Dr Teresa Tyler

It's time for change in the horse world

The moral status of animals and the ethics of how we treat them seem to get personal very quickly these days. How we think about the animals we live alongside, becomes ever more intertwined; impacting our social experiences, what we eat and many other lifestyle choices. We are starting to think more deeply about these issues, which in turn can create contention, for example, the vegans who ride horses or the climate change activists who still eat beef.

I see discussions daily about whether people prefer human or non-human company, whether experience beats qualifications in the training sector, whether an ethological approach to our relationships with animals is better than a philosophical one. Humans are great at creating argument and conflict that’s for sure.

What I only see rarely though is the viewpoint of the animal’s perspective. For example, what is it like for a dog to be approached by a human they are not familiar with? What’s it like for a horse to be caught and taken away from its familiar group of conspecifics, to be brushed, saddled, and ridden? How might the cat who is kept permanently indoors feel when they smell the fresh air wafting through an open window that they cannot get out of?

The vast majority of domestic companion animals are captive. That’s a fact. I’m not talking about being kept behind bars (although some may be), I’m talking about being reliant on humans for their food, exercise, shelter and so on - a state of dependency. So how do we manage to maintain dominance as we keep them captive, yet persuade ourselves that it is in their best interests?

Domestication of animals was always considered to be beneficial to them, a kind of reciprocity where we could use the animals as we see fit, in return for a life, food, shelter and health care. If we think about it, domestic animals would not exist if they didn’t serve some purpose to us, right? In terms of pet keeping, it is often the case that pet animals are well loved and cared for yet are still subjected to visual enhancements such as tail docking, or training methods that are outdated and cruel, to make them more acceptable to live with us. Unlike children who are nurtured through to independence, pets live in a liminal space where they remain vulnerable and reliant on us for their survival. Is that humane I wonder? 

I want to talk about the word humane, defined as showing compassion or benevolence. Or rather the myth of humane treatment.

 Increasingly I get frustrated by the treatment of equids. Horses (and donkeys) who are being kept by well-meaning owners for their personal leisure and sport activities. Fortunately, I believe the ‘dog world’ is beginning to wake up to some of these issues and I see a slow but definite shift to a more positive direction. Yet, the horse world seems stuck in the outdated modes of training and husbandry that were eschewed forty years or more ago. Young people who enter a career with horses are still attending courses where they are taught how to ‘do things to’ a horse, rather that how to do things with. The use of whips is a perfect example.  

In the month where the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill passed its final stage in the UK parliament, many animal advocates breathed a cautious sigh of relief. In the same month a well-known international dressage rider and trainer writes in Horse and Hound magazine that the internet is the cause of whips being considered cruel and that Sir Mark Todd was ‘encouraging’ a horse with a tree branch despite the fact he was found guilty of engaging in conduct prejudicial to the good reputation of horse racing by striking a horse with a tree branch. Pammy Hutton goes on to claim that ‘If we’re not careful, all riding will be done dressed as snowflakes, with no competitions and possibly never riding at all.’ (Hutton, 2022).

It is my view that this whole perception of horses being ‘encouraged’ with whips (or tree branches) is neither natural nor normal. It is just another example of domination and control; of creating a relationship based on what the human wants rather than what the horse wants and resorting to forms of violence to achieve it.

It is time that the horse industry considers how it treats/mistreats those animals who are dependent on them. We need to develop improved ways of living and working with horses that considers their moral status and rights.  Perhaps shed the old mindset of exploitation and domination, which is based on human self-interest, and redefine horse-human interactions by accepting the horses’ interests as much as the human. How can this be done? Through reflection, thought, compassion and encompassing the scientific evidence that shows a better and more ethical way is necessary. Let's encounter horses through a different lens; instead of seeing their passive compliance we could realise their complex individuality and agency.      

Hutton (2022) Pammy Hutton: ‘How long is it Before a Whip is Deemed Cruel?’ Horse & Hound, viewed 17 April 2022, [https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/plus/opinion/pammy-hutton-how-long-before-a-whip-is-deemed-cruel-783802?].
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