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The lockdown following the coronavirus crisis resulted in the cancellation of events and a significant slowdown in social activities.

Simultaneously, a landscape of webinars, online lectures, and articles on various equine health topics flourished on the internet and social media. Therapists, trainers, retailers, and manufacturers of a diverse array of products have been, and continue to be, striving to sustain their sales through online channels and, where feasible, expand their customer base beyond previous limits.

Regrettably, the internet lacks quality control, allowing individuals to present themselves as ‘experts’ without any qualifications or credentials. In an era of fake news, ‘alternative facts,’ and the prevalence of those who shout the loudest or have the largest advertising budgets being heard, horse owners frequently face challenges in discerning genuine and valuable information amidst the general noise.

When it comes to purchasing new trainers, making a wrong decision might, at most, result in discomfort to your feet, and you can simply replace the shoes. However, when it comes to feeding or treating your horse based on inaccurate information, the consequences can be dramatically detrimental to your pet’s health.

Hence, it is crucial to carefully verify such information to ensure that the person sharing their knowledge genuinely possesses a profound understanding of the subject matter. But what if you lack expertise in the subject? How can you navigate this challenge? We aim to assist you in better categorizing information through a few straightforward checkpoints:

The author has an appropriate education

This applies to authors of articles, webinars, lectures and the like. Comprehending the physiological consequences of nutrition and metabolic issues at all levels requires more than just reading one or two popular books on feeding from mainstream publishers. A profound understanding of inorganic and organic chemistry, biochemistry, and physiology is essential to grasp the mechanisms of nutrient utilization.

This level of knowledge isn’t acquired through an evening course at the adult education center. This is why these fundamentals constitute a significant portion of the foundational courses in natural science and medical degree programs. Without this foundational knowledge, all other information acquired through literature studies, etc., cannot be accurately categorized from a technical standpoint, leading to the dissemination of false information.

Often enough, “everyone knows this” information is passed on as the truth and eventually takes on a life of its own on the internet until everyone believes it, even though there is no factual or scientific basis for it.

Authors lacking the requisite training often make claims that appear plausible at first glance but do not withstand closer analysis of physiological and biochemical principles. Yet, by the time such unqualified claims are scrutinized, they have often proliferated further, particularly through social media, solidifying themselves as ‘common knowledge’.

Hence, it is crucial to adopt a particularly critical approach when evaluating the authorship of information circulating on platforms like ‘Dr. Facebook’ and similar outlets. Even if information appears logical at first glance, it may not necessarily be scientifically sound.

Books and magazines
The author needs a lot of background knowledge and therefore a good education. © Adobe Stock / C.Castilla

The author supports their statements by referencing scientific peer-reviewed publications.

And of course they must also be able to qualify them. Frequently, you’ll come across information sourced from individuals whose influence can be directly traced to one of the many mainstream feeding books. What many people fail to realize is that, in principle, anyone can publish a book on any subject, as publishers don’t rigorously verify the content. They may not provide extensive expertise on a multitude of diverse topics, especially when they are not specialized book publishers.

The publisher must rely on the author’s expertise, and if an author excels in self-promotion, they may not be required to substantiate the validity of their statements. This implies that books can serve as a valuable initial introduction to a topic, but for a comprehensive understanding of nutrient processes in horses, one must delve into scientific publications—the original literature.

This, in turn, assumes not only a command of technical English but also an ability to interpret study designs. And this is often not so easy.

For instance, a study may be published, conducted with four horses following a ‘crossover design’ in their feeding regimen. This implies that the four horses were divided into two groups of two each, wherein Group A initially received feed 1, and Group B received feed 2. After two weeks on this feeding regimen, the horses underwent examination. Subsequently, Group A received feed 2, and Group B received feed 1, followed by another examination. In mathematical terms, the experiment was conducted with 8 horses, although the actual number of animals involved was only 4. Those familiar with the study of feeding and its effects on metabolism understand that different horses can react significantly differently, and a group of 4 horses is certainly not considered a meaningful study sample.

Every statistician cringes when analyzing such results, as with only 4 horses per study group, it becomes impossible to derive any statistically reliable conclusions. Moreover, the effects of feeding are often not discernible after days or weeks but rather manifest over months or even years. Hence, the results of such a study should be approached with caution. However, this understanding can only be gained by reading the entire publication and possessing experience in study design and statistics.

Studies funded by manufacturers are frequently designed to substantiate specific outcomes. In such instances, the outcome is predetermined, and the study is structured to ensure the confirmation of this pre-established result. One can identify this in the study design with the relevant experience; once again, sound training, as described under point 1, proves invaluable.

Numerous authors make claims on the internet without ever providing references to the sources of their knowledge. Such information should be viewed with great caution.

Cui bono – who benefits?

The question of ‘who benefits’ holds significance, as the saying goes: ‘The bread I eat, the song I sing.’ If I am financially dependent on someone for my livelihood or research work, I may find it challenging to criticize them.

For this reason, scientific publications have long been required to disclose the funding sources for research. This information is considered in the qualitative assessment of research results, as the study design is often tailored to the expectations of the funder (as mentioned in point 2). Of course, we all need to earn a living from our work, and receiving income from a source doesn’t automatically invalidate what one writes or says.

Hence, one must exercise caution to avoid automatically drawing the false conclusion of ‘cum hoc ergo propter hoc’ from ‘cui bono,’ which translates to ‘just because two events coincide, there doesn’t have to be a connection between them.’ In other words, the suspicion that I am the murderer of my husband of 30 years because I am the sole heir to his fortune is apparent. However, I don’t necessarily have to be the one who killed him; I could be completely innocent.

Examining publications from the perspective of the author’s self-interest often aids in a more nuanced qualification of the information.

Where does the horse actually come from?

Moreover, it’s essential to consider the evolutionary origins of horses because, despite domestication, our horses still bear a striking resemblance to their wild ancestors. Any recommendations that deviate significantly from the diet of a wild horse should always be subject to critical scrutiny. In the wild, horses don’t drink from oil bottles, consume brewer’s yeast from brewery kettles, or graze in fields of muesli or carrots. Keeping the wild horse and its natural habits in mind is instrumental in putting a lot of feeding information into perspective.