REFLECTIONS ON EQUINE WELFARE AND HORSE-HUMAN CO-EXISTENCE
…and on relationship building in general.
I hear, meet, speak to, more and more people who choose to fully remove themselves from almost any kind of interaction with horses (not so much other animals), and any kind of equine assisted interventions (EAI). Because they feel that the way we humans typically (and traditionally) are interacting, have been interacting – with horses, does not feel good to them, does not sit well with them.
I have struggled with this for years. To me it looks like plain avoidance. Instead of being, staying in a difficult relationship, that can be hard to navigate, but rewarding, many choose to give up, to remove themselves. And decides that humans are, in general “bad” for/to horses (and I often the reasoning is that unaware, highly emotional “clients” would be the worst humans for a horse to be around). But there are several different parts to this – from what I have seen and heard. Some of it has to do with convictions that us humans are not allowed to request anything from a horse. As they have not chosen to be here, with us. While I understand that argument, I also do not believe in one-sided relationships. In relationships, requests go both ways. As responses do.
I love how we (humans) constantly raise our awareness of the other’s perspective (in this case a horse) and how we continue to learn more about them and their needs (biological, social, emotional, and cognitive needs). Still, when the conclusion for many is to withdraw from pretty much any interaction with horses – that aren’t just fundamental caretaking and emotional (human) connection (and often a lot of scratching), we are avoiding (in my opinion) what is hard to figure out in our human relationship to horses. We are abandoning a long history of horse-human co-evolution, and resign to being merely care-takers of them (and also here I wonder – is that still not more about human needs than the horses’ needs? In this relationship we also keep excluding the knowledge about how important care-taking is for humans, as a species-specific trait). But why do most of us have such a hard time seeing horses, from their point of view?
I also think about this in regard to equine assisted interventions. What kind of learning are we facilitating if we only can work with horses who always can do as they please? How do we role model rupture and repair? About staying in connection and in relationships even when it feels hard and there are opposite views on the way forward? When different needs seemingly clash? When our perceptions of the world are at times so different?
I think when we say that horses always need to have full freedom, full choice, full agency, full… whatever – when we work with them in EAI, we are throwing the baby out with the bath water.
And it also tells us that we think we are the givers of freedom, choice, and agency… when these firstly are human concepts, secondly still would be inherently already there (meaning they are concepts of states that are only present to the being it concerns – not for anyone else to provide or give). Every horse is born with full agency, full freedom, and a lot of choices to make (but would not always know that due to how he is brought up, kept, managed, and trained). This means we can never be the givers of what they already have. What we can do is to provide environments where they can exercise their agency, freedom and make choices, and we can facilitate for them to own it all. But we often seem to have a hard time trusting that horses would know what is best for them, and we are adamant we know more about horse welfare and how to “take care” of them, than they do (and of course, it would be hard for a horse who has never been given the opportunity to take care of anything in their life, to suddenly start to do that, often lacking basic horse skills, meaning, they would not know “how to be a horse”). But I am confident that in inside every horse, there is a horse… and that the horse will be that horse, if we don’t meddle too much and make it all about us.
I meet a lot of providers in our field who struggle with what they CAN do to maintain a good equine welfare, and many seems to feel judged (or judge themselves). Trying to live up to one human concept of equine welfare after the other. Where there is a lot of “mustn’ts” as well as “musts” .
If you hear in these reflections what I think we can do for humans too – and what I feel I have done for myself – that is true. And I am aware of it. Are those my projections? Perhaps. We all choose the mind frame and mindset we want to see horses through. NO ONE human has the objective truth about horses.
I see horses as fully complete and competent beings (I see all beings in that way). That is my choice. And I am very curious and intrigued by all of the providers in the field that pulls out of this work, saying we are not giving horses adequate welfare, letting them see and work with clients. I don’t think clients emotional instability or anything else about clients – are the real problems. It think we as providers let our stuff color how we see what horses can and can not do, what they need and don’t need, and we often get very protective of “our” horses.
And with “our stuff” I both mean our individual stuff – as well as our common human stuff. And as I see it – the way forward is becoming, being, staying – as aware as we can about our own stuff, the individual stuff as well as the common human stuff. So we don’t mix ourselves and our stuff up with horses, how they are, and with their needs, wants and desires.
We – all of us – will always have slightly different views on things, as we are different individuals. But what did I mean by throwing out the baby with the bathwater?
I mean, why does it have to be all or nothing? Humans have had an ongoing relationship with horses for thousands of years. And there are still plenty of horses around, even if most of them these days live in domestic settings. Would we do them a favor if we let them all out to roam free? Maybe. In the long run. But I believe in figuring out co-existence. Figuring out how to have relationships where both parties are heard, seen and respected, where differences are celebrated. Where there are benefits for both parties – to stay in the relationship. Not in a transactional way. But including in a pragmatic way. Basically – in whatever ways relationships can be rewarding to us, being different individuals. Rewarding to both humans and horses.
To continue to work on our human-horse relationship – I think is the way forward. And we have invited horses to work with us in the field of therapy, coaching, learning etc. – and I think that is a good thing. I think that can help with both horse and human welfare. With broadening everyone’s perspectives. Is it easy? No. But who said it would be? Isn’t part of the benefits that we will keep on learning. Expanding our horizons? I think so.
And just to clarify – I don’t think any equine assisted intervention needs to be beneficial for horses. I mean that they can be – because horses do something with what they experience. I do NOT mean we should plan for these interventions to be beneficial for horses, these interventions are for the benefit of clients coming to us. But think about it – if we think things cannot be beneficial for horses, without us having planned it to be – we really think we are the givers of what they experience – and that does NOT spell trust, to me, in their competence of knowing how to be horses, or how to live good and enriching horse lives. I mean, inviting horses to do this work with us, is part of what we can do – offering good species appropriate environments for learning and growing. And just by inviting horses to be part of something with humans in a horse appropriate environment – we are doing that. Offering the freedom to horses to explore, be curious, meet new humans with different ways of being, being part of joint horse-human shared experiences.
I never thought I would say this – but trust the horse. I do mean it differently though, than I once learned it – still laughing inside – as things can be put quite simply sometimes. Trust the horse is not an answer to me – it is a prerequisite.
Text and Pictures are copyright protected © Katarina (Ally.) Lundgren, MiMer Centre, 2023