One of the great classics of English literature, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, was written by Lewis Carroll, in 1871 (Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, in case you have a Trivial Pursuit game or a try-out for “Jeopardy” scheduled). Among the many immortal characters that Carroll introduced to the world were Alice, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and the Mad Hatter.
But, insofar as advertising and unsupported medical claims go, undoubtedly the most important character was Humpty-Dumpty (who, by the way, Carroll did not invent), he who fell off the wall, to shattering effect, with all of the king’s men and horses being unable to solve the puzzle of putting him back together again. Sitting on a wall, HD was engaged in a circular conversation with Alice, about the use of language. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Now you may be wondering what this quote has to do with veterinary medicine. Well, honestly, not much, unless you have some sort of product or service to sell, especially if that product or service doesn’t have any sort of science or evidence behind it. In today’s world, if you’ve got something to sell, and you can’t be bothered to show that the product actually works, then you need to take some effort to use words to make the product sound good, or, even better, as if your horse (or dog, or cat, or, well, you) can’t possibly live without it! The goal is to attract people, rather than ask them to think about what they are buying.
Advertising for horse products is full of such words, and I hate them, because they dumb down the science of veterinary medicine, and turn it into an advertising arena of competing, and usually unsupported, claims. So, without further ado, here are four that I hate, which, by the way, are words that should make your hair stand on end if you see them printed on a bucket, or in a magazine.
Natural – What do you think of poisonous snakes? Hurricanes? Sleet? Bee stings? Do you know what they have in common? They are all “natural.”
Somehow, in today’s world, “natural” has become a synonym for “good.” If a product is advertised as “natural,” it is somehow supposed to mean that it will be healthful, and benefit your horse’s body. I hate the word. Not that there aren’t great “natural” things, of course. I mean, who hates sunsets, or warm breezes? But the idea that because a product or service is “natural” (whether it really is or not), it is also good, is just idiotic.
Look, humans have spent most of their existence trying to get away from “natural.” As such, we’ve developed things like clothes, flush toilets, and even the internet that you’re reading this article from. In their “natural” world, horses live short lives, have difficulty finding food, and get eaten by wolves and mountain lions. If horses ran “naturally” free, the carnage on the roads and interstates would be indescribable. Plus, they’d be pretty much
impossible to catch on foot.
Sure, there are some great things about “natural.” But the safety and effectiveness of a particular product is not included among them. You want to be convinced by a product or service that tells you what is is, and what it does, not one that tells you that it’s a gift from Mother Nature.
Support – As used in the manner that I hate, “support” is generally used as a synonym for “strengthen” or “help,” or sometimes as to keep some part of the horse from weakening or failing (like a tendon or hoof or intestinal tract). I can’t imagine that anyone would turn their nose up at a product that would support all of the things that products say they support. I mean, who wouldn’t want a horse to have a “supported” immune system, joint, intestinal tract, or suspensory ligament?
The devil, as they say, is in the details. Take a tendon. What, exactly, is “support” supposed to mean? A tendon is supposed to stretch, help transmit forces from the muscles to the bones, and spring back to get ready to do its job again. How does a “support” boot help it do those jobs? If the boot is stiffer than normal tendon, and impedes its stretchy function, is putting it on the leg really such a great idea? Or how about products that “support” intestinal health? Generally, you’ve got a pretty good idea when the horse’s intestinal tract isn’t healthy – you might see fluid manure shooting out his back end, or him rolling around in the stall with a colic. But, as crazy as this may sound, no product “supports” a healthy horse’s intestines better than good hay or pasture. Unless you get specific answers to specific questions, I’d advise you to stay away from things that are supposed to provide “support.”
OH, BY THE WAY: I support the Indianapolis Colts football team. And as hard as it is for me to admit this, as much as I read about the team, wait for the results of each game, and hope they go to the Super Bowl, I’m pretty sure that they’re going to win or lose with or without my support. Your horse will do fine without most of the supplemental “support” you can buy for him, too.
Optimize –To optimize means, “To make as perfect or effective as possible.” Now that’s surely a wonderful goal. Who wouldn’t want everything about their horse (or their lives, for that matter) to be as perfect as possible? But the thing is, who knows what “optimal” means when it comes to a horse, or just about any living thing?
Here’s a secret. There’s a word for the best that a horse (or any other living creature) gets to be. It’s called NORMAL. That’s right. A horse doesn’t get to be supernormal, or optimal, or somehow better than it can be. You can feed the horse well, you can train him well, you can take care of him well, but you can’t get him to be any better than he can be. That’s at least one reason why you don’t see Clydesdales jumping over high fences in Olympic competitions – they can’t do it. And no matter how much “optimizing” you do, your Clydesdale isn’t going to be competing in the next puissance event.
Toxins – Apparently, we live in a very dangerous world, health wise. Terrible health bogeymen, unidentified “toxins,” seem to be lurking at just about every corner. Toxins are – apparently – harmful substances that accumulate in the horse’s body, and supposedly exert undesirable effects on the horse’s health. Of course, what those toxins are, or exactly what harm they cause, is never really defined – but that’s never a problem when it comes to crazy supplement claims.
How do you get rid of toxins? By detoxifying, of course! Detoxification usually includes or avoiding specific foods (specific hays, or grain, or such), or buying some supplement. None of the treatments is supported by science, the toxins are usually unidentified, “tests” (such as hair analysis) are bogus, and no benefits to horses from such treatments have ever been demonstrated. Bottom line? Save yourself some trouble. When you hear someone say your horse may have some “toxins” in his system, run, and don’t look back!
BONUS WORD THAT I HATE! Boost. As in, “Boost the immune system.” Do you have allergies? Well, then, you’ve got first hand experience with a “boosted” immune system. This idea that we can give some feed thingy to a horse to make the immune system work even better that it does is just silly, and, from a theoretical standpoint, even dangerous. Stuff like echinacea, which has been touted for years as an herbal immune booster, well, isn’t (CLICK HERE). I suppose you could say that vaccines “boost” the system in some sense, but they do a specific thing, and they have a specific purpose. If someone tells you that their product “boosts” your horse’s immunity, make sure that they tell you what part is boosted, how it’s boosted, and for how long it’s boosted, too. Otherwise, stick your fingers in your ears.
WAIT – HERE’S ANOTHER EXCITING BONUS! I’m considering coming out with an all natural product that boost, supports, and optimizes the horse’s body so he can eliminate toxins. I have no idea what that product might be, but it sounds incredible, doesn’t it?
It’s not just four (or five – there are tons of these words thrown at horse owners. You should hate them, too.