The 80-15-5 Rule


Pleanuts-worry-cartoonI am not a big fan of worry.  As I’ve said many times, I think that people worry about their horses too much.  Some concern is great.  But I think too much concern sometimes saps enjoyment from the horse world.  Plus, excessive concern is a great target for people trying to market products (see, for example, most supplements).

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand why there’s reason for some concern.  People invest a lot of time and emotional energy into their horses, and a good bit of money, too.  Being concerned about problems that a horse might have is certainly understandable. But too much concern is another thing entirely.  Too much concern is a bad thing. Too much concern breeds anxiety.  Anxiety causes all sorts of needless expenditures for problems that, even if they do exist, are likely to go away on their own most of the time.  Too much concern about every little thing makes horse owning less fun.  So here’s something to think about.

Ever hear of the 80-15-5 Rule?  The 80-15-5 rule suggests that everything in life can be divided into groups of 80%, 15%, and 5%. It’s got a lot of applications.  And it kind of works with horses and horse medicine, too.

Here’s what I mean.

80 15 5I think that about 80% of all of the time, horses get along just great.  If it’s a medical problem that’s afflicting the horse, he is going to get better 80% of the time, no matter what is done to him (as long as it’s not something that causes overt harm).  Or, if you go out for a ride, about 80% of the time it’s going to be a lot of fun, and you’ll want to come back again soon.
Maybe 15% of the time, a horse is going to need some help.  If he’s got a medical problem, he might need some sort of medical treatment to help him recover.  If he’s got a training issue, some new piece of equipment or some new exercise might just do the trick.
And 5% of the time, you’re pretty much sunk.  That’s the awful, insoluble, incurable 5%.  The 5% where no matter what you do, your horse is in trouble.  The training problem that no one seems to be able to fix.  The health issue that can’t go away because there’s no cure. Your pretty young black foal turned grey.  In 5% of the cases, the horse isn’t going to get better, no matter what is done.
80 15 5 pyramidYou probably enjoy your horse at least 80% of the time.  Maybe 15% of going out is drudgery – you do it because you have to, but not necessarily because you want to. Maybe 5% you’d just as soon stay at home.
Sometimes, I wonder what the horse thinks.  Think it’s about the same?  Think that there’s never a time when he thinks, “Oh no, not that person again?”
I don’t have any statistics to back me up on this, but I learned about the 80:15:5 medical estimates because they were made in a speech by the Dean of the Harvard Medical School to a group of graduating students.  And, to tell you the truth, looking back on my 35+ years in practice, I don’t really find any reason to disagree with them, pretty much across the board.  But if it’s true, what does the 80:15:5 rule really mean for a horse owner?
80 per centWell, right off the bat, if you look at all of the real medical conditions of the horse – lameness, colic, coughing, to name a few – as long as you don’t do anything that causes direct harm, he’s going to get better.
NOTE:  This does not mean that all horses with broken legs will get better on their own.  We’re looking at all medical conditions, taken together.
Add in all of the conditions that horses don’t have but for which they may get diagnosed (rib out of place, liver dampness, or any number of creative lameness diagnoses, to name but a few), and as long as nothing is done to hurt the horse, he’s likely to get better, in this case, because he never had the problem in the first place. Think of what that means for any sort of intervention!  You can give medicine or massage, antibiotics or aromatherapy, acupuncture or anti-inflammatories, and the condition is going to get better 80% of the time.  Which, of course, is at least one reason why you can find a proponent for just about any therapy, because 80% of the time your horse is going to improve following treatment, whether the treatment did anything or not.
For 5% of anything, you’re really just wasting time and money trying to fix the problem.  But here, too, just about any therapy may be advocated or tried, because, after all, to quote, oh, pretty much everyone who tries to get you to use a therapy with a guilt trip, “Don’t you want to do everything you can to help your horse?”  Of course that’s what you want, but in such cases, you’re really better off to just figure out how to deal with it, or to move on.
It’s for the rest of the cases, that 15% in which you can makes a difference, that you’re going to need to do the right thing.  And that’s where science comes in, to help figure out what the right thing is, because you don’t want to go about giving an ineffective therapy when your horse really needs one that works.
be-happy6If you think about the 80:15:5 rule, it sort of sets things in perspective.  When it comes to horse care – heck, in many parts of life – I think that a lot of people are inclined to immediately think that things are the worst that they can be. Even though most horses are pretty maintenance free, and most conditions get better, people tend to focus on the bad possibilities. Even though most horses go around and do their jobs as well as they can, without much complaint or problem – that’s one of the things we love about them, right? – even so, many people focus most of their attention on one problem:  real or perceived.
Even though the horse is just great most of the time, we get really upset about the one time that the horse stops, or bolts, or spooks, or, well, acts like a horse, and we think that there must be some problem. Maybe he has ulcers. Or maybe he needs a new saddle. Or maybe his digestive system needs some support.  You never know.  But the 80:15:5 rule would suggest that most of the time, it’s no big deal in the long run.  And while it’s been my experience that people spend a lot of time fretting about the 5%, there’s not really any point worrying there, either, mostly because you can’t do anything anyway, at least in the long run. To me, it seems like many people spend a good bit of their time focusing on the relatively small percentage of things that annoy them the most about their horse, rather than sitting back an thinking about how most of the time, things are pretty great. Give the 80:15:5 rule a chance.

I think that horse people would be a lot better off – and horses would be a lot happier – if they would remember that, when it comes to horses (as in pretty much every other relationship) nothing is all good or all bad.  In fact, mostly – about 80% of the time – it’s pretty good.  Horse owners should learn to focus on the good things about horse ownership – all of the times that your horse whinnies when he sees you, or all of the times that he DOES jump the fence, or DOES make a tight turn, or DOES get that lead change – and not dwell too much on the times when something goes wrong.  In fact, I think it’s pretty amazing that the put up with as at all!


When it comes to medical problems, I think that people should relax, as well.  Sure, if you have a medical concern about your horse, by all means, get him examined by a veterinarian.  But once you do that, keep in mind that many (most?) of the things that you do may not make all that much difference, since the horse is going to try to heal himself anyway.  If you find that there’s a real problem (the 15%) use a therapy that’s been shown to be likely to be effective.  And there’s certainly no reason to pursue costly treatments for problems that may not occur (see, for example, any product that claims that it can prevent arthritis).  Even if things are not 80% good, 15% average and 5% bad, then complaining about it or buying some needless product or service still won’t solve the problem.

Why not  focus on the positives of horse ownership? You’ll be glad you did and so will the people around you. You’ll probably save a lot of money, too.  Sure, there are plenty of problems for which treatment can help.  Sure, you should try to find out what’s at the root of something that seems to be bothering your horse.  But remember the 80:15:5 rule, too.  Most likely, things are going to work out OK.

And last, here’s an old toe-tapper for you.






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