Egalitarian Equine Communities’ Acknowledgement of the Horse as Subject
Nicole Pergament Crona
#II. inside animals / animals inside
ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the horse
And each horse, whether jumping, trotting, racing, hitched in a troika, each one of them knows precisely the extent of human stupidity, knows that for all these 3000 years horses and people have spent together, everything could have been different.[i.]
The Russian author, filmmaker, and horseman, Alexander Nevzorov, condemns the way in which Man has made use of the horse ever since we first started to employ this animal for our own purposes. But more than anything else he condemns equestrian sports. Nevzorov predicts a future in which equestrian sports will be outlawed and our grandchildren will try to forget this “shameful practice of man’s biography”; they will “burn of shame” thinking of this practice of the past, as we are ashamed now thinking of slavery or concentration camps.[ii.] A “horse revolution” is coming, Nevzorov claims, and the fight has already begun; it is a fight between two completely different views regarding the horse and its relation to humans.[iii.]
Even though Nevzorov is a controversial person whose opinions are rather provocative to many people – there are even those thinking that he “asks to be shot” – he still has followers and official representatives in several countries across the world, including Sweden.[iv.] There are also other prophets, besides Nevzorov, predicting a future “paradigm shift”.[v.] Still, I cannot say myself, overlooking the equine world of today, that I see any real signs of a coming “revolution”. On the contrary, contemporary equine scientists have highlighted the difficulties in impelling people in the equestrian world to adjust to current scientific findings concerning the wellbeing of horses.[vi.] And within human-animal studies (HAS),[vii.] as well as within the post humanistic field in general, it has been pointed out that we still lack knowledge of how animals can be recognized as subjects and agents with the possession of cognitive and social abilities.[viii.] But even if it is hard to find any signs of a coming equine revolution in a literary sense, there are, luckily, signs of an ongoing and pervasive change of attitudes in today’s horse-human relationship.
This article is based on my master thesis in ethnology,[ix.] in which I set out to examine what I – with an obvious wink to the French revolution – chose to call egalitarian equine communities. Egalitarian, since they are aiming for equality – not for themselves, but for horses. Although these communities showed to be not as condemning of man’s use of the horse as Nevzorov, most of their members have still abandoned all kinds of contesting activities involving horses. They are also critical against many of the values of the formal equestrian world since they regard these values to be constituted by the nineteenth hundred’s cavalry riding, when training and conditioning of the horse aimed for the horse’s obedience and subordination. Instead, their aim is to acknowledge the horse as a subject. But how is this acknowledgement expressed and practiced? And what are the implications?
The study included participant observations as well as interviews conducted in Sweden in 2018 and 2019 with thirteen horsepersons,[x.] all of them being what I consider as egalitarian. They were between twenty-seven and sixty-nine years old, and all but one were females. Most of them were or had been horse-owners, and a majority kept horses back at their farms. Four of them were professional horse trainers and/or riding instructors. All of them were riders and had experiences from formal riding schools. However, seen through the lens of a phenomenological HAS perspective,[xi.] my point of departure is that when studying the horse-human relationship, a focus on the human as a rider not only confirms the traditional view of what constitutes a relation between the two species; it also supports a taken for granted assumption that the horse is a being meant to be mounted. As already mentioned, the egalitarian ambition is to acknowledge horses as subjects. That means giving them a greater portion of agency, something that implies the right to say no – even to be ridden. Therefore, unlike many other studies, commonly focused on the relation between the horse and the rider, my study examined the interaction between the horse and the human, that is, the relation as a whole, regardless of where and how it takes place – whether the human has her feet on the ground or is sitting on top of her companion.
The egalitarian communities can be understood as a reaction against the “interpretive precedence” of the Swedish Equestrian Federation and its subdivisions – the riding schools and the riding clubs. Not only have these institutions dominated equestrian education in Sweden for generations, but they have also decided over what is understood as “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” in the equestrian world.
However, since the end of the nineties, we have seen a wider range of knowledge distributors in the Swedish equine world. For those who never felt comfortable with the military legacy of the equestrian context, the internet offered alternative equine identities, informal knowledge providers, and new “truths”. According to sociologist Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, anti-definitions of reality, as well as of identity, emerges as soon as a few such individuals start to gather in socially durable groups.[xii.] This is the first impulse for a change process to start, something that enables a more complex knowledge distribution. As a result, an anti-reality might start to be objectified and these marginalized social groups will soon start their own processes of socialization.
I claim, supported by my material, that these kinds of processes of socialization are exactly what we have seen emerging in Sweden since the beginning of this millennium. Employing the internet, unsatisfied individuals started to reach out, find like-minded people, transgress national borders, build chat forums. They began the setup and marketing of courses and clinics, offering IRL education, as well as distance education. They sought and found new, more egalitarian ways of riding, new “disciplines”, of which some were not new at all. Academic riding, baroque, western, Icelandic, and Portuguese riding replaced what had up until then been the only options: traditional dressage and jumping.
