Won't somebody think about the horses?
In the debate about the use of horses for sport and other human entertainment, one argument pops up again and again: horses would be killed and go extinct as a species, were it not for human exploitation. You might have said this yourself or you might be one of the people who consider the argument ridiculous. Regardless of where you stand, we need to have a closer look at it if we are to have any kind of intelligent conversation about whether the argument is valid.
This form of argumentation is so frequently used in the attempt to shut down conversations about what we should and should not be doing to horses as to block or at least delay meaningful progress in the animal welfare debate. Even industry professionals who ought to know better resort to the extinction claim for want of sounder rationalisations. Let’s therefore take the argument apart, look at it closely and hopefully retire it and move on to a higher level of abstraction and accountability when deciding where to go from here together with the horses.
The first thing to do is to separate in your mind the concept of death and the concept of extinction. To make this easier, consider the domestic chicken. We humans kill tens of billions of these birds each year. And yet, they are far from extinct. In fact, their population has tripled in the past three decades. This tells us that we can kill and kill and kill… and kill some more. And there will still be more animals for us to kill, as long as we keep breeding enough of them to replace the ones we consume. Has our exploitation of them turned chickens into one of the most prolific bird species on Earth in a quantitative sense? Yes. Has it done much for the welfare and longevity of the individual bird? No.
As is true for the chicken, the horse as a species is not the same as the horse as an individual. The individual horse (and chicken) has feelings, thoughts, and preferences. A species, however, is a unit of classification invented by biologists to better describe the world around us. The species is an idea (a very useful idea in many ways) but it is not an organism, it is not sentient and so it cannot suffer. A species can burgeon while individuals suffer, so if you’re worried about each horse who can feel fear and pain, you should never agree to subordinate their welfare to the proliferation of their species.
You already understand all of this, but you may never have thought of it in relation to horses. If I told you I’d invented an effective method to forcibly breed giant pandas and that by building factory farms to produce panda meat for the mass market, we could make sure that in 10 years, there would be a hundred million giant pandas in the world, would you think that was a good idea? Probably not. You’d have all kinds of objections, and you’d probably tell me it is better to continue protecting and expanding the natural habitats of pandas living in the wild. Because you already know that preventing the extinction of a species is not automatically the same as respecting the dignity and autonomy of the individual animals who belong to that species.
This is also true of horses.
When people on the internet gasp at the idea of horse sport abolition - or even reduction - and type: “what will happen to the horse as a species?” followed by: “they will all have to be killed!” – those people are either willfully or unintentionally mixing up two very different potential problems. Since different problems tend to have different solutions, the imagination then falters when attempting to see a way out of the status quo.
It gets much easier when you separate the questions in your mind.
1) What will happen to all the horses who are currently being used for sport and performance breeding if horse sport is scaled back or even abolished?
2) If nobody exploited horses for sport and breeding, would there still be enough horses in the world for the continued existence of the species?
Beginning with the first question, what will happen to all the horses who are currently being ridden and bred for the equestrian industry? Let’s look at what is already happening to them now while the industry remains on track. Most domestic horses in the developed world die because of injuries and illnesses inflicted on them by domesticity and/or exploitation. Laminitis is a major killer, and so are training-induced orthopaedic injuries, colic, respiratory disease. Just being “unwanted” or refusing to submit to human authority can get a horse killed.
Let me make that very, very clear. The way we own, house, transport, train and compete horses right now is killing individuals at a fair old rate. While domestic horses may be sheltered from predators and starvation, by no means do they all live out their lives to die of old age.
If you’re okay with that but not with the idea of no longer exploiting horses because that might also lead to the death of certain individuals whose owners only want them while they can compete, you have unearthed a moral inconsistency in your value set which you need to work through before you can move on. You must find out why you think it’s okay for horses to be killed because they take part in sport but not okay for them to be killed because they don’t take part in sport.
By now, some of you will have discovered that you don’t really care about horses being killed. You just want to avoid changing your behaviour. That’s fine. I’m not here to tell you what to think or do. I’m just here to persuade you to at least be honest about where you stand.
