New ways of understanding the human–horse relationship

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Susanna Hedenborg
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Jonna Bornemark, Petra Andersson & Ulla Ekström von Essen (red)
Equine Cultures in Transition: Ethical Questions
259 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Routledge Advances in Sociology)
ISBN 978-1-138-54959-3

Horses and humans have since long shared an interspecies history. A history which, for the human and the horse, has included questions about handling the relationship in specific contexts. So far, there are few studies on the ethical implications of the interspecies lives of horses and humans. Therefore, this volume on ethical questions in the new field of human–horse studies is welcome. The volume is divided in to five sections: Horses at work, Leadership, power, and training methodology, Problematic practices, Negotiations in contemporary dressage and Horse keeping, and comprises 16 chapters. It covers discussions on the development of new theoretical frameworks as well as empirical examples of human–horse relationships. Questions about how we can understand the horse as a social actor are asked, as well as through which methods we can give the horse a stronger voice and better understand it. Additionally, more normative statements concerning what sort of ethics should be developed in relation to horses today are presented. In “Introduction: subjectivity and ethical questions in an equestrian world in transformation”, Jonna Bornemark sets the stage for the volume by pointing to that new ways of recognizing the horse as an agent poses new ethical questions in relation to human–horse practices. She also discusses if and how we can reach the perspective of the horse, and problematizes anthromorphism, but underlines that interspecies relationships run a greater risk of failure if we lean towards an interpretation of the animals as objects rather than as subjects. She also problematizes how new methodologies have to be developed to make it possible to reach a better understanding.

In the first section, Horses at work, different frameworks on horses and humans at work are presented. In her chapter, “Horses’ labour and work-lives: new intellectual and ethical directions”, Kendra Coulter presents a theoretical framework that makes it possible to depict and understand relationships between working animals and humans. She elucidates the importance of interdisciplinarity with the aim of increasing understanding of horses’ labor processes and work-lives, integrating feminist political economy, gendered labor process theory, behavioral research and cognitive ethology and her own theorizing of animals’ labor. Her framework constitutes an excellent base for working towards interspecies solidarity and humane jobs with and for horses, and can be used when evaluating practices where humans and animals are located in the same context. It offers a framework for building guidelines for these practices as well as increasing our understanding of interspecies relationships.

Another framework meant for evaluations of human–horse practices is discussed in, “Martha Nussbaum’s capability approach and equine assisted therapy: an analysis for both humans and horses” by Henrik Lerner and Gunilla Silfverberg. Martha Nussbaum was an American philosopher interested in what constituted a good human life and how this could be promoted by societal institutions. She did not herself use the framework for interspecies relationships, but Lerner and Silvferberg show that the ten steps presented in her model (capability of life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reasons; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment) are fruitful in order to evaluate equine assisted therapy practices. They, however, also point to that more research on the perspective of the horse is needed as there is a risk of reducing one capability on to another.

An increasing number of horses seem to be used in different kinds of therapeutical jobs, and Andersson presumed that horses were given agency in these jobs and were seen as co-therapists.

The agency of the horse in horse assisted psychotherapy is problematized in Petra Andersson’s chapter, “Who is the horse? Horse assisted therapy as a possibility for understanding horses”. Her starting point was that listening to and learning from person’s working in close collaboration with horses would lead her to an increased understanding of horses. An increasing number of horses seem to be used in different kinds of therapeutical jobs, and Andersson presumed that horses were given agency in these jobs and were seen as co-therapists. She reveals, however, that reality is more complex. Sometimes horses are described as enriching the environment or a tool for a successful relationship between the (human) therapist and the client – sometimes horses are seen as more important than the humans. The essence of these relationships must be comprehended to be changed and Andersson argues that the recognition of the horse as a co-worker is essential for the welfare of horses.

