Caught in the 'Net

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The access provided by online chat rooms to instant, no-cost information from the most respected professionals in our industry and from each other has given new meaning to “look it up.” We all like to feel important, we like to think we’re helping each other, so we freely dispense our thoughts and experiences on a variety of topics, from equine health care to boarding, training and equipment, frequently with a dose of emotion thrown in. And it’s easy to ask an anonymous someone for an opinion—or to ask an anonymous question of a legend.

But is the information really valuable and safe, or do you get what you pay for? And what about the clients who regularly hit the Internet to second-guess every decision you make? Are they getting good advice?

SITE NOT UNSEEN

If you chat online, you already know about sites run by EquiSearch.com, HorseCity.com, The Chronicle of the Horse (www.chronicleforums.com) and EquiChat.com. You’re on your own, as the latter—like its counterparts—clearly explains: “Participants must also agree that EquiChat is not liable or responsible for its content, and therefore the discussions posted herein. Participants understand that EquiChat does not endorse any of the opinions or suggestions or other remarks in its Discussion Groups. EquiChat strongly encourages all horse owners and riders to seek professional help in all aspects of horsemanship, and not to rely solely on advice given here or in any other Discussion Forum. Be Smart!” Well said.

EquiSearch.com is a very comprehensive site, with chats in categories of English, Western, Horse Care and Getting Started as well as a few “fun” areas. Chats are moderated. One visitor had trouble picking up the right lead and received these tips: “Move his haunches off of your leg easily on both directions.” “Try turning in a circle…small enough so he is bending around your inside leg the whole time. Try opening your inside rein while maintaining contact with your outside rein. Keep your inside leg on him so he doesn’t fall in and slide your outside leg slightly behind the girth and ask him to canter.” Then: “My instructor usually has me shift my hips slightly so that my outside hip is back farther.”

Sounds reasonable enough, for these are all valid suggestions to help this rider achieve the correct lead. This kind of user-friendly advice can be found frequently on similar sites.

Conversely, site visitors can turn an online chat into a drama not unlike “The Jerry Springer Show.” Some know-it-alls set themselves up as “the resident expert” on lesser-known forums. Even in a busy community like EquiChat, a barn employee writes that the “barn manager claims to work 90 hours a week, but she doesn’t come in to the office until noon or later. Then she walks up and down the aisles of the barn in her fancy shoes and Talbot’s outfit telling so-and-so that they need to do this and that. The barn can’t run without her, so she claims. Man, she was in rare form this morning; I wanted to kill her (not really).” Amusing, perhaps, but a discussion between the two parties might be more useful.

TRUTH BE TOLD

For barn managers, an EquiSearch thread asked, “What do you think is most important in a boarding facility?” Answers: “Fences: Maintaining is cheaper than paying vet bills.” “Turnout: then the people and the care.” “Enough bedding…” and clean stalls, reads another. One reader’s laundry list included appropriate stallion housing, cover for hay storage, better organization—less stuff lying everywhere, secure tack room, good watering system and most important, “knowledgeable staff.”

The Chronicle hosted a “big vent on stupid horse owners” where the poster said, “I just started taking lessons somewhere new and it’s been a while since I’ve been around horses that are trimmed/shod by a regular farrier. My goodness, these horses have some horrendous feet and no one realizes it. I won’t name off all the problems I see…” After a few responses about the benefits of bare equine feet, a fellow rider calmly responded, “I read, study, ask questions of more knowledgeable people and apply what I learn.” Amen.

Sometimes posts raise a few eyebrows, like this exchange on EquiSearch.com: “Me and my horse Justy can canter and do whatever in the pasture but when I want to take her on the road she’s wanting to gallop off. She’s done it with my brother and tried to do it with me. I try pulling back on the reins but she still doesn’t stop. Now I’m nervous to go on the road, what should I do to get over this nervousness?”

As expected, reasonable forum visitors advised: “Learn to stop your horse!” They then asked, “What are you doing riding on the road?” Since this rider obviously didn’t have access to a trainer or barn manager, perhaps this chat room prevented an injury—or worse.

THE DOCTOR IS ON-LINE

We all know people who’ve solved a medical problem on-line when their physician’s answer didn’t suffice. The same phenomenon is happening with animals—both pets and horses. Thousands of owners are supplementing what they’ve learned from their veterinarian with suggestions from others who’ve faced similar challenges.

For example: “Vet’s thoughts last night were: tick borne illness, EEE (even though he was vaccinated—figured he may just get a temp) or just an unknown etiology fever. I’m just concerned that [the fever] went so high—maybe something is ‘hiding.’” Or, “I have a pony who has been diagnosed with navicular by MRI—there were no signs by x-ray. He is lame in one leg and went lame on Christmas day and has been lame ever since—up to the vet wanting to destroy him. He has tried many treatments but concludes that there is some arthritis of the dip joint involved. Any one got any ideas where I go from here?” A second opinion, these days, is a click away. And while the answers are mostly correct, there is nothing to stop incorrect answers and opinions from circulating.

On the Chronicle’s site, the “Grass Clippings” subject line spawned many responses, which might have left the original poster more confused than before: “Tonight I was helping my daughter feed at a large boarding barn where we keep our horses. She has a part-time job feeding there. Anyway, one of the horses hadn’t been brought in yet; since it was raining, we went ahead and brought her in. Going into her stall with the mare, we saw her owners (or someone) had dumped a large pile of fresh lawn clippings! At least two flakes of hay worth. They were damp and warm inside the pile. We went ahead and removed it, but we’re wondering whether we’ll get told not to remove any more piles of lawn clippings those owners want to pile up in there. Or should we approach the BO/BM and tell them what we did? Or, are grass clippings like that OK to feed?”

Replies: “You did the right thing. Grass clippings go bad quickly. Since they were hot they were starting to ferment.” “It never fails to amaze me, how many ‘horse people’ are so uninformed about the feeding of horses. You may have saved that horse from colic or even founder. Good for you!” “I’m not sure how short clippings can cause colic when my pastures remain quite short so what my horses/ponies can graze isn’t that much different than what the mower spits out along the fence lines when I mow the grass outside.” And, “[They] had me bring in bags of fresh grass for my horse recuperating after colic surgery. They refrigerate it and feed a bit at a time. Said the problem with cut grass is if it is in big clumps and heats up. This was news to me, as I thought feeding grass was a no-no.” Whew.

HorseCity offers 25 forums for online exchange and there, a recent frank discussion of cleaning sheaths combined humor and useful information. “Check to make sure there are no prospective boyfriends, elderly neighbors or Brownie troops with a line of sight to the proceedings, though of course they’re probably going to show up unexpectedly ANYWAY once you’re in the middle of things. Trim your fingernails short then introduce your horse to Mr. Hand.”

Seriously, folks, here’s good stuff: “Use an old tube sock rather than a rubber glove; its texture does most of the cleaning work for you. Use Excalibur cleaner; it reduces the amount of work and time. Rinse well and don’t forget to remove the ‘bean’ in the little pocket at the opening of his urethra.”

Ah, chat rooms. You may learn something useless or invaluable. But don’t be surprised to learn that in chat­rooms, like elsewhere, people will talk. And many of these people are your clients, who are taking some of your decisions to the general population for consensus. As an equine professional, you can only hope that your standard of care is reinforced by bulletin board junkies and, if not, be prepared to back up your decisions. But these sites are not just for your clients. Log on, see what people are talking about. You may learn something new or help someone out.