Referring to the Horse

Sep 17 / Irene Perrett
Who do we live alongside?
Language is an ever evolving and essential part of how we think about the world around us, and in particular, how we think about who is sharing the world with us.
By who, I am speaking about human and more-than-human animals. There are numerous philosophical arguments attempting to determine the terms to use when referring to humans and more-than-humans, for example we could use the terms ‘persons’ or ‘beings’ as a way to encompass all animal life. Here, I would like to consider how we commonly refer to equines, and why thinking about this is important to enhance how we live alongside them.
Horses have been a part of human life for several thousand years. In fact, life would have been very different now without the interconnections between equines and humans. Despite this, there is a tendency still to hold a hierarchical approach to equine-human relations. In one of its simplest forms this can be recognised by the language used when talking about horses. Horses are very much their own person; they have innate needs and inherent wishes and values. They have complex social lives and intra and interspecies relationships – including of course with us.
As social animals these relations are vital to lead a fulfilled and healthy existence, yet horses are often not given the opportunities to express themselves fully or to develop sustained relationships. We are sometimes surprised to witness behaviours and emotions in them that we also possess. The grief of loss, feeling anxious because we lack control over a situation and therefore cannot predict outcomes, or perhaps the joy of meeting an old friend.
If we choose to take time to observe, we can see the individual stories playing out in front of us. How important these stories are to us is decided by how we perceive horses, but there is no doubt that they are important to the horses themselves. Their behaviour is an expression of how horses feel about a certain situation.
We know that many of the terms we use to describe behaviour seen in the equine-human dyad as such as ‘naughty’, ‘disobedient’, ‘lazy’, ‘dominant’, ‘submissive’ or ‘testing boundaries’ are inaccurate and false. Horses are not aware of human perceptions of power relations; they understand their own social language.

These human-made terms simply describe our own perceptions but do nothing to help us understand how the horse feels and why they may behave as they do. 

I believe even more fundamental to equine-human relations is the use of the pronoun ‘it’ when referring to horses (or any other animal). ‘It’ immediately promotes objectification, in other words, causes us to think about the horse as an object to have things done to them. ‘It’ removes acceptance of horses’ autonomy and right to agency.
Anthropocentrism is a player in this paradigm. The saying ‘horses make good servants but bad masters’ comes to mind. Removing the servant-master construct (which is both hierarchical and androcentric) is the first step to more equal and dynamic relations. The use of ‘it’ when referring to horses is so entrenched that very often, we are not even aware. But it is unlikely that we would choose to use the same pronoun for an unknown human. With a human we would commonly use he/she or, if gender was unknown, they.
This may seem pedantic, but the language we use impacts how we think. ‘It’ creates othering, in other words there is myself and us, and then others who are not a part of us. Our behaviour to ‘others’ is different to how we behave within our own group. Though horses and humans are separate species, it is necessary to question whether our values are really so very different.
Using ‘it’ and ‘othering’ may be a mechanism that enables humans not to have to think too deeply about the lives of more-than-human animals. But the downside of this is that we are oblivious to the complexities of these lives we are living alongside.
Perhaps I could set you a challenge for a week. Every time you find yourself speaking or thinking about your horse as ‘it’, try to replace with the pronoun he or she, and when you are referring to an animal you don’t know, use they instead. It takes practice, but it would be very interesting to discover if, by repeating this, you enable the relationship you have with your horse to evolve.

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