Others looked for alternative ways of spending time with their horses. They came across philosophies and methods like natural horsemanship, relation-based horse training, treat training, trust technique, and others. Some people even gave up mounting their horses, ensuring they were happy just taking a walk together.
Even though a greater portion of equality in the relation between human and horse was what they were looking for, it is not possible to distinguish a clearly defined common set of values among today’s egalitarian communities. Their members, let us call them “egalitarians” for the sake of simplicity, often share normative opinions and values that are supported by current research within veterinary medicine as well as behavioral science, a circumstance that has bearing on how they interact with their horses. On the other hand, many egalitarians think of knowledge as something that is not necessarily scientifically legitimized; to them, true knowledge can also be found in the everyday interaction between themselves and their horses, as well as from “within” – from insights, authenticity, intuition, meditation, mindfulness, and personal growth. In addition, conceptions concerning the extent of equality, as well as what this equality is supposed to embrace and how it is to be manifested, vary. Still, in my material, I did find a set of central ideals connected to the egalitarian approach to horses which proved to be shared by many within these communities. These ideals were such as naturalness, relation before achievement, welfare and sustainability, willingness and consent, presence, closeness, and authenticity.
Over time, the concept of naturalness has had different understandings within the egalitarian communities. Some egalitarians – such as myself – have a background in the philosophy of natural horsemanship, with its training methods of negative reinforcements. However, this philosophy is nowadays being criticized for not having much to do with the concept of equality – even if we, the followers, used to work hard to convince ourselves that this was the case by repeating the mantra: “the horse is always given a choice”, neglecting the fact that the options available were not always very pleasant to the horse. I was among those convinced of the idea that horses do not seek equality in the wild herd, why the state of hierarchy is “natural” to them, implying that a happy horse is a horse with a strong human leader. Notchka, my own breeding, proved me wrong. Unlike her mother, who always accepted my dominance with something I preferred to interpret as “natural” submissiveness, Notchka demanded to have a say of her own concerning where, when, and how to do things.
Today, hardly any of my former friends from the natural horsemanship community remains within the philosophy and the same goes for several of the informants in the study. The concept has been given negative connotations, charged with more or less explicit accusations for saying one thing, doing another. The idea of every relationship demanding the one and only leader, no matter what the situation is, has been challenged – as have the idea of negative reinforcement being the most effective way of training a horse. Instead, so-called relation-based training and treat training, using positive reinforcement, have been given much more attention.
However, whatever training or conditioning method you prefer, there is something the egalitarian horseperson cannot ignore, namely the actual “non-naturalness” of any horse-human relationship. For a prey animal to be together with a predator is in fact not very natural at all. Seen from an evolutionary perspective, the amount of time that humans and horses have spent together is very brief – just about 6000 years, compared to the almost 60 million years horses have rambled this earth without us interfering. To think that they by now have come to experience our presence as something “natural” is but wishful thinking. This means that the egalitarian horseperson needs to be extra cautious, not taking it for granted when asking a horse, especially a young horse, to step out of the stable or pasture to go training with a human. Even if it is temporary, from the horse’s point of view, this means to leave the herd – any prey animal’s utmost guarantee for survival – to go with a potential killer. To think this is a “natural” thing to do for a horse is to be anthropocentric.
Another way of relating to naturalness concerns the amount of time one lets the foal remain with its mother. Instead of the anthropocentric idea of the foal being “ready” to go by the age of four to seven months, after which most foals in human custody never see their mother again, the egalitarian way is to wait as long as possible. Ultimately, one let the mare and the foal take care of their own business, leaving it to them to decide when and how to separate. In the wilderness, that would mean not until just before the next foal is to come, in other words, not until the first foal is approximately ten months.
Another aspect of naturalness is that of natural horsekeeping, the idea that it is your responsibility to make sure your horse is given a meaningful everyday existence. That does not mean going on the racetracks, becoming sweaty for a reason you cannot see – as a lot of equestrians seem to think – but being together with horsy friends in a wide pasture where you spend most of your time eating and searching for more to eat. Concepts like “free-range stabling” and “active stables” are seen as ideals. In these settings, horses live a more “herdlike” life, spending all their time outdoors together with their companion species.