In this section, the reader also finds a more empirical chapter on human–horse working relations. Andrea Petitt presents an ethnographic account of human–horse interactions of a cowboy crew and the horses they ride in the Canadian West in “Working cowhorses in multispecies encounters”. She underlines that the cowboy code of conduct includes that animals should be respected, treated nicely and communicated with in subtle ways. There are however obstacles to the implementation of this code of conduct, and Petitt points to examples when cow horses are put through stressful experiences, as well as periods of a low degree of human care. According to her, however, laughing at colleagues riding bucking horses has to be interpreted as laughter of the pain of the cowboy, whereas the pain observed in the horse is seen as a failure of the cowboy. She also points to that horses are given subjectivity in this context. Her study shows in an excellent way that ethnographic fieldwork including both humans and animals is an excellent way of understanding interspecies relationships.

The second section is devoted to Leadership, power, and training methodology, and in it Anita Maurstad presents a study based on interviews with 60 riders in North Norway and Midwest USA. Among other things, she discusses the contradicting ideas of what is the nature of the horse, e.g. the horse needs a strong leader,  or the horse wants to befriend humans, and how these ideas lead to different perceptions about how the riders believe that horses should be handled in the best way. She also points to that most owners love their horses and treat them in ways that are seen as best for the horse. Problematizing this, she underlines the importance of discussing these varying practices to make visible that they are colored by cultural images of nature. This is an interesting chapter, as it clearly demonstrates how the social construction of the horse create different practices based on ethical perceptions connected to a specific context.

The authors show how the growing focus on the subjectivity of the horse – a recognition of horses’ desires, experiences and feelings – comes to play in liberty dressage.

Paul Patton discusses animal rights in, “Power, ethics, and animal rights”. He problematizes “natural horsemanship” and underlines that there is nothing “natural” about natural horsemanship as all human practices with horses include power relations. Towards the end of his chapter he advocates for the development of new human-animal practices that brings joy to both parties (not only to the human). His chapter is followed by a study of such practices presented by two of the editors of this book, Ulla Ekström von Essen and Jonna Bornemark. In their chapter, “Between behaviourism, posthumanism, and animal rights theory: negative and positive reinforcement in liberty dressage”, this form of natural horsemanship is studied and analyzed. The authors show how the growing focus on the subjectivity of the horse – a recognition of horses’ desires, experiences and feelings – comes to play in liberty dressage. The source material consists of interviews with eight trainers in liberty dressage of different nationalities and genders. The authors welcome the practice as it opens up for new, more ethical ways for humans and horses to be together and for the horses’ subjectivity. Their results are, however, complex. The trainers use both positive and negative reinforcement – representatives of the former present a more “animal rights” view than the latter, who instead underlines the development of a common language making the horse accept the trainer in the same way as he or she accepts other horses. Horses’ agency is seen by both kind of trainers, although they interpret the horses’ ways of communicating differently. The chapter points to the importance of studying specific practices instead of taking for granted that a practice in itself leads to one perception of the horse-human relationship.

In the third section, ethical dilemmas related to different practices are discussed. A starting point is questions such as, can we use horses for our own pleasure and in that case, what are acceptable practices? In her study, Iris Bergman interviews nine informants from the industry and seven thoroughbred protection activists from Australia and USA, and the interviews are analyzed. She points to that both groups discuss issues related to the use and potential overuse of drugs and medication (legal and illegal), injuries and death at the race track, and the aftercare (retirement) of thoroughbreds leaving the race track. The informants also discuss what they believe is natural horse behavior and welfare. Regarding these issues, several differences between the two groups are noticeable. Whereas the industry informants express sympathy, only the activists express empathy. This is interesting, as it seems to suggest that only by being able to take another creature’s position, harmful practices can be ended. An attempt to reach perspectives of both humans and horses is presented by Marie Fahlin, choreographer and Phd-student in artistic research. She gives the readers a possibility to step in to the horses shoes and understand riding practices from a new perspective in a text very different from the others, “Wriding”. Her text – a poem – exposes struggling bodies trying to cope with riding according to traditions and instructions. Her explorations of a riding lesson from within call every rider to reflect on their practices.

