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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Subject to scrutiny (Objects of desire part 2)

In the last blog post, I argued that most horse owners objectify their horses in one way or another. And then I asked the question: does it matter? Even if horses can tell that their owners see them more as inventory than as individuals, do they care? Why should objectification of horses be a problem as long as the horse's basic needs are not neglected?

The answer is that objectification only matters if you want a partnership with your horse.

No, really. You have to read part one or none of this will make any sense.

If all you want to do is eat your horse, breed him or ride on his back to immortal equestrian greatness, you don't have to worry about objectification. Objectify away. Go nuts. I won't cast the first stone, because I am not a vegan and I only give to some charities. On a daily basis, I ignore and even profit from the suffering of others. I ride in a leather saddle. I eat (free range) meat. I drive a car that squashes innocent bugs against its windscreen and my phone, iPad and computer are probably full of conflict minerals. Yet, I sleep at night. All around me, there is suffering and death, which I manage to ignore most of the time because there is little or nothing I am able to do about it, so if you want to objectify your horse, it is not my place to judge.

However, you should know that objectification alters the way you relate to and treat your horse. It makes you more likely to hurt him or overlook his suffering because regarding someone as a thing disables your empathy. After all, how can you feel sorry for a hammer? A bicycle? A pair of headphones? You can't. These are objects and objects do not elicit social feelings.

Regrettably, the language to describe our social cognition is based on the assumption that we only ever need to love or pity members of our own species. Thus, a person who for some reason does not inspire normal human compassion, is said to be "dehumanized". Obviously, it's not possible to dehumanize a horse because horses are already not human. Our vocabulary doesn't even allow for talking about compassion for animals -  and lack thereof - without necessitating that we stray into the realm of anthropomorphism. All the same, I'm going to give it a go.

Neural imaging studies have shown that the medial pre-frontal cortex of the brain is where our social emotions live. It gets activated when we look at other people and feel stuff we never feel about things. Like envy or pity. However, people can be dehumanized if they elicit emotions that are not exclusively social. Like disgust. You can be disgusted by a human being but you can also be disgusted by a rotten piece of fruit. Thus, disgust is not an exclusively social emotion. Human beings who elicit feelings of digsust - like homeless people, drug addicts and other social outcasts - fail to light up the medial pre-frontal cortex of others. They are processed by the brain as if they were not human.

That's why people have no problem walking past a homeless person in the street on a frosty night without tossing a coin into his paper cup or bringing him an extra blanket or a hot bowl of soup. Their brains don't register him as human because he is smelly and unkempt. Because he is disgusting. And it is not only social outcasts who fail to be seen by others as fully human. A study confirmed that pictures of sexualised women failed to trigger mPFC activity in men who had scored highly in a test for hostile sexism. According to this study: "agency attribution is a hallmark of mind perception; thus, diminished attributions of agency may disrupt social–cognition processes typically elicited by human targets."

You can probably see how the automatic assumption by many horse owners that their horses are wrong to buck, wrong to rear, wrong to kick and pretty much wrong about everything they ever do that doesn't fit in with the owner's agenda, is an expression of diminished attribution of agency and thus also of objectification. By denying your horse agency over his or her own body, you could be switching off your own ability to respond to your horse in a social way, which in turn will lead you down the path of even less attribution of agency.

A symptom of this is horse owners asking: "how do I stop my horse kicking?" instead of asking: "why does my horse want to kick me?" The object is not supposed to bite or kick. To bite and kick is to act and objects are for acting upon. A horse who bites and kicks is fighting for his agency. He is expressing subjectivity, refusing to allow his boundaries to be ignored. He is making it impossible for his owner to use him as an instrument for riding. Instead of wondering how to stop him biting and kicking by some way of acting upon him, the owner could investigate what subjective feelings are making the horse want to bite and kick. This will make it easier to solve the problem, because there is really no such thing as a "behavioural problem" - only behavioural symptoms of regular problems.

Considering your horse's perspective will also keep your medial pre-frontal cortex working in response to him.

"Er, really?"

Really! Well, most probably. I'll let you decide.

In 2007, scientists at Princeton University showed that it is possible to kickstart the medial pre-frontal cortex by making people try to guess what kind of vegetables were preferred by social outcasts who had otherwise failed to trigger social emotions.

How cool is that? It's so cool I have to write it again.

In 2007, scientists at Princeton University showed that it is possible to kickstart the medial pre-frontal cortex by making people try to guess what kind of vegetables were preferred by social outcasts who had otherwise failed to trigger social emotions. The study participants were shown pictures of homeless people and drug addicts. And as the scientists predicted, there was not much going on in the medial pre-frontal cortex where compassion is generated.

Then the people taking part in the experiment were asked to guess whether the outcasts preferred carrots or broccoli, and suddenly, the same people who had previously been dehumanized were miraculously rehumanized. There was once again normal social cognition going on in response to their pictures.

Did I mention how cool that is? And can you see where I'm going with it?

We don't have to imagine our horses - or any other animal  -  as a human in order to feel compassion for them. The ability to have social feelings about someone is not tied in with whether we think, rationally, that they are human or human-like. After all, we know that the homeless person is human but that, in itself, does not make us feel for him. It was the act of considering the mind of another which normalized social cognition in response to homeless people. Your horse has a mind. It's not human but it's there for you to consider.

Start thinking of ways to be with your horse that don't allow you to lapse back into overruling and instrumentalising him. Listen to what he says when he bites you as you put on his blanket or tosses his head when you want to flex his neck. Respect his boundaries and his agency and then work from there to see what the two of you are able to do together.

If you're now thinking ”oh God, I can't do that because I would never get to compete again” or ”yeah right – as if I can practice my canter pirouettes this way” or ”I'll never even get the saddle on”... then you are still objectifying your horse. If in any way you are worried about all the fun you won't get to have this way or all the  problems you are going to have to solve, you are still seeing him as an instrument for fun instead of as a partner for fun. If you're fine with that, carry on. But if you're not fine – if deep down you are unhappy with the connection you have with your horse, perhaps it's time to start seeing him as a subject instead of as an object.

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