Thursday, 7 August 2014

How to put horsey people off science?

A few days ago, I was given a newspaper cutting – in fact I received 3 copies of it as a few people had seen it and thought I might be interested. The headline was

‘Not straight from the horse’s mouth – only its eyes and ears.’

Below that, the catchy line

‘Scientists have discovered the secrets of equine communication’.

Having just last week finished preparing a weekend’s worth of teaching material on equine body language, of course I was interested.

My first thought was it seemed a bit of an odd headline, implying that horses only communicate with their eyes and ears. Horses communicate in many ways – through scent, vocalisation, through body language involving their entire outline, their tails, ears, lips, head position and so on. If scientists had just proved that they only communicate with eyes and ears, what had I been writing about, finding pictures and videos of for the last month? 

And, to be picky, at most the scientists could have discovered a secret of equine communication – equine communication is rich and sometimes very subtle, and there is much we still don't know. 

Turns out, a title along the lines of  ‘Scientists have confirmed one aspect of equine communication’ might be more accurate.

This is not a criticism of the research, but of how it is presented by the press. There is a worrying divide between those researching equine behaviour and those working in the equine industry. The research in this case, understandably, does not live up to the headline and then many of those with experience with horses read on for a bit and think 'I knew that already' or 'that's totally obvious' and go on to dismiss the scientists and their results (yes, I’ve had several emails and messages already scorning this research), and both sides lose out. 

And horses lose out. Because a lot of great research is going on in many areas of equine behaviour, health and welfare that equine industries, and therefore horses, would really benefit from. Anything that turns the general equine industry off science, and discourages them from reading what the researchers have to say is a bad thing, in my opinion. 

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