In Kirrilly Thompson’s chapter, “Dressage dilemmas: ethics where sport and art collide”, three dimensions of dressage: the athletic, aesthetic, and ethical are discussed. Using her almost 30 years of experience of dressage training and competition riding she problematizes the dressage practice. She reveals that the official regulations on the relations between riders and horses are based on a discourse of submission and control (of the horse). Her text offers a paradigmatic change in which a more ethical human–horse relationship can be promoted in the regulations. That this is a necessary step is clearly seen in Crispin Parelius Johannessen’s chapter. He takes a starting point in equestrian photography and describes how his photos from the Falsterbo competitions warming up areas were seen as both provocative and revealing. A consequence of his showing of pictures of horses in pain, was that these practices were questioned and debated in media. Another consequence was that the possibility of seeing the truth in pictures were contested. Some argued that single images could not substantiate allegations that the horses’ welfare was not looked after. Parelius Johannessen also tells the reader that he had difficulties selling these revealing pictures to journals. Instead he decided to present them on a web site, Epona.tv, where they were shared by 50.000 users during the first 48 hours. The chapter is brave and clearly points to both the importance of documenting horse-human practices and making these official.

Some described the horses as objects that should respond to the riders’ signals, while others viewed their horses as active and influential partners.

In the section Negotiations in contemporary dressage negotiations between trainers, riders and horses are analyzed. Whether the relationship has changed over time – from a more instrumental view where the horse is seen as an object to a view in which the horse is seen as a subject and an agent, is questioned. In Mari Zetterqvist Blokhuis’ and Petra Andersson’s chapter, “Riders’ understanding of the role of their horse in sports dressage”, the source material consists of 27 interviews with medium level sport dressage riders from Sweden and Poland. The results point to that there are no differences between riders of the two nationalities; the Swedish and Polish riders had difficulties describing the role of their horse in the communication with the horse. Some described the horses as objects that should respond to the riders’ signals, while others viewed their horses as active and influential partners. There seems to be a tension between traditional views of seeing the horse as an object and new views. Trainers tended to focus on performance rather than the horse as a subject. In a similar study, Charlotte Lundgren analyses how trainers support the learning of their students concerning the horse’s behavior and emotions in 15 training sessions, each with one trainer and one equipage. In her chapter, “What do trainers teach their riders about horses and riding? An interaction analysis study of sports dressage training” she shows that riders are taught to expect the horses to collaborate with them and that they through this collaboration make the horse perform to the best of his ability. Riders are expected to ask the horse to do things that he may not want to, but that they also need to listen to the horse. Trainers present sense-making practices and guide riders. These chapters connect well to the chapter “A bifocal perspective on the riding school: on Lévinas and equine faces”, in which David Redmalm uses Emmanuel Lévinas idea that morality begins in the face-to-face encounter and the impulse to put the other before oneself. In this study, two riding schools were followed for a semester, and, in addition, interviews were conducted. Redmalm demonstrates that horses were repeatedly described as something other than humans and that riders described that practices such as a constant rotation of horses, a busy schedule and a normalization of harsh training methods contributed to a defacilitation of the horses. He argues that the riding school can be seen as an organizational machine limiting human’s responsibility for horses’ welfare. There are, however, tensions as the riding school at the same time makes human–horse encounters possible and horses are seen as having faces, to speak with Lévinas, and riders are concerned with some of the training methods. All three chapters are highly relevant and demonstrate that the complexity of our perceptions of horses needs to be studied and discussed. Only if these perceptions are visualized, they can be reflected upon and changed.

