Dr. Abraham Maslow (b. April 1, 1908 – d. June 8, 1970) was an extremely influential American professor of psychology, who worked at schools such as Brandeis University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University. Dr. Maslow is credited for one of my favorite sayings: “He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.” (I’ve also heard it said as, “If the only tool that you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail.”)
YOU SAY: “OK, enough about Dr. Maslow. These articles are supposed to be about horses.”
I SAY: “Got it, I’ll get to my point.”
MY POINT: When it comes to your horse’s health, it’s a good idea to keep Dr. Maslow’s words in mind.
I initially had this idea that, as a veterinarian, I was supposed to be able to take care of most of the health needs of a horse. Oh, sure, if a horse needed some sort of major surgery, or needed a diagnostic procedure that required a piece of equipment that I couldn’t fit onto my truck, I might have to refer it to a specialist (a real specialist – more on that, in a bit), but, mostly, if a problem had to something to do with a horse, and his health, I could take care of it. That’s what being an equine veterinarian was all about.
Here’s how I thought this was supposed to work. For you, the horse owner, my ability to help you with many different aspects of your horse’s health offered some distinct advantages. I was kind of like one-stop shopping, horse health-wise. Your horse needed vaccinations – no problem. Perhaps he was lame – I could usually tell you why, maybe take some X-rays if need be. Maybe you wanted to get your mare pregnant – I could certainly help you out, having spent a good bit of time working on mares. For you, the fact that I knew a lot about horses meant that, in general, you knew who to call when there was a problem or concern. Plus, I also had a really good idea of who to call in case something was beyond my level of expertise or equipment – in fact, I’d be thrilled to refer you there, because, at the bottom of it all, we both wanted what was best for your horse.
For me, being something of a jack-of-all-trades was great, and pretty interesting, actually. Every day was a bit different. I didn’t have to do any one thing in particular to make a living, either. Over the course of time, there would always be something (horses are like that). There wasn’t any pressure at all for me to do something just because I could – I wasn’t concerned with hitting any particular nail. This doctor-client thing worked well, and it still does – any number of my clients have been with me for over 25 years.
Lately, however, it seems to me that many horse owners have been convinced that their horse is in need of a “specialist” for just about everything. And, the thing is, many of the “specialists” really aren’t (CLICK HERE to read my article on “certified experts”). That’s where the wisdom of Maslow comes in. He that is good with a hammer…
Say you’re an “equine dentist.” You’re trying to make a living by filing (floating) horse teeth, extracting those that you deem in need of extraction, and generally making the horse’s mouth look exactly the way that you think it needs to be made. You’re the sole arbiter of that decision – in most cases, there’s no science to show how, or even if, what you’re doing is making a difference. As such, pretty much every single horse you see needs to have something done to it’s teeth, sometimes with alarming regularity. You’re pretty good with that hammer – every horse that you see is the proverbial nail. Since you don’t do anything else, it sure doesn’t do you any good to pass up the opportunity to give the nail a good hit. And since you’re a “specialist,” you can charge a premium for each blow, too!
Me? I’m just taking care of your horse’s teeth. (CLICK HERE to see what I think about “equine dentists.”)
Say you’re an “equine chiropractor.” You may not be a veterinarian – heck, you may not even be a D.C. (Doctor of Chiropractic). But when called to examine a horse, for some reason, you see to be able to find that just about every single one of them has a subluxation, a rib out of place, or one leg longer than the others. You’re an equine chiropractor, for goodness sakes – what is there for you to do if you don’t pound that chiropractic nail!
Me? I haven’t ever seen a horse in need of an adjustment. I have seen lots of chiropractors, and their diagnoses, come and go, however. (CLICK HERE for my article on animal chiropractic).
I could go on and on. Wondering if your horse needs a massage? Call a massage therapist, and I’ll give you good odds that he does. Perhaps you’re thinking of calling a psychic – I’ll be you dollars to donuts that your horse will have something to say. And this focus on one single “specialty” is certainly not limited to the fringes of horse practice – if you’re concerned that your horse has a performance problem, and you think he might need his hocks injected, there’s an awfully good chance that if you call someone who is known for injecting joints, that’s exactly what will happen. If you call someone who has a new “shockwave” machine, and your horse has a musculoskeletal problem, don’t be surprised if he gets shocked (or waved – I’m not sure which. CLICK HERE to read an article about shockwave).
Frankly, I don’t think that all of this “specializing” in a particular model of hammer is very good for horses, horse owners, or veterinary medicine in general. There’s certainly a need for specialists – real specialists – who, say, may happen to also have a fully-equipped hospital in which a horse with a serious problem can have a necessary operation. But I don’t think it really does horse owners much good to continually seek out “expert” opinions on their horses. Mostly, such an approach is expensive, and leads to all sorts of needless worries.
I think that most veterinarians who practice as I do – out of my truck, trying to keep up with the latest in health advances, and trying to provide the best care for horses - think of themselves as human family practice doctors. Over time, we get to help our clients through a variety of emotionally taxing situations, (even including ones that may not only involve horses). The one-on-one doctor-client-patient relationship is really enjoyable – I’ve known a good many horses from the day that they were born, until the day that they passed. Over the years, clients become friends, and their horses become familiar companions. Listening to stories about horse show triumphs, training successes, or just fun trail rides, and addressing all of the horse health issues that arise during veterinary visits is fun and fulfilling, and gives me additional personal incentive to do a good job. And it just kills me to hear that one of my clients has been taken advantage of by someone who wants to pound on a particular nail.
All of these “specialists” and their new hammers, highlights what I think is a real problem in the horse world. What I see happening is a loss of pragmatism: a loss of good, common-sense approaches to horses, and their real problems. Taking care of a horse’s basic needs isn’t particularly difficult, and it shouldn’t have to be all that expensive, either (CLICK HERE to read about that). Horse owning should be fun and rewarding, not a constant battle with anxiety over whether or not you should engage the next person who has a particular hammer to wield.
You know, when you think about it, Dr. Maslow was one smart guy.