Gadgets: the equestrian world divided

This short video circulated a while ago and it sparked a few rowdy debates about the use of gadgets. As with many equestrian topics, the arguments quickly became incredibly polarised.

Typically, debates like this involve people with one of two points of view: those who use gadgets as part of their routine and do not wish to be criticised, and those who avoid using gadgets at all cost because they “don’t like shortcuts”.

My suspicion is that most people, if they sat down and thought about it carefully, would actually find themselves somewhere in the middle-ground.

Let’s briefly examine the most common arguments:

“Everyone has their own way of doing things and should not be criticised for their choices.”

This is a frequently used argument in all sorts of spheres – not just when discussing gadgets. But does it hold up? Of course everyone does have their own way of doing things. But does that mean we should just turn a blind eye to things we disagree with? The problem with doing this is that we all lose out if we don’t communicate with each other. We miss out on so many opportunities for learning and to improve on existing ideas. I have learned just as much, if not more, from people who disagree with me as from people who hold the same views as I do. We all benefit when we are outspoken on matters we feel strongly about and we should welcome constructive criticism from people who think we are making a mistake or have made a decision they think is harmful.

At the same time, as long as a person isn’t breaking the law, of course they can do as they please – and we never have a right to harass or bully people. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend to be happy about their choices! We can make our point politely and move on.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

Of course this is true… But there are many things that we would all agree are not a matter of opinion. For instance whether Shetland ponies are smaller than Exmoors is not a matter of opinion – it is something we can measure. We can also measure whether or not a device or exercise can help achieve a given physiological change. For example, can weightlifting build arm muscles? This is something we can measure – it’s not a matter of opinion but a matter of ‘fact’. The same is true of gadgets and what they can do. Unfortunately, we don’t always have these measurements and so can’t always answer these questions. But the credible thing to do here is not to insist on one or other perspective but instead to admit our lack of collective knowledge, stay open-minded, and eagerly await research that helps us to answer our questions.

“What happened to the good old-fashioned ways? Everyone expects quick results now. These are short-cuts.”

We all have our favourite ways of doing things and a lot of people take pride in keeping traditions alive and doing things in an established way. There is something to be said for using methods that seem to have been reliable over a long period of time. But using a new method that works faster isn’t in itself a bad thing. If gadgets do what they say they do just as well as traditional methods but do so more quickly, there’s really nothing wrong with using them.

But what a lot of people using this argument are really hinting at is that rushing the horse might have welfare implications. This is a tricky criticism to address as it is something that might be very difficult to measure objectively and will depend a lot on the individual circumstances and of course what specific traditional method is being compared to what specific gadget. There are likely to be pros and cons on both sides.

“I use gadgets and they work!”

Anecdotal evidence feels very convincing and it’s incredibly easy to be swayed by arguments based on other peoples’ personal experiences. Unfortunately, evidence like this is often unreliable for a number of reasons. One of the biggest problems is that we are not very good at accounting for our own cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and the caregiver effect. Even people whose job it is to avoid this kind of bias – like scientific researchers – have to guard against it by designing experiments that are ‘double blind’. This means the researcher doesn’t know what the results of the tests should be. This stops them from reading into the results what they think should be there.

We also need to be very careful about this when making decisions or taking recommendations from other people. It’s very easy to see results from gadgets (or any training method, treatment, therapy, diet etc) that aren’t there because we think they should be there – especially if someone told us it worked for them. We then tell other people about the amazing results we’ve had, and the cycle begins again.

Whatever you think of these common arguments and whether or not you are convinced by my counterarguments, we can probably all agree on one thing: none of these arguments really get down to what any specific gadget does and how it is supposed to work. Instead these arguments are more broadly concerned with the ‘concept’ of a gadget.

Sometimes it seems as though people have picked sides on topics such as ‘gadgets’ as a whole – ‘Team Gadget’ or ‘Team No Gadget’! This is a dangerous approach to take to decision-making as it means we are more likely to act impulsively based on which ‘side’ we have chosen instead of openly and honestly thinking about the issue.

So if you are thinking about using a specific gadget, a better approach would be to find out how exactly it is supposed to work and think about whether that explanation makes sense. Is the horse supposed to learn from this gadget? If so, you can try to identify when (or whether) it will provide a release and see if this will be correctly timed with the behaviour you want to encourage. Is the gadget supposed to build specific muscles? Then imagine if it was a piece of equipment in a gym and you were wearing it. Would the muscles being worked be the ones you want to work or would you in fact end up straining against it or leaning into it and working an entirely different muscle group?

These kinds of questions will help you figure out if the gadget could do what it is supposed to be able to do. A lot of the time, gadgets are presented as acting in a particular way but clearly couldn’t be doing that on closer inspection. We really need to sit down and think through the claims being made to figure out if they make sense and would work in the specific scenario we’re interested in. The same is true of other equestrian topics that elicit strong polarised views: bitless versus bits, shoes versus barefoot, treeless versus treed saddles and so forth. Taking ‘sides’ isn’t the answer!

Assuming you decide that, yes, this gadget will indeed help and it also isn’t going to compromise your horse’s welfare, there is no reason left not to go ahead and use it. But it is very important that we each go through this process on a case-by-case basis and really think about what it is we want to achieve, whether how it works makes logical sense, and if this is a good option in this particular situation.

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