Horse Health

Magic and Medicine: A Curious Sense of Commonality

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I am a veterinarian who limits his practice to taking care of horses.

I have made my living caring for horses for over 30 years, including some of the best jumping horses in the world. That’s not the only thing that I do, of course. But I’m pretty good at it, I hope.

I am also a magician.

Not the pull-a-coin from behind a kid’s ear kind of magician (although I can do that), but a magician with enough skill to have performed at parties, corporate events, and even the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood. I’m pretty good at it, I hope.

What’s curious to me— striking to me, really—is how much the two fields are alike.

I think that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that being a good veterinarian has helped make me a good magician. Alternatively, I think that being a magician has helped me understand a lot about medicine. Sometimes the fields seem to even get a bit mixed up.

Here’s what I mean.

Hundreds—probably thousands—of years ago, there really wasn’t much difference between magic and medicine. Medicine of all cultures was full of rituals and spells and incantations and potions and lotions that were given to animals with various poorly understood maladies: mallendars and sallendars, dropsy, spavin, and many, many other conditions whose names are just a forgotten note in history. Sometimes after the spells and potions and lotions were given, the animals got better. No one really new why—mystical, supernatural forces were apparently at work.

Over time, veterinary medicine got better at what it does: take care of animal illness. Veterinarians (who, by the way, weren’t called that until the late 1700s) learned more. They became more adept at surgery and they developed new, effective medications.

But even as medicine got better at what it does, some of the rituals, potions, etc., persisted. They still do.

The doctor has mysterious tools (e.g., a stethoscope or an X-ray or ultrasound machine). The doctor has mysterious potions that, when injected into or rubbed onto or syringed into one place or another, sometimes help things get better. The owners or the caretakers of the horses often don’t really have a deep understanding of what’s being done. There’s a sense of wonder and mystery when a horse that was previously sick or injured returns to health. Owners also have an expectation that if they go along with the program, good things will happen.

Hundreds—probably thousands—of years ago, magic was everywhere. All cultures were full of rituals and spells and incantations and visions. Mystical, supernatural forces were apparently at work but people developed a certain skill and dexterity to make it look as if those forces were at their command.

Over time, magicians started to write down what they learned—the first book on magic was published in the 1500s. Since then, magicians have developed their skills and developed many tools: coins and cards, rings and ropes, cups and balls, and such.

But even as magicians developed more skill, subtlety, and dexterity, some of the rituals, potions, etc., persisted. They still do.

The magician has a magic wand, smoke, and mirrors. The magician does mysterious things that, when effective, bring about a sense of wonder. Spectators watching a magic show don’t really have a deep understanding of what’s being done—they have an expectation that if they go along with the program, good things will happen.

The parallels are seemingly endless.

In magic, you have to get the spectators to go along with the program: to buy in. In medicine, too, you have to get an owner to buy in to what you’re doing. Technically difficult magic can be delivered poorly, in which case it’s not much fun. Technically difficult veterinary medicine can be delivered poorly, in which case clients may not be happy, even if the outcome is good. Magic is an art but it also involves science (e.g., cognitive neuroscience). Medicine is supposed to be a science but it also involves a good deal of art (in the delivery of the science, in discussions with clients, etc.).

But there are big differences, too.

In magic, nobody expects my work to be real. That is, while I may be able to make it look like a coin or a card disappears, a cut rope is restored, or a ball appears first under one cup, and then another, of course, that’s not what really happens (or is it?). The magic props don’t do anything by themselves. The cards won’t show up in unexpected places by themselves. The coin won’t disappear without some help. Still, with magic, there’s an expectation, and if I meet that expectation, it’s enough to make people happy, even if it’s all an illusion.

On the other hand, in medicine, everyone expects me to do something real. And I mostly do. I sew up cuts, I figure out why horses go lame, I help them get over illness. Sadly—concerningly—not all things that are given to horses under the moniker of “medicine” are real, either, but if people’s expectations are met, it can be enough to make them happy.

The horse’s body and its capacity to heal is pretty magical.

Sometimes the horse heals because of the things that I do that enable healing (I don’t cause healing. I just help set up situations so that healing can occur). Sometimes the horse’s body gets better on its own. Sometimes, it gets better in spite of the things that I do. And sometimes, you never know; if a good result follows a sincere intervention, the intervention often gets the credit (and I do, too). If you didn’t know better, you might think medicine was magic.

In medicine, sometimes I can help and other times, things are out of my hands. In magic, they almost never are.

I know secrets of both fields. I know why the card seems to disappear. I know what’s going on at a cellular level when a cut on the horse’s body heals. My clients—my spectators—don’t. They are merely left with a sense of wonder, a sense of appreciation, and a sense that something good has been done. Oh, and a bill, which, assuming that the job has been done well, ends up being a relatively small price to pay. I’ve been paid to perform magic, as well. In magic and in medicine, at the end of the day, with any luck, everyone’s happy.

In magic, it’s my job to deceive people. Everyone knows that in advance. There’s an honesty in the deception. It’s fun.

In medicine—and particularly now, it seems—there’s a parallel here, too: and a big problem. Everyone has an expectation that an intervention is supposed to do something. That can be a problem because some clearly don’t.

There are many useless products and devices and procedures out there. There are useless services delivered with earnestness to people who are eager to believe because they want to help their horse so much. But the fact that the horse’s body is so forgiving and so willing to try to restore itself to normal means if someone does something—just about anything, it seems—the person doing the “something” has a chance of getting credit for trying. It’s like magic, but the deception isn’t honest. The horse world is currently full of such serious, awful, unethical deceptions.

At the end of the day, with medicine, as with magic, there’s an expectation to be met. If I meet that expectation, it’s enough to make people happy, even if the work isn’t real. I don’t mind exploiting that expectation in magic. In medicine, that’s something that should never be done.

About the Author 

Dr. David Ramey is a 1983 graduate of the Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to being a full-time equine veterinary practitioner in Encino, California, Dr. Ramey is also an internationally recognized author, lecturer and blogger. Dr. Ramey is a vocal advocate for the application of science to medicine, and—as such—for the welfare of the horse.