Scroll through Instagram or Facebook, and you will likely come across a sponsored ad or two for a product promising a miracle for your horse. All you need is this one ointment or supplement, and your problems will disappear.
Social media complicates things because many of us follow top riders and influencers in the industry, plus friends and acquaintances we’ve met at barns or horse shows. So alongside the advertisements, we are bombarded with posts endorsing this or that product with words like “Game changer!” “Everything my horses need!” or “The results are incredible!” Are they sponsored ads? Or just customers genuinely excited about a product and wanting to pass on their discovery to other riders? Honestly, it can be hard to tell. And when those recommendations come from a successful rider or someone we admire, accompanied by an insta-worthy photo of their healthy and happy horse, it can be tempting to want to just take their word for it.
I sat down with Karl Cook to talk about shifting through the “miracle product” claims. When it comes to checking out reviews for new products, Karl is blunt: you always have to be skeptical. “I might admire a rider for their riding or even their program, but that doesn’t mean I assume they are an expert or even knowledgeable about a certain issue. They might be posting about a cream that they think works great, but are they knowledgeable about dermatological issues? If you are taking advice from someone, they should know how it's working, not just that it does.”
"If you are taking advice from someone, they should know how it's working, not just that it does.”
Maybe the product works great for a particular rider, but that doesn’t mean it will work for you and your horse. This means you need to research for yourself and personally reach out to people you trust. “Not just people who you expect to have experience, but people who have knowledge. People who have been caring for horses for 30 years might have a ton of experience, but that doesn’t mean they understand what’s going on with an individual product or know how it works.”
Examine your program (not just your products)
For Karl, the issue goes deeper than just evaluating new products. “We shouldn’t be thinking, I’m having a problem with this because I don’t have the right product. That’s the wrong mental approach. It’s easier for us to say, I don’t have the right product. It’s a lot harder to say, am I doing something wrong? What do I need to change? Can I do something differently?”
He continues, “We are all human, and we don’t like to admit we are wrong. We like to say, I just need the pill. Make the problem go away. But the ideal is to not have to take the pill, because we prevented the condition. That’s the way I look at it. Yes, if I have a problem with thrush, I have to deal with the problem. But I also need to consider why I got thrush. Why did it get so bad? Why was it so hard to get rid of, and what can I change so this doesn’t happen again?”
When we are faced with a problem and looking for answers, we have to remember that companies make money selling you their products. “They don’t make money telling you how you can actually avoid that product. I don’t want to just deal with the symptom. I don’t want the symptom. I want to prevent it. We stock thrush medicine, but we shouldn’t always need to use it. Avoiding it is part of our general care.”
"The ideal is to not have to take the pill, because we prevented the condition."
The cornerstone of Karl’s approach to general care for his horses is developing a consistent program. When he sees riders jump around to try new products too quickly, he notes that they often haven’t put in the time to get to the bottom of the problem before treating the symptoms. And, if riders are throwing new products into a constantly changing program, how can they really evaluate what’s working and what isn’t?
Keep it consistent
What does Karl mean by a consistent program? He explains, “The application of what you do should be consistent, and the application of why you do it should be consistent. That consistency is in everything from what you feed your horses, to the weight or volume you feed your horses, to the time of day you feed your horses. Consistency means it’s always the same, every day. If the horse is getting skinnier, you know that the feeding is consistent. So you aren’t wondering if maybe the size of the scoop changed. You know how much that horse has been consistently fed; that variable is consistent. Am I working it more? Is the horse stressed? Does the horse have ulcers? Since you are consistent with your feeding, it will be easier to diagnose issues because you can take certain variables off the table and focus on the other variables.”
And not only does the consistency help you determine the issue, it also allows you to see if your solution is giving you the results you want. If everything else remains the same, and you add in a new product or system, you can better determine what difference (if any!) it's making on your horse’s health.
Karl gives an example from his own program. “I have a mare, who is retired now, and over a period of three months, she colicked three times. Never majorly or requiring hospitalization or surgery, and we diagnosed it quickly and were able to deal with it. However, having three colics in three months with the same horse, I said, 'Ok what is going on? Why is this happening now? What can I change?'”
Karl says the first step is to determine what ‘better’ would look like. “In this situation, we wanted to lower the chance of colic as much as possible. And we had to approach the situation open and honestly, by admitting that I might be the one doing something wrong. We had to look at our program and say, what are we missing?”
“We decided to spread her feeding out, where the horses get fed in a particular order, 6 times a day. There is a 15 minute window for the feeding, and we mark it on a chart to ensure how accurate we are. We had to commit to the change and stick with it long enough to see if it would make a difference.”
It worked, no more colic. “We still feed our horses this way, and we make sure that we are still applying it accurately. There was no magic product. No magic supplement. It was just, diagnosing the problem, consistently applying the change so we could evaluate effectiveness, always treating the cause not the symptom.”
"We had to commit to the change and stick with it long enough to see if it would make a difference.”
But what if the product seems to work? What if I’m struggling with scratches, and I find an ointment that clears things up? Why make things harder than they need to be? Karl acknowledges that some products work better than others, and sometimes we do need to use something to treat the symptoms. But relying on a “miracle product” to deal with problems rather than trying to understand and prevent issues is going to be problematic in the long run. “It yields complacency. You don’t understand scratches…what it is and what causes it. You have a cream and it goes away, but you don’t understand what’s happening or how dangerous they can be. You are going to be more prone to having a major outbreak that might take a long time to deal with. With scratches in general, it can lead to open sores on the horse’s leg, which is bad in itself, but also you can be prevented from showing. So while the horse will be fine and will heal, the ointment will work, you won’t be able to show that week…and it might be a really important week. All because you relied on the cream rather than took steps to prevent it.”
If you understand why scratches happen, you can apply consistent methods to avoid them. “After a bath on the horses, we put a fan on the horse’s legs so they dry as fast as possible, and they don’t get scratches. We always make sure their legs are clipped so they dry as quickly as possible. That’s not magic; it’s consistency.”
A consistent program means a consistent ride
And yes, it’s also hard work. Maintaining a consistent program means no skipping steps, no cutting corners. It means always pushing yourself to learn more and developing horsemanship so you can better care for your horse.
Karl says it pays off in the end. “Good horses are hard to find, and they are really expensive. The longer you can keep them going, the better return on investment you have. As a rider, being able to ride your horse for a longer period of time, your horse feeling consistently good for a longer period of time, helps you as a rider because you have a consistent ride.” A healthier horse means you aren’t taking frequent breaks because of injury after injury. It’s hard to improve as a rider when you are dealing with that.
Karl admits that it’s not easy. But he knows his approach makes him a better horseman…and a better person. “I would also say that it makes you better with whatever vocation you are doing. Whether it is sports or business or relationships, being honest with yourself and questioning what you do and trying to improve yourself to prevent issues is always a better way to handle things.”
But according to Karl, all that is secondary to just doing the right thing and treating your horse well. “You are duty bound to give your horse the best care possible. That should be obvious.”