In the last two chapters, practices of horse keeping are analyzed (section Horse keeping). Today, many recreational horses are kept in livery yards and managers of these yards can be seen as interpreters of the horses needs in communication with the owners. In their chapter, “Interpreting animals in spaces of cohabitance: narration and the role of animal agency at horse livery yards”, Nora Schuurman and Alex Franklin analyzes narratives of seven horse livery yard managers. They show that these managers interpret and give horses agency in the co-construction of the human–horse relationship and interspecies care practice. In their chapter, ”Perspectives on horse keeping and welfare in peri-urban landscapes” Monica Hammer, Madeleine Bonow, and Mona Petersson present a case study of a peri-urban area, analyzing horse-keeping from an equine welfare and environmental perspectives. There are approximately 355 000 horses in Sweden, making Sweden one of the most horse dense countries in Europe (horses/person). These horses have a considerable impact on the rural landscape and ecosystems. The study of Hammer points to the importance for municipality planners to take horses (and other animals) into account (and not just humans). The authors point to several areas in which synergies can occur, but also conflicts. Horses can, through grazing, keep a landscape open. If the area is big enough and the horses are kept in groups this is beneficial for both the horses and the eco-system. The practice of grazing can, however, also be harmful if horses are kept in too small paddocks or in paddocks of their own. Over-grazing can lead to a loss of biodiversity.

The studies presented in the book are long-awaited. It is the first volume bringing together ethical questions of interspecies relationships in several contexts. Development of empathy – not only with humans – seems crucial if these relationships are to change. The book also points to the importance of more studies within the field from other areas. While horses and humans interact all over the globe, in this book contexts belonging to the global north are in focus. The emphasis on interspecies relationships is necessary, as we know so little about them. In the future, however, other intersections would be interesting to know more about. How are interspecies relationships interwoven with for example age, (social) class, race, disability, gender and sexuality of both horses and humans, and which ethical implications will these relationships bring about? Regardless of my suggestions for future research, this volume brings together advanced new theoretical frameworks, inspiring empirical studies and compelling methodological suggestions challenging, stimulating and provoking our understanding of humans, horses and their practices and relationships.

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg 2019

Table of Content

Introduction: subjectivity and ethical questions in an equestrian world in transformation
Jonna Bornemark

Part I: Horses at work

  1. Horses’ labour and work-lives: new intellectual and ethical directions
    Kendra Coulter
  2. Working cowhorses in multispecies encounters
    Andrea Petitt
  3. Who is the horse? Horse assisted therapy as a possibility for understanding horses
    Petra Andersson
  4. Martha Nussbaum’s capability approach and equine assisted therapy: an analysis for both humans and horses
    Henrik Lerner and Gunilla Silfverberg

Part II: Leadership, power, and training methodology

  1. Put the horse in place: on communicative practices in horse–human relationships
    Anita Maurstad
  2. Power, ethics, and animal rights
    Paul Patton
  3. Between behaviourism, posthumanism, and animal rights theory: negative and positive reinforcement in liberty dressage
    Ulla Ekström von Essen and Jonna Bornemark

Part III: Problematic practices?

  1. He loves to race – or does he? Ethics and welfare in racing
    Iris Bergmann
  2. Descriptive Falsterbo Moments – or the art of equestrian photography made popular
    Crispin Parelius Johannessen
  3. Dressage dilemmas: ethics where sport and art collide
    Kirrilly Thompson
  4. Wriding
    Marie Fahlin

Part IV: Negotiations in contemporary dressage

  1. Riders’ understanding of the role of their horse in sports dressage
    Mari Zetterqvist Blokhuis and Petra Andersson
  2. A bifocal perspective on the riding school: on Lévinas and equine faces
    David Redmalm
  3. What do trainers teach their riders about horses and riding? An interaction analysis study of sports dressage training
    Charlotte Lundgren

Part V: Horse keeping

  1. Interpreting animals in spaces of cohabitance: narration and the role of animal agency at horse livery yards
    Nora Schuurman and Alex Franklin
  2. Perspectives on horse keeping and welfare in peri-urban landscapes
    MonicaHammer, Madeleine Bonow, and Mona Petersson
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