcement --- it is clearly NEGATIVE reinforcement. The horse is being rewarded by removing (subtracting) the threat that was making it run around the pen.

Sometimes, people make these mistakes simply because they’re trying to impress other people by using technical terminology. They probably don’t realize they don’t understand the terms, but their attempts to impress people have the exact opposite effect on someone who DOES understand the “jargon.” In that case, trying to impress others by incorrectly using scientific terminology actually does nothing but reveal your true ignorance.

Another example of revealed ignorance is a comment I read once in an article by someone who obviously considered herself an advocate for horses. She was writing about horses that are ear shy, and she made a comment that will stick with me for life: “How would YOU like it if your ears were doubled up and pushed into a bridle?” The reason that comment sticks with me is because my immediate reaction was that I really wouldn’t care. Just to be sure, I doubled up my ears and confirmed that it was, in fact, no big deal. When I got to the stable that day, I did all kinds of things with my stallion’s ears and confirmed that he didn’t care, either. (In fact, the experiment turned into a game we played from time to time. I would pull his ears into various positions while telling him things like “This is how cocker spaniel ears look….”) My current mare doesn’t care what I do with her ears, either. In fact, there are only three reasons I can think of as to why horses are ear shy. Either they haven’t been trained to let people handle their ears, or they’ve had bad experiences with people handling their ears, or their ears currently have a problem. At any rate, the comment indicating that having one’s ears doubled up during bridling was somehow unpleasant is a prime example of a person revealing an incredible ignorance of reality.

Another example is another of my pet peeves --- people who think their opinions are better than anyone else’s. “Horse people” tend to be very opinionated, and I certainly have no problem with people having strong opinions. However, it is important for people to understand the difference between opinion and fact. When people argue about “facts”, it is an objective argument, and the best data “wins.” When people argue about opinions, it is a subjective argument, and no one’s opinion (including mine) is any better than anyone else’s. However, when one person in an argument is presenting facts and the other is presenting only opinions, the facts should always win, which is why it is important to be able to differentiate between opinion and fact. Unfortunately, many opinionated people are unable to do so, and while they often think their opponents are “stupid” or “uninformed” or even “evil”, it is actually the opinionated person who is revealing his ignorance. One example of being unable to distinguish between opinion and fact is seen in those people who insist it is “abuse” to keep a horse in a stall.

Horses evolved as herd animals whose food intake consisted of grazing for most of the day. Putting them in individual stalls and feeding them hay and grain once or twice a day can cause serious problems, both mental and physical. However, it is possible to keep horses in stalls without causing any problems, if you understand and provide for your horse’s needs. Anyone who insists that keeping a horse in a stall is always “abusive” simply reveals an abysmal ignorance about assessing a horse’s true welfare status.

I have kept horses both in individual stalls and in groups in a pasture. In both cases, it was necessary to take steps to ensure that their welfare was acceptable. For example, putting horses in a pasture with no shelter is not acceptable, in my opinion. On the other hand, horses should not spend 24 hours a day in a stall, especially if they have no contact with other horses while they’re stalled.

My current pet horse is stalled, but she can contact her neighbors through the stall partitions. She gets out of the stall for about three hours a day (about an hour of which is being ridden) and is often allowed to graze for part of that time. She has numerous toys to play with while in her stall, many of which allow her to work for food or treats. She can also watch the activities that take place in the barn aisle (and persuade most people to give her some treats). Her stall is cleaned twice a day, and it’s in a heated barn that’s kept at about 40 degrees in the winter. I am convinced that she is happier with this arrangement than she would be in a pasture in the Colorado winters (which is not to say that horses on pasture in Colorado are necessarily unhappy). I do not base my opinion on anthropomorphism --- I base it on the behavioral indications that she is contented with her living conditions.

When I open her stall door, she is willing to leave but not in any hurry to do so. If I put her in a turnout pen with other horses, she tends to stand by the gate waiting for me to come back, rather than playing or socializing. If I turn her loose to graze, she tends to come back to the barn by herself after about half an hour (just long enough for me to clean her stall!). If she hasn’t come back on her own, she comes to me as soon as I go out and call her. If I can’t turn her out to graze, she naps in the barn while I clean her stall (often while standing untied at her grooming “station”, because I only tie her if other people are around and likely to become concerned by seeing a loose horse). When I finish grooming her, I turn her loose (if she’s tied), and we play games till I run out of treats. Then, I take off her halter, and she heads for her stall while I put up the halter, grooming stuff, Frisbee (or whatever), etc. I keep her stall closed to prevent her from going into it when I turn her loose, so when she gets to her stall, she “grazes” on spilled hay in the barn aisle while waiting for me to come open the door. When I open the door, she backs into the stall (which is a trick she seems to be very proud of), gets her last treat, then starts playing with her toys, knowing I’ll be back the next day so we can do it all again. She is a big chicken, and she loves her stall because it is her safe place. She would surely be shocked if she knew that some people would consider her to be abused. She’s actually pretty darn spoiled, and she knows it.

I know that most stalled horses don’t live as she does, and many of them are, in fact, “abused” because they are essentially abandoned in solitary confinement, but the point that I’m making is that just keeping a horse in a stall does not constitute abusing it. Keeping a horse in a stall without providing for its welfare constitutes abuse, just as keeping a horse on pasture without providing for its welfare constitutes abuse. Anyone who claims that stalling a horse is abuse under any and all conditions is simply revealing complete ignorance as to how a horse’s welfare should truly be assessed.

We all think our opinions are the best opinions, or we’d change them to what we thought was better --- which would then be the best opinion. If it were bad to think your opinion was the best one, we’d all be bad, but in fact, we’re pretty much all just normal. What is important is to realize that your opinion is not better than someone else’s just because YOU think it is. No matter how sure you are, it’s always possible you’re wrong. You need to know the difference between fact and opinion and recognize that other people are not only entitled to their own opinions but their opinions are just as good as yours --- no better and no worse. Opinions are only opinions, and if you want people to respect your opinion, you have to be willing to respect theirs. If we all respected other people’s opinions, the world would be a lot better place!

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