Your Experience Doesn't Make You Right

I engage in a lot of discussions on Facebook about horse training and behavior. In almost every thread at least one person says, “I have 20 or 30 or 40+ years experience…”

This is usually stated with the assumption that I have far less experience and that somehow their experience is more valid than my own experience and education.

My first thought when someone makes this statement is, “Wow, that is an awfully long time to spend not learning anything new”.

I’ve actually had people ask how old I am, to which I usually reply, “Old enough to know that you’re asking me in an attempt to discredit what I am saying.”

You see, along with an education in equine behavior, I’ve also learned quite a bit about human behavior.

Usually, posted along with the experience comment, or shortly thereafter, is the “I’ve been observing my herd of horses…” argument.

There are so many things that render this argument invalid, it’s hard to know where to begin.

For starters, there are probably very few people that have an actual herd of horses. A true herd of horses is comprised of a stallion, a number of mares and the mare’s offspring from the past year or 2. Depending on the size of the herd, there may also be a number of satellite stallions.

By contrast, the majority of horse owners that actually have a group of horses kept together , have a group that is comprised of whatever horses the owner has decided to own. This is usually a combination of mares and geldings thrown together however is most convenient for the owners. Not exactly a natural herd, which means that the resulting behaviors of these horses are probably not going to be natural or normal herd behaviors.

To complicate matters even further, resources for these horses is usually limited, unlike in the wild, where resources like food are found all over the ground. Limited resources often leads to the development of troublesome behaviors like resource guarding and aggression. It’s hard to say that you have observed and understand horse behavior when the very conditions that our horses live in create unnatural behaviors.

Now let’s just suppose for a moment that you keep your horses in a very natural setting, where there is little to no competition for resources and you do not add or remove horses from the group. So for the most part, your horses exhibit natural behaviors. Your 40+ years of observation suddenly seems much more valid. There is just one more problem though: Our minds tend to sort for that which is familiar to us. So, if you have certain beliefs, you tend to see things through the lens of those beliefs. Your mind will only see what matches with those beliefs and will discard everything else.

For example, if you believe that there is a strict dominant hierarchy amongst horses, your mind will automatically pick out every incident between your horses that supports this belief, but will fail to see other behaviors that negate this belief. Basically, you can’t really trust your own mind!

Sooo... what should you do? Well, entertain the possibility that you might be wrong. Entertain the possibility that you might be right. Take the new information you have received in to consideration. Investigate more. Find out if there are other reputable sources that confirm this new information. Observe your horses with this new information in mind and see if any of it fits. Most importantly, treat the people with whom you interact with as though they may actually be able to teach you something different than what you think you know.