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There’s something that you need to be aware of in the horse world. It’s called “false precision.”

Precision (true precision) requires that a specific action produces pre-defined and specific results. The basic premise behind precision is that everything happens for a reason, and that the list of reasons is small enough to manage with a precise action.

Precision is a wonderful thing. So, for example, if you have a horse biscuit company, and you want to produce more horse biscuits, you may have to buy another horse biscuit machine. You can precisely say that your new biscuit machine produces X biscuits per hour, and a price of Y per biscuit, and you can come up with a some sort of idea about how you’re going to pay off your investment. This kind of precision is REALLY important when you’re in business. Airplane parts need to be precise, or the plane won’t fly.

Precision is rarely easy, but it can be achieved when the relationship between the action that you take and the result that you get are simple and clear cut.

False precision is another thing entirely. It happens when exact numbers are used for inexact notions. When it comes to precise causes and effects in the horse world, maybe someone has done “research;” maybe they’ve even done some math. Exact numbers and amounts create the impression that the person giving the numbers is very knowledgeable.

People are impressed by numbers. They generally like things to be exact. So, often, the more precise you can [pretend to] be, the better the information appears. In a variety of areas, people may use false precision to promote an idea (or themselves).

Precision is usually the enemy of biological systems (including horses). If the requirements for biological systems get too precise, it’s hard for the system to survive, or to adapt to changing conditions. So, for example, at the bottom of the ocean are hydrothermal vents. They are cracks in the earth’s crust, and the water around them is really hot. There’s a special type of bacteria (chemosynthetic bacteria) that live there—AND ONLY THERE. If the water’s too cold, they can’t live. If they’re in too much light, they can’t live. They have requirements that are very precise. And because they are so precise, they live in only one spot on the planet, at the depths of the oceans. (Not to suggest that living on the bottom of the ocean isn’t wonderful in its own way, of course, but not everyone can live there.)

On the other hand, biological systems that aren’t as precise tend to do very well. Take the horse (I mean, that’s what we’re here for, right?). Horses don’t have requirements that are THAT precise. In nature…

IMPORTANT ASIDE: I generally don’t think much of the “in nature” argument, that is, the idea that “natural” is a synonym for “good.” But, in this case, I’m using the term to define a specific circumstance for horses.

…horses get along on two things: grass and water. That’s it. That’s all they need. And, as a result of their imprecise requirements various equine species have lived in places all over the world, for millions of years: eohippus, protohippus, zebras in Africa, Przewalski horses in Mongolia, onagers, asses, Equus Occidentalis in the LaBrea Tar Pits, wild horses in Nevada, and on and on and on.

Eohippus, in prehistoric jumper training.

IMPORTANT ASIDE NUMBER TWO: Why is it that the folks who embrace “natural” are also the ones that seem intent on giving their horses the most stuff? It seems to me that embracing natural would make one the enemy of stuff that comes in buckets and bags and shrink-wrapped containers. But that’s just me.

The problem is, that when it comes to working on a big, imprecise system like a horse, things that smack of tremendous precision are often a sign that the person giving the numbers has a pretty optimistic view of his or her expertise. False precision leads people into supposing that the knowledge base is more detailed than it really is. And it may lead other people (READ: horse owners) to nervously worry that without an exact amount of this or that, a horse could be in trouble.

Let’s pick some examples.

Say your horse has been identified as having some sharp points on his teeth. Whether it’s needed or not, you want to smooth off those sharp points. And you engage someone to do it (for the sake of brevity, we’ll not engage in the “Who is supposed to float your horse’s teeth debate in this article). If the person that you retain tells you that it’s important that your horse have an “occlusal equilibration,” if he or she says that the occlusal angles of the upper and lower teeth have to be at a certain specific angle, if that person tells you that the horse’s mouth has to be precisely “balanced” by removing a few millimeters of tooth here or there, or that they need to be meddled with every six months, that person is being awfully precise.

And that precision should be a warning sign.

You have to figure if a few points in the horse’s mouth (or a little wave, or a bit of a “step”) were the difference between life and death for a horse, they simply wouldn’t have made it this long (and, based on my work with horses at the LaBrea Tar Pits, I can assure you that horses had points long before people started riding them). It makes no sense at all that a horse would want to have tremendous precision in its mouth.

Given that, I think it’s more likely than not that much of the precision that horses are said-by-some to need in their mouth is simply unnecessary—in fact, there’s almost no scientific support for most of what’s done to the horse’s mouth in the name of precision.

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