Relation before achievement
The conception that a horse is a creature made for usage is a common-sense knowledge that is challenged by the attitudes within the egalitarian communities. As mentioned earlier, competitions are no longer of interest to many egalitarian riders. Instead, one is searching for knowledge on how to, in one way or the other, relate to horses in new, untraditional ways. Building a lasting and mutually respectful relationship with the horse is seen as much more important than achieving glory and fame on the racetracks. This idea might sometimes entail a reluctance to lend your horse to someone else. One of my informants, Bodil, compared the question “may I try out your horse?” with “may I try out your husband?”, which I interpret as a fear of offending the horse. You simply do not lend out your dear ones –whether husband or horse. As a consequence, Bodil did not like to go on so-called horseback vacations since she thought of them to be too short for building a relationship with the horse you are temporarily renting at the site. “I’d rather drive a moped!”, she said. Again, the horse is seen as a subject and not as a machine, tool, or automat. The philosopher Jonna Bornemark has pointed out that there is a difference between seeing a horse as an automat and seeing a horse as a subject. You cannot do to a subject what you can do to an automat.[xiii.]
Whether a horse has the same need to build a lasting relationship with its human can of course be discussed. I think Bodil thinks so. I think most egalitarians think so. I even think most horsepersons think so. Being an egalitarian horseperson, I think so too. As a scientist, I took refuge in the phenomenological perspective’s focus on how individuals subjectively construct, experience, and understand their reality, regardless of whether this reality can be considered objectively “correct” or not. Consequently, during my study, I examined the egalitarian communities’ interpretations of the horses’ experiences, regardless of whether these interpretations can be expected to be even close to the horses’ actual experiences or not since that is irrelevant to “the phenomenological attitude”.[xiv.] Hence, by applying the phenomenological attitude, I examined how the horses’ experiences of being acknowledged as subjects appeared to my informants. No more, no less.
Welfare and sustainability
Welfare and Sustainability are two other ideals that are often highlighted among egalitarians, especially when it comes to riding. The academic art of riding is a popular riding style within the egalitarian communities. Instead of competing, the focus here lies on the upbuilding and sustainability of the horse’s body and mentality, as well as on getting the horse’s consent. A central ambition is to make the horse actually want to be ridden and to want to perform certain moves.
Sustainability is of course of interest in the traditional equestrian world as well. But a basic difference is that within equestrian sports, the achievement is still the goal. It is still taken for granted that a horse is to deliver at the racetrack or at the competition ground. It is only a matter of keeping it physically fit, because as soon as it is not, when the horse is worn out, then it is time to replace it with another, still not worn out horse. While in the academic art of riding, the goal is to make this horse, this very individual, become as good as only he or she can be, based on the ability and willingness he or she happens to have at the time being.
Willingness and consent
How do you get a horse’s consent? Well, as Anna, one of my informants, said: “It is like calling a friend – you don’t start talking until you get a hello in the other end, do you?” Anna is a highly educated riding instructor who abandoned the equestrian world to devote her life to the academic art of riding. When she rides today, she tries to think about the horse as a partner with whom she has dialogue, and not as someone who has to obey her orders. Instead of commandingly moving the horse’s body from A to B, Anna asks the horse, (physically using her aids[xv.], and telepathically, using her thoughts): “Can you make a turn here?” And whatever the answer is – whether it is “No, I can’t make a turn right now”, or “Yes, sure, no problem”, it is alright. In other words, she gives the horse an option and a possibility to give consent – or not.
At one of the study’s participants observations, I visited a retreat called “A day for relaxation and mindfulness, guided by the wisdom of horses”. The day started off with me and the other participants spreading out in a pasture to practice meditation while observed by a bunch of quite surprised horses. Afterwards, we all agreed this was a new and odd, but very pleasant way of visiting a pasture: just being here and now, without any particular intention or purpose. That is something we never do, the course leader said. But this is how the horses live their lives. From horses we can learn to take care of ourselves, forget about such things as time, forget about the “musts”, forget about achievements, what others might think, how we are being looked upon or judged. Therefore, we do not need to feel that we have to train our horses all the time, or to achieve things with them. All we have to do is to be with them! Learn from them! Enjoy the present!
Closeness and authenticity
Several of the informants expressed the feeling of becoming mentally harsh in the traditional equestrian world, they became something they did not want to be. Instead of the tenderness and closeness, the little stable girl is longing for when she enters the stable for the first time, she gets to learn discipline.[xvi.] She learns how to discipline the horses. She learns how to discipline herself: “You’ve got to be tough with him”, they say, “you’ve got to show him who’s in charge! Don’t let him do that! Don’t let him scrub his face against you! Keep him out of your way! Use your whip! Use your spurs! Shorten your reins!” In the end, she has got it all internalized. This is the process of socialization. Or, as Berger & Luckmann claims: this is the handing over of a world of established norms and practices.[xvii.] Instead of being close, we are taught to tie up, lock up, hold on, hold in. Making us aware of this might be what horses can help us with, some egalitarians claim. To make us understand that the encounter with the Other might actually be the encounter with ourselves. The horse wants us to be authentic. And when we are not, the horse confronts us with the revealing question: Is this really you?
i. Alexander Nevzorov, The Horse Crucified and Risen Nevzorov Haute Ecole, 2011), p. 123.
