Two new books shed light on the relationship between humans and horses

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Susanna Hedenborg
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Despite the fact that humans and horses have a long history together, research on the human–animal/horse relationships is scant. Monica Mattfeld’s Becoming Centaur. Eighteenth century Masculinity and English Horsemanship and Katherine Dashper’s Human–animal Relationships in Equestrian Sport and Leisure must therefore be considered as important contributions to the field. In addition, they demonstrate the significance of studying relationships between humans and horses to understand society at large, past and present.

Monica Mattfeld
Becoming Centaur: Eighteenth-Century Masculinity and English Horsemanship
276 pages, hardcover, ill.
University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press 2017 (Animalibus: Of Animals and Cultures)
ISBN 978-0-271-07577-8

Mattfeld’s book covers an interesting time period as well as imperative questions in relation to the social construction of masculinities. Moreover, she presents new knowledge of how the human–horse relationships are essential for the understanding of masculinity performance in the long 18th century. In a similar way to how Davidoff et al in 1999 demonstrated that masculinity was not constructed in vacuum, but in relation to families and the social construction of bloodlines[1], Mattfeld shows how men related to horses in many different ways, and performed gendered identities on the basis of these relationships. Drawing on gender studies as well as human–animal studies she makes clear how horses influenced political discourse, social standing and scientific understanding.

Through horses, men came to know a multispecies identity complete with its own communication systems, modes of sociality, performances, and epistemologies. Horsemen could not be men, successful, or respected, without embodied and communicative interactions with their other half – the horse (p 13).

The study is based on an impressive source material consisting of horsemanship manuals, memoirs, satires and images. Horsemanship manuals can be seen as a form of didactic literature written by the masters of the field. In these, the correct forms of riding and horse training alongside advice on hunting practices, veterinary care, and ideal masculine behaviour are presented. These were intended for the social elite and contain an idealised view and representation of morals, social behaviour and identities.

Mattfeld presents four central models of horsemanship and masculine performance starting with William Cavendish, first duke of Newcastle and leading figure in the manège community, displaying a partly embodied animal through skilled artistic and kinaesthetic relations. In early 18th century, the focus of the horse animal relationships moves from the country estate to London, and Mattfeld presents a division within horsemanship practice into two distinct but interconnected schools. The modern school, which demonstrated interest in mechanistic, non-centauric riding for pleasure, industry and performance of polite and commercial virtues, usually performed on thoroughbred horses. In contrast, the traditional school of horsemanship was an art to be learned on traditionally built horses for the conspicuous self-display of skill, nobility and gentlemanly greatness. In the third model, Philip Astley and his son John were core persons. Astley, regarded as the father of the modern circus, performed various trick acts with horses at an amphitheatre and invited paying spectators. He challenged social constructions of masculinities in that he combined horsemanship practices and masculinities of different social classes and equestrian traditions. According to Mattfeld

/…/ he was not content to perform either the jockey or the manège onstage; instead, he turned to a more common, vulgar form of riding that allowed for the exhibition of the dangerous and courageous self so necessary to all his performance of masculinity (p. 128).

Astley’s gender performance was connected to the perceived failure of the martial masculinity of the American war and can be seen as recalling a fictitious past in which men were “truly” masculine. The fourth model focus on the 18th century satirist Henry William Bunburry’s banters on effeminate horse human relationships.

Katherine Dashper
Human–Animal Relationships in Equestrian Sport and Leisure
182 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-1-138-93416-0

Dashper analyses the contemporary “horse world” (her concept). Her study is based on an outstanding source material consisting of ethnographic work (for eight years) and 75 one-to-one interviews. She is herself part of the “horse world” and in parts she uses an auto-ethnographic method in an interesting and courageous way (among other things displaying insecurity in relation to her own horse becoming sick and searching for knowledge online, chapter 7).

Several horse world contexts are analysed: the yard, training, the hack, competition, and the horse world online. The latter is of special interest as Dashper reveals new findings in relation to what is considered important and “real” knowledge of how to deal with horses in case of, for example, sickness (that ideas on this influence face-to-face relationships too is clearly demonstrated in the chapter about the yard). Dashper discloses five themes that run through the separate contexts. These can be summarised as: in the horse world humans see horses as persons and give them individual characters; partnership, collaborations and communication between horses and humans are central and relationships are formed and developed over time; horse–human interactions are embodied ways of knowing and being in the world; the relationships have to be connected to time and space as the embodied being has to be related to the environment and variability in the interspecies interactions; finally, individual and collective identities are formed as being a “horsey” person is a key marker of identity.

The feminisation of horse riding for leisure in the Western world is one of the immense changes in social conditions for the human–horse relationships over time together with the fact that horses have become partners in human sport and leisure from the mid-20th century. According to Dashper, women amount to 73 per cent of the riders in the UK (75 per cent in the USA, 85 per cent in Canada) (p 10). In Sweden, 90 per cent of the members of the Swedish Equestrian Federation are women. It is, however, unclear whether this change has influenced the human–horse relationship or whether the agency of the horse in this relationship is so strong that it is rather the human gender performance that is changed.  Dashper does not focus on gender and like many researchers studying masculinity, Mattfeld extracts the social construction of masculinity in relation to other masculinities, rather than to femininities. The fact that women entered the previously male social (horse) space, not least in urban riding, and how this came to influence gender performance to a certain degree, is mentioned (s 11). Yet, in what way women’s entrance and constructions of femininities challenged masculine gender bending is not thoroughly discussed.[2] It is possible that more updated references to the growing field of horse cultures from social sciences and humanities perspectives could have helped Mattfeld in her analysis.[3] My remarks about the gender analyses notwithstanding, I wish to underline that these two books are of paramount interest for many academic fields. They contribute to the human–animal studies, and provide new exciting insights about society at large, sport and leisure, and gender and identity performance in the past and in our own time.

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg 2017


[1] Davidoff, L et al, The Family Story. Blood, Contract and Intimacy, 1830–1960, Longman, 1999,
[2] Cf. Hedenborg, S & Pfister, G, “Écuyères and “doing gender”. Presenting Femininity in a Male Domain – Female Circus Riders 1800–1920, Scandinavian Sport Studies Forum, volume three, 2012, 25–47.
[3] Arbete på stallbacken: Nittonhundratalets svenska galoppsport ur genus- och generationsperspektiv by Susanna Hedenborg Malmö: idrottsforum.org 2008; Att utveckla handlingskraft: Om flickors identitetsskapande processer i stallet (Elektronisk resurs) by Lena Forsberg Luleå: Luleå tekniska universitet 2007; British Sporting Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century by Sharon Harrow (red) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2016; Gender and Equestrian Sport: Riding Around the World by Miriam Adelman & Jorge Knijnik (red) Dordrecht: Springer 2013; Hästar, män och andra djur by Nina Lekander Stockholm: Norstedts 2012; Hästkarlar, hästjejer, hästälskare: 100 år med Svenska Ridsportförbundet by Susanna Hedenborg Strömsholm: Svenska Ridsportförbundet 2013; I sulky och sadel: Trav- och galoppsportens 1900-talshistoria by Mats Greiff & Susanna Hedenborg (red) Stockholm: Carlssons 2007; and Lawe, K, “Ridkonstens historia i ett Europeiskt perspektiv”, i Karlander, O (ed.) Ridkonsten genom tiderna. Utmaningar i framtiden, 6–13.

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  1. Thank you for this helpful review, Susanna!

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