A horse called Wanda

A long time ago, the year before I started vet school, I bought a horse called Wanda as a project and potential investment. Many of you will know that trying to make money from dealing horses is easier said than done, and I made a spectacular loss.

Wanda had one or two problems. She used to rear and would frequently fall over backwards with no sense of self-preservation, and even less of rider-preservation. A highlight was Valentine's Day when she threw her head up and whacked me in the face, and my bottom teeth went right through my lip. I kept her on a busy agistment yard and everyone was keen to offer words of wisdom. 

Riding with an egg in my pocket to crack over her head if she reared was a particularly impractical suggestion.  Self-preservation tends to take over when the horse you are riding is in danger of flipping over backwards - not a good time to start making an omelette!  In desperation, I even succumbed to allowing a horse whisperer who approached me at a show to come to the yard and find out what Wanda was thinking. For 25 pounds, this lady asked Wanda what was troubling her. The idea of a one-off consultation that could tell me how to solve my problem was certainly appealing. I can't remember exactly what Wanda told the horse whisperer, but suffice to say that we were no nearer to getting to the bottom of the problem

Thinking about Wanda has reminded me how difficult it can be as a horse owner to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to choosing between people willing to offer advice.  The philosophy of the veterinary profession, when tackling any kind of problem is to try and use a logical approach. Any treatment or diagnostic process should be based on testable explanations and predictions.

My first boss was once called out to see a horse that had become cast in the stable and had got its cover tangled around its legs. The owners insisted that he mustn't cut the cover because the horse had told the horse whisperer that it was very happy with its new cover and particularly liked the purple colour. Maybe some people are able to talk to horses, but if they are, then they should be able to demonstrate this in a well-designed experiment.

Scientific principles should also be used when interpreting the results of tests. Recently, a client emailed some thermal images of a horse to me, for my interpretation. Thermal cameras can potentially be useful to identify areas of inflammation, but they are an indirect measure reflecting skin temperature, which can also be affected by plenty of external factors. In order to get meaningful images, the horse should stand in a dark room for at least half an hour before imaging to eliminate differences in skin temperature due to external factors, like sunlight and shadows. It is also very difficult to compare left and right sides if the horse isn't standing symmetrically and the images are taken from an angle as you would not be comparing like with like. In short, all the fancy equipment in the world is useless without proper application and interpretation.

The veterinary science degree provides vets with the ability to build knowledge from testable explanations and predictions and trains us to use evidence-based medicine, meaning that all clinical decisions should be based on the best available scientific evidence.


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