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Occam's Razor and the Dunning-Kruger Effect in Horse Nutrition

Updated: May 12, 2021

Not many, except the nerdiest of nutrition nerds, will read this article, but I have found it to be a fun way to empty my thoughts and, yes, maybe even vent a little. This article shares no advice, no 5 ways or 10 steps, nor does it attempt to entertain. This article contains my thoughts about the interplay between horses and humans and the conditions that I see within social spheres of equine nutrition and disease. I have finally found fancy words to explain the phenomenon that is horse care advice on the internet- there is not enough Occams Razor and too much Dunning-Kruger!

Occam's Razor, a principle attributed to an English friar of the 14th century, states that the most simple explanation to a quandary is the most likely answer. It is referenced in biology, mathematics, religion, and philosophy too. What Friar William Occam encouraged all scientific and philosophical explorers to do is to limit our assumptions. For example: a young scientist is hoping to find an explanation for rainbows. He does not know how rainbows are created but hypothesis that is either 1. leprechauns chasing pots of gold or 2. some reaction between light and water. Hypothesis 1 requires more assumptions that hypothesis 2.

The straightforwardness of this principle allows it to be applied to every aspect of our lives including equine nutrition. Like the friar, I would suggest that the most simple explanation for your horse's ailments are the most likely. Companies selling product want us to believe that the answers are complex and that only they have the solution. They want us to believe that a single magic ingredient, a special blend of magic ingredients, or a new device will solve our problems with our horses. But, are there simpler explanations?

  • Could the answer lie within the 25 pounds of forage the horse eats rather than the few pounds of grain or ounces of supplement?

  • Could the answer lie in the quality or quantity of training rather than a myopathy? *As horse owners, we LOATHE this thought. We gloss over it and avoid it like the plague.

  • Could modern horse management and boarding situations cause your horse's behavioral problem?

  • Is the horse just reacting like any normal prey animal designed to be on the steppes of Mongolia?

  • Could the pasture be the problem in your horse's obesity or metabolic disease?

I think the reason we spook at the simple explanation is that the necessary changes to solve the simple explanation are more complex. Returning 10 ton of hay is not easy. Changing boarding facilities is not easy. Managing horses on pasture is really hard. Changing how we ride is a life long struggle. Sometimes, these changes are not even possible, so we ignore them in favor of the "pill" (aka supplement). There are so many considerations to make in horse care; cost, availability, time, and our own unique priorities. For me, sometimes my horse's optimum care must take back seat to family, property limitations, or budget restraints, so I don't want to criticize anyone's choices about whatever problem this article brings to the surface. However, I do want to remind myself and others to look past the supplement marketing to more rational solutions and choose those first whenever possible.

This leads me to the second fancy phrase- The Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains a form of cognitive bias where a new student over estimates their ability. Basically, when we start to know a little, we think we know a lot. I love this, because it helps to explain the inverse phenomenon where the most experienced experts in the field are quick to comment on how little they know. It's funny right!?! We expect the most skilled to have ALL the answers, but it's often these warrior professionals who best understand the limitations and gaps surrounding a problem. The best of the best vocalize these contradictions. On the contrary, it is likely that you've received seemingly confident advice from those around you that have little experience. I see this a lot online, where a horse owner had success with one product with one horse in one situation and is then all-too-quick to recommend the same solution to others without full understand of why it worked for them. Be careful of online advice, because the Dunning-Kruger effect is alive and well.

My Monday morning ranting is not likely to solve any problems. Neither William Occam, Dunning or Kruger know anything about modern horse care, but I do hope that these principles encourage us to think outside the box and seek out the right advice. I also hope that these ideas encourage some to "give ourselves a break" once in a while when it comes to horse care. It's ok to throw out that supplement and prioritize our family budget. It's ok if our training isn't perfect, because the endless pursuit of perfections is what attracts us to this crazy life style anyway. It's also ok to try something different than your friends. The road less travelled might actually be the right one.

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