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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Objects of desire

”Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” So goes a famous quote by the feminist writer and editor, Marie Shear. What it means is that women are more than objects -we are human beings with subjective thoughts and ideas and fears and hopes and likes and dislikes and, not least, rights of our own. We are not the same as men. But like men, we were born to act and interact. Not to be acted upon.

To be acted upon is to have your opinions and basic integrity steam rolled by the selfish or well meaning agenda of someone else. It is to be treated as if you have no mind of your own, as if you couldn't possibly know what you want and as if what you say is of no consequence. People who act upon you basically don't care how you feel. They might think or say they do, but really, they don't.

If you're wondering what all this has to do with horses, the answer is that it has quite a bit to do with horses – with our understanding of how we relate to them - because as non-human animals, horses are routinely objectified by their owners. We act upon them as if they were things, instead of viewing them as beings who act. We treat horses like objects in the sense that we use them, own them, buy and sell them, confine them and overrule them.

"But I am nice to my horse," you might be thinking just about now. "If I didn't take care of him, he would starve". And you are probably right. This article is not about how we mustn't own or use horses at all. It's about learning to identify how and where we objectify them, so as to minimize the damage done.

When someone says ”objectification”, it might make you think of ”sexual objectification”, which is the type of objectification of people you most often hear about in the media. But what I'm talking about here is plain old vanilla flavour objectification as in ”meant to be acted upon” as opposed to ”meant to act.” Objectification - by its very nature – dehumanises people. When you start to think of a person as merely a means to an end, as less human than you are, as replaceable – it becomes easier to hurt that person, to take what's theirs.  The less you identify with someone, the easier it is to ignore their suffering. The less real that suffering seems. It follows that if we want to avoid unwittingly causing suffering to horses, we need to be careful about treating them as objects.

"But I don't treat my horse like an object. I wait on him hand and foot."

To objectify someone, you don't actually have to literally think that person or animal is a thing. The American philosopher and Professor of law and ethics, Martha Nussbaum, defined seven forms of objectification, which have come to be generally accepted by the sociologists who study the phenomenon:

1) Instrumentality is the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier's purposes.

It's easy to see how horses are objectified this way. Typically, horse owners have horses in order to ride them, breed them or in some other way use them for either recreational or professional purposes. Horses who are too old or too lame to function as instruments, are often put to sleep. In Denmark, the term "gangmaskine" is used as a hallmark of quality in dressage horse sales ads. It means "gait machine" - if you google it in English, you'll see that it's used in this language too, although not as much. The word "collection" is routinely used by auctioneers and horse media to describe a group of horses for sale. If you look it up in the dictionary, "collection" means: "A group of objects or works to be seen, studied, or kept together." Or: "A line of products produced for one season, as those developed by a designer."

2) Denial of autonomy is the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination

Domestic horses get to make very few decisions for themselves. We choose when and what they eat, who their friends are and where they live. Rarely do we ask them their opinion. We manage their thermoregulation, their reproduction and we determine the length of their lives.

3) Inertness is the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.

To be an agent for someone else is to act on their behalf. To have agency is to be your own agent, to act on your own behalf. Most horse owners would rather their horse did not do this. Walk into any tack shop and it will be full of equipment to limit a horse's options to act on his own behalf. We don't typically see horses as inactive, but many of us feel as if we have a right to curtail their activities by locking them up or turning them out without companions. We put our own agendas - to ride, to compete, to breed, to sell - above the horse's basic needs. This is objectification.

4) Fungibility is the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects

Some horse owners are so attached to an individual horse that they would never swap him for any other horse in the world. Others change their horses like they change their socks and are constantly looking at horses for sale, dreaming of what the next one will be like. Considering the reported wastage rates, it has to be assumed that most horses are treated as fungible by their owners. Certainly, compared to dogs and cats, horses are highly fungible. Whereas it is not socially acceptable to buy and sell smaller pets as one's mood dictates, doing the same thing with horses is considered okay in most equestrian circles.

5) Violability is the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity

Pick up any horse magazine and it's likely to offer some advice as to how you can make your horse ”learn to respect your boundaries”. Articles on how you can learn to respect the boundaries of your horse are, however, less common. The fact that horses even have boundaries is not something we tend to talk about. Owners are constantly trampling all over horses' boundaries by using gadgets and techniques to make horses do things they had actually been quite clear in expressing that they did not want to do. Horses trying to communicate the whereabouts of their boundaries, for instance by pinning an ear or cocking a hindleg, are often punished for doing so.

6) Ownership is the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold)

No explanation necessary. Horses are property.

7) Denial of subjectivity is the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

”Oh you silly horse, that fire hydrant is not scary”. ”Don't be daft, it's only a jacket hanging on the arena fence”. ”You are being such a primadonna for not jumping that water jump”. "Why are you being so stubborn? It's only a trailer, for crying out loud."

So these were Martha Nussbaum's seven forms of objectification. When you consider your relationship with horses and how you think of them, do any of the examples ring a bell?

If not, there are three more to take into account. Added by professor of philosophy at MIT, Rae Langton, in 2009:

8) Reduction to body is the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts

Horse media – us included – love to zoom in on parts of horses to wallow in how pretty they are. If you go to a dressage news site, you'll see close ups of plaited manes, bulging necks, high stepping front legs. If you watch an FEI TV promo, it's all steamy horseflesh, hooves landing, mouths chomping and so forth. Here at, we have a thing for eyelashes and ear fluff. To call it horse porn would be sensationalist and in poor taste. So I won't call it that.

9) Reduction to appearance is the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses

This is how we end up over-horsed. We don't want the stubby legged little horse who would actually not mind too much going for hacks with us and eating the cookies we have in our pockets. No, no... we buy the big, shiny warmblood who is suffering from PTSD and has worked out how to unseat every rider who is foolish enough to have a go. This is because we place appearance above all else. It's human to do so. But it's also a form of objectification, which has been shown experimentally to alter our social cognition.

10) Silencing is the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

With horses, we don't have to pretend. They really can't speak up for themselves and with all the gear that is available, muffling what cries for help they do manage to muster is really not that difficult. Making up excuses for signs of frustration in the horse is thus a form of objectification. ”Oh he always does that with his tail.” ”He is just a bit full of himself today”. ”He is being naughty”.

By now it should be pretty clear that humans definitely objectify horses even though most of us probably think we treat them as individuals. But what is wrong with that? No horse ever double majored in sociology and women's studies. They don't know about this stuff, so why should it matter to them? That is the topic of the next blog post. Read it here.

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