Equitation science: Does it baffle too many horse owners?

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Could the very term “equitation science” be a step too far for some riders, creating bewilderment around a field of research trying to demystify many aspects of horse behaviour and handling?

Researchers Kirrilly Thompson and Laura Haigh, writing in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, see some irony in this possibility.

The pair were discussing their findings on the perceptions of online forum users around equitation science.

The past decade has seen the development of equitation science. The field seeks to reconcile horse behavior and science with the human demands of modern horse-keeping, training, competition and performance.

One of its aims is to improve horse welfare through a scientific approach, but little is known about how horse riders perceive it.

Thompson and Haigh suggest the steady expansion of equitation science and its uptake by professional and amateur equestrian coaches around the world will likely give rise to instances where references to it are unnecessary.

“Repeated appeals to embrace equitation science may detract from its ultimate aim of improved welfare and performance,” they suggest.

“Ironically, the use of the term ‘equitation science’ when references to equine learning and behavior would suffice can be seen as a form of scientific mystification by a field of research which in turn is seeking to demystify many accepted practices and discourses in modern equitation.”

It may be equally valid to recommend certain riding, handling or management practices with references to specific theories, rather than invoking the term “equitation science”.

This, they suggest, might reduce confusion among academics, coaches, students and others over whether equitation science is a topic, a field, a method, a practice, or all of those. In doing so, it would remove a barrier for those who are sceptical of science.

Encouraging practitioners to be clear about what equitation science is and is not, and discouraging unnecessary mentions, may also show flexibility in applying its principles, they say.

In their research, the pair analysed the “everyday talk” of equestrians participating in an online forum thread debating equitation science on an Australian horse website.

The found evidence of four beliefs about science that prevented the uptake of equitation science (that science discounts “feel”, science is over-rated, science is a gimmick, and science is reductionist), and one that supported its aims (science is useful and progressive).

The discussion in question took place over four days, comprising 55 posts from 12 forum users.

Some users argued that equitation science was incompatible with achieving and experiencing “feel”. One user wrote: “You could have an enormous amount of scientific understanding and still be a shit rider and, conversely, have never heard of the atom and still have an enormous amount of feel and have the horse bend over backwards for you.”

Some forum users appeared to believe that “feel” was overlooked by equitation science.

Thompson and Haigh acknowledged the study involved a small sample, but said it provided tentative insight into the thinking styles of some equestrians.

“It is far from surprising that those who were antagonistic about equitation science tended to have negative beliefs about science in general.

“If we make the reasonable assumption that proponents of equitation science are more likely to be rational thinkers, it follows that opponents are more likely to be intuitive thinkers.

“The implications for equitation science … are that communication, extension and engagement initiatives should not exclude intuitive modes of thinking.”

The authors noted that while some forum users saw science as a way to successfully and efficiently achieve a better human-horse relationship, others made statements revealing a view of science as incompatible with “feel”, “truth”, and the complexity of the relationship between two species.

“Challenging these beliefs directly is fraught with the risk of unintentional consequences, such as reinforcing the same stereotypes that can prevent resonance of equitation science with some equestrians.”

They suggest that small behavioral “nudges”, as proposed in 2016 research, or more persuasive discourses could be adopted, acknowledging but not resisting scepticism about equitation science.

“This could involve using wording that demonstrates empathy with alternative views without trivialising them, such as, ‘while we know that all horses have different personalities…’, ‘this is not to suggest that your horse is a machine’, ‘science doesn’t have all the answers, but current research suggests that…’

“When riders believe that ‘science’ trivializes, generalizes and/or demystifies their peak psychological and emotional experiences, resistance from those riders, who value this emotional and embodied ‘feeling’ of a good riding experience, is understandable.”

The researchers said their findings highlighted the need for research into how equestrians think, and critical reflection on the role of equitation scientists or science communicators in bringing about behavior change to improve horse welfare.

Language, they said, should be relevant to the intended audience.

They propose that a more effective way to increase the uptake of equitation science to improving horse welfare might be to appeal to the one fundamental desire shared by all equestrians: to be good at what they do, be that riding, caring for, or just getting along well with horses.

Improving scientific literacy is unlikely to be a panacea for equine welfare issues, as welfare knowledge does not necessarily result in practical application, they noted, citing 2012 research.

The pair said their findings suggest there is scope to increase the resonance of equitation science among a broader array of equestrians, despite scepticism of science. However, it would require a sensitive communication strategy and social marketing plan.

Such communication, they said, would need to be tailored for audiences and end-users beyond the academic production and consumption of equitation science.

Thompson is a cultural anthropologist with the Appleton Institute, part of Central Queensland University; and Haigh is with the Centre for Applied Behaviour Science at the University of South Australia.

Perceptions of Equitation Science revealed in an online forum: Improving equine health and welfare by communicating science to equestrians and equestrians to scientists. Kirrilly Thompson and Laura Haigh
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.02.002

The abstract can be read here

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