Beyond “being nice”

Who doesn’t understand the confirmation bias? I mean really. It’s so basic, all undergrad Psychology second years are just so familiar with it. See what I did there? Read on… there is so much to like in the article below (click on the link to open it). It’s interesting to think about human behaviour change in the context of the many changes taking place in our understanding of domestic horses, how they feel and function.

Information about how our management and training affects our horses’ health and physiology is still generally more persuasive than information about how our decisions affect them emotionally, even though both are from equally valid and scientific sources and indeed overlap in their effects on a companion animal that we would prefer to be in good physical and mental working order for the various activities we like to enjoy with them. So for example most horse people understand the need for trickle feeding to the extent that this is essential to minimise the risk of colic or ulcers; fewer understand the horse’s essential need for the company of its own species, and I don’t mean across an electric tape or a stable partition. But both are fundamental needs which must be met to ensure good physical and mental health. They are not desirable but essential.

Does a horse’s mental health matter if all you want to do is ride? Some people would be mortified to think they were not doing everything they possibly could to keep their horse happy; others want a physically fit animal capable of performing at the levels they require of them. These two categories are not mutually exclusive!  Clients sometimes ask me why I recommend a treatment plan that emphasises pleasant experiences and avoids unpleasant, fearful or painful ones. I do this because retraining and rehabilitation by activating positive emotions has been found over and over again to be the most effective and risk-free way of changing unwanted behaviour. And this includes permament changes at neural level, right inside the animal’s brain. One of the significant risks of using other methods is the risk that the stress causes to your horse’s health, whether that’s through inflammation (skin conditions, puffy joints), immunosuppression (endocrine/metabolic dysfunction), accident or injury. A napping, rearing, bucking or aggressive horse is a risk to handler safety too of course.

So I wonder why so many horse owners still eschew their horses’ emotional wellbeing, whilst rightly paying so much attention to physical health? Could the confirmation bias be at play?

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