The owners' circle
Last month, animal rights demonstrators gathered outside Gothenburg International Horse Show to protest. But they weren't protesting against rollkur or some other equestrian controversy. They were protesting against the very use of horses for sport. And, as far as I could gather, against riding in general. I was quite excited to see that this was going on. Not because I agree with all their positions, but because I always welcome questions about what we do with horses.
The questions that have been asked so far – by myself as well – have been too specific. Too much about what certain people do to certain horses at certain levels of equestrian sport. And not enough about what each of us does to horses on a daily basis.
I discovered a long time ago that most people's definition of a “militant animal rights extremist” is anyone who disagrees with anything they personally do to non-human animals. That is because it is a lot more exciting to be outraged at the actions of others than to examine the moral basis for one's own behaviour.
These are the sorts of things I have been thinking about while I have not been doing a lot of blogging. I think I am pretty much done with the topic of rollkur. Not because it doesn't need to be exposed. But because that has already been done. And done again. And again.
I ask myself this: what is the point of discussing the extent to which one should force a horse to bend his or her neck when we don't even know whether it's okay to force the neck at all? Into any position. And how do we discuss if it's okay to force the neck at all when we have no baseline definition of what it means “to force the neck”? And how do we define “to force” without acknowledging and exploring the subjectivity and intrinsic motivations of the horse?
It seems to me the real questions – the important questions – are far closer to home than I used to think. One such question I have been grappling with recently is this: “is it possible to own a horse?” You might think I have lost my mind and maybe I have, but if you've never actually asked yourself this question, have a go and see where you land. Start by thinking of a horse you know and ask yourself this question: is this horse a subject (someone) or is this horse an object (something)? If you think horses are things, you can stop reading now because the rest of this won't interest you. If you think that horse in your thoughts is a subject, a someone, ask another question: are all horses subjects? If the answer is yes, ask this next question: is it possible to own another subject?
If you can think of no philosophical argument why you should have the moral right to own another subject, your logical conclusion must be to assume no such right exists. Personally, I am still working on it.
Of course, I am not talking about legal ownership. History is full of examples of subjects having the legal status of objects. I mean morally: in the moral sense, is it possible to own another sentient being, another somebody another subject? Or could it be that every single someone is morally the owner of herself or himself? Every beetle, every songbird, every hedgehog, every pig, every mackerel, every horse?
If you're new to this way of thinking, don't be scared off by the hugeness of this question or the possible implications of your answer. Just take a moment to allow yourself to consider it in earnest. You can always discard it later. What if every single sentient being on Earth is in fact the moral owner of themselves?
This is where the conversation usually stops when someone says: “I have to keep my horse behind a fence or they will run into the road and be hit by a car” or “I need to ride my horse because she gets fat if I don't exercise her” or some other variation of “I can't deal with the eventual implications of my own answers to these questions, so I am going to fixate on what is right in front of me right now.” Since nearly every single horse person struggles with some version of this paradox, it is efficient for shutting down dissent. That is a problem because it means we aren't getting anywhere in the much needed conversations we should be having about our basic, moral relationships with horses.
Here is my proposal. Let us divide the discussion into two parts. Let's have one conversation about whether it is possible to be the moral owner of another subject. And another, separate conversation about how to deal with the implications, should the answer to the first question turn out to be “no”.
For now, I want to continue with the first conversation. What evidence is there that I am the owner of Loubét, Cassius, Epic and Bailey? I have four pieces of paper which state that I am their owner. I bought Loubét and Bailey and I bred Cassius and Epic. Legally, I have a very good case. I am their owner according to the laws of Denmark where I live.
But those laws are human laws. They were drawn up by human legislators put in their position by human voters. Horses had no part in making those laws. So are horses bound by them?
If you're thinking: "of course they are. They have to be. Otherwise, the fabric of society will disintegrate" that is not a philosophical argument. The convenience of an arrangement does not necessarily make it just. So think harder.
I don't want to make too many direct comparisons between human bondage and non-human animal exploitation because there are many nuances and differences – but I will include this quote from J. S. Mill's essay, The Subjection of Women, written in 1869.
“The adoption of this system of inequality never was the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas, or any notion whatever of what would be best for humanity or the good order of society. It arose simply from the fact that from the dawn of human society every woman was in a state of bondage to some man, because she was of value to him and she had less muscular strength than he did. Laws and political systems always begin by recognising the relations they find already existing between individuals, converting a mere physical fact into a legal right, giving it the sanction of society.”
As old laws promoting white, male, heterosexual supremacy merely formalised pre-existing power dynamics between humans, could it be that the laws we humans have written that conveniently allow us to assume legal ownership of sentient non-human animals are cut from similar cloth?
Horses have more muscular strength than humans, but humans more than make up for that in inventiveness when it comes to gadgets. So is our dominion over horses (and other non-human animals) just a case of might is right? And if it is, is that just? If it is unjust, are we obliged to relinquish that dominion? If we are, how do we go about it without inducing chaos? Is it even possible?
These questions might be making your head spin. I know they have that effect on me. But that is exactly why they must be asked. If a question so basic as “do I actually own my horse?” cannot easily be answered, how can we hope to make sound decisions about what we should and should not do to horses?
It occurred to me sometime last summer that the reason sport horses are not making a lot of progress in how they are treated is not a lack of debate about controversial methods. The reason is not a lack of evidence that abuse is taking place. It's that the people shouting from both sides of the horse welfare battlefield are largely in agreement about the most important thing: that it is morally just to exploit horses for human entertainment. Nobody is really willing to rock that boat.
This is why the animal rights protesters outside Gothenburg International Horse Show seemed almost scarier to segments of the anti rollkur crowd than they were to the FEI and the top riders. This is why um-ing and ah-ing was taking place in social media comment threads in groups otherwise dedicated to the defense of horses. And this is why I am really excited to see what happens next. Who among us will be willing to calmly, rationally and open mindedly examine their own behaviour as we have challenged the top riders to examine theirs?