ii. Nevzorov 2011, p. 123.
iii. Nevzorov 2011, pp. 123f, 322.
iv. The Horse Forum, https://www.horseforum.com/search/96146/?q=nevzorov&o=relevance [accessed 2022-1-1].
v. Francesco De Giorgio, Equus Lost? How we misunderstand the nature of the horse-human relationship – plus, brave new ideas for the future (North Pomfret, Vt.: Trafalgar Square, 2016).
vi. This was a common experience among researchers at the third Equine Cultures in Transition Conference – Past, Present and Future Challenges, which I attended the 22-24 of June 2021. Cf: Sahl, Mia 2016. 2016-03-01. Sprid kunskapen bättre. Tidningen Djurskyddet. http://tidningen.djurskyddet.se/2016/03/sprid-kunskapen-battre/
vii. Human animal studies can be seen as the answer to the last decades posthumanistic discussion of man’s position in the order of the world. The idea of humankind and its supposedly superior position, as well as its anthropocentric boundaries against other species, is said to be “in transition” – in academia as well as in the practice of everyday life, cf: Jonna Bornemark, Petra Andersson & Ulla Ekström von Essen, Equine cultures in transition: ethical questions (London: Routledge, 2019).
viii. Bornemark, Andersson & Ekström von Essen 2019.
ix. Nicole Pergament Crona, Ecce Equus! Egalitära hästgemenskapers erkännande av hästen som subjekt Stockholms Universitet, 2020).
x. With the term horseperson, I mean a human being who, continuously, in one way or the other, spends time with horses and consequently also with other horsepersons, and thereby acquire knowledge about horses as well as membership in one or several equine communities.
xi. To be more exact, I have examined this ongoing reevaluation through Alfred Schutz’s variant of phenomenology that holds a certain interest in knowledge, further developed by the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, see Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann & Synnöve Olsson, Kunskapssociologi: hur individen uppfattar och formar sin sociala verklighet (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1979).; Alfred Schütz, Den sociala världens fenomenologi (Göteborg: Daidalos, Mediaprint, 1999).
xii. Berger, Luckmann & Olsson 1979.; Schütz 1999.
xiii. Jonna Bornemark, ”Introduction”, in Equine cultures in transition: ethical questions, eds. Petra Andersson, Ulla Ekström von Essen & Jonna Bornemark (London: Routledge, 2019), p. 4.
xiv. Staffan Carlshamre, Fenomenologi – försök till en pedagogisk översikt https://www2.philosophy.su.se/carlshamre/texter/FenomenologiKapitel.pdf [hämtad 2021-12-29].
xv. Riding aids are the cues, or signals a rider gives the horse to communicate what the rider wants the horse to do.
xvi. Moa Matthis, ”Spegel, spegel på väggen där”, in Över alla hinder: en civilisationshistoria, Hedén, Anne, Matthis, Moa & Milles, Ulrika (Stockholm: Bonnier, mediaprint, 2000). 17 Berger, Luckmann & Olsson 1979, p. 154.
xvii. Berger, Luckmann & Olsson 1979, p. 154.
Berger, Peter L., Luckmann, Thomas & Olsson, Synnöve, Kunskapssociologi: hur individen uppfattar och formar sin sociala verklighet (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1979).
Bornemark, Jonna, ”Introduction”, in Equine cultures in transition: ethical questions, eds. Petra Andersson, Ulla Ekström von Essen & Jonna Bornemark (London: Routledge, 2019), Routledge advances in sociology 256.
Bornemark, Jonna, Andersson, Petra & Ekström von Essen, Ulla, Equine cultures in transition: ethical questions (London: Routledge, 2019).
Carlshamre, Staffan, Fenomenologi – försök till en pedagogisk översikt, , https://www2.philosophy.su.se/carlshamre/texter/FenomenologiKapitel.pdf [accessed 2021-12-29].
De Giorgio, Francesco, Equus Lost? How we misunderstand the nature of the horse-human relationship – plus, brave new ideas for the future (North Pomfret, Vt.: Trafalgar Square, 2016).
Matthis, Moa, ”Spegel, spegel på väggen där”, in Över alla hinder: en civilisationshistoria, Hedén, Anne, Matthis, Moa & Milles, Ulrika (Stockholm: Bonnier, mediaprint, 2000).
Nevzorov, Alexander, The Horse Crucified and Risen Nevzorov Haute Ecole, 2011).
Pergament Crona, Nicole, Ecce Equus! Egalitära hästgemenskapers erkännande av hästen som subjekt Stockholms Universitet, 2020).
Schütz, Alfred, Den sociala världens fenomenologi (Göteborg: Daidalos, Mediaprint, 1999).
The Horse Forum, https://www.horseforum.com/search/96146/?q=nevzorov&o=relevance [accessed 2022-1-1].