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Ensuring science of horse riding is not saddled by poor communication

Published:20 February 2018

Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson is pictured (centre) with her horse 'Mouse' and friends Dr Georgina Downey and Georgie Benveniste.

Horse owners can draw on centuries of knowledge, experiences handed down through generations of their family, and their own personal ‘feelings’ as a rider.

So it’s possible they may be dubious or cautious about fresh scientific findings if they contradict their traditional or intuitive understandings of horsemanship.

That’s why researchers have completed a small, opportunistic study of the everyday talk of equestrians taking part in an online forum debating equitation science (the science of horse riding).

The study, seen as a forerunner to a more thorough research project, is discussed in a paper published recently in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research.

The study author, CQUniversity’s Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson says forum participants disagreed about what equitation science is and what it does.

“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,” Associate Professor Thompson says.

“To reduce confusion, misinformation and misunderstanding, ES communications should be self-aware as well as mindful of existing discourses, value systems, modes of thinking and modes of judgment held by equestrians and equestrian cultures.

“A more effective way to increase the uptake of ES for the purposes of 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.

“The view that science is seen as too reductionist to account for the complex relationships between individual humans and horses also warrants extended discussion with equestrians.”

Associate Professor Thompson points out an analogy with climate change science.

"We don’t have to get people to agree with science for them to engage in pro-environmental behaviours," she says.

"Lots of people who don’t believe in climate change have installed solar panels to save money, for example.

"Neither do we need animal owners to favour science over their intuition to encourage pro-welfare animal ownership.

"There will always be a group among the wider population who are sceptical of science. Some people might even say that their scepticism is a sign of a scientific disposition!

"Above all, the key for behaviour change is in our messaging and that means understanding our audiences in all their diversity."

* Laura Haigh assisted with this research via a CQUni Summer Scholarship, for which applications open again later this year.