For as long as we keep commercially breeding foals to feed the market for horses to exploit as consumer goods, we will also keep killing them at the other end when they become useless to us or we break their bodies so they can no longer be comfortable. We won’t run out of horses, just like we won’t run out of chickens. We’ll be “preserving the species” if you like – the category. But at the same time, we will be hurting and killing the individuals who can actually feel pain and fear. The longer we keep going, the greater the number of individuals who must go through that experience of being a sentient, disposable object.
“But not all domestic horses are abused or discarded when old and infirm.”
No – of course not. There are people who conscientiously look after the horses in their care and would continue to do so in a world where horses were not commodified as sports props. Should rules be introduced that limit the use of horses for human entertainment, those people will continue to look after their horses. Why would they not?
The existence of a few responsible horse owners is, however, not a valid argument against working for change for horses in general. It is of absolutely no help to the horse who is abused and discarded that other horses are treated well.
Besides, there may be a tendency for participants in the debate to over-state their own commitment to infirm and geriatric horses. What tends to happen is that people who use the extinction claim to shut down conversations about horse abuse in sport will then go on to point out that they would never themselves kill a horse just because that horse couldn’t win them any prizes. This leads to the question: of whom do you speak when you warn that ending or scaling back horse sport will lead to mass culls? And if you yourself would keep looking after a horse even when that horse could not win prizes for you, why would you want people without the same commitment to their animals to continue to be supplied with new horses to use and kill? Where lie your loyalties? With the horses or with the people who want to keep killing them?
For those who want the least number of individual horses to suffer and die at the hands of humans, the answer is to stop doing the things to horses which cause them suffering and make them die. The lifestyle and training that typically go with elite horse sport are among those factors. The demands placed on horses within this context must therefore be reduced to a sustainable level in terms of husbandry, training, performance, and transport.
Will this cause fewer domestic horses to be bred? Yes, it will! But the thing about those horses who have not yet been bred is that they don’t exist, so it is irrational to become upset on their behalf. Just like it’s irrational to be upset on behalf of all the dogs who have not been bred for meat or all the homeless kittens who don’t exist because some veterinarian spent her spare time neutering the cats who would otherwise have become their parents. If you support the use of contraception to prevent human poverty and suffering, if you are against puppy mills… you are someone who is more concerned about animals who exist than animals who don’t exist and you therefore cannot want horses who exist to keep suffering so that horses who currently don’t exist can eventually come to exist and also suffer.
If the types of horse sport which are inherently harmful to horses were gradually phased out, the decline in number of sport horses would not come from a mass cull but from non-replacement of the horses who either retire or die from their sport-induced injuries before they reach old-age. Perpetuating the status-quo therefore does not save individual horse lives. On the contrary, it wastes them.
That brings us to the second question: if nobody exploited horses for sport and breeding, would there still be enough horses in the world for the continued existence of the species?
There are currently an estimated 400,000 feral horses in Australia alone. They are often considered pests and culled, but if allowed, such a population can double in about four years. In the USA, 70,000 or 80,000 mustangs roam – depending on whom you ask. In Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa, feral herds exist but in certain places are under pressure. Their contribution to biodiversity in the regions currently being re-wilded is, however, immensely important. So, it is possible that more areas will be made available to them in the future. The answer to the question: “what will happen to the species?” therefore depends on whether we humans are willing to make space for horses to flourish. If we’re not willing to do that, we must ask ourselves for whose sake we are “preserving the species.” If we will not make allowances for members of that species to live their lives on their own terms, then we are probably not acting out of compassion.
“But life in the wild is tough. Our domestic horses would not survive.”
Nobody – at least not here – is suggesting you turn out your actual horse into the wild. Please keep looking after them for the rest of their life as you say you had planned to do anyway. This mention of feral horse numbers is merely to answer the question whether there would be any horses left on Earth if we stopped using them for sport. There most probably will be. Especially if everyone in the habit of asking what will happen to all the horses when we can’t force them to do tricks anymore also started speaking up for the horses who were never going to be doing any tricks in the first place.
According to The Brooke, there are about 57 million horses on the planet. Only about one tenth of one percent of that number compete in FEI competitions each year. Clinging to the notion of international equestrian sport as a necessity for the survival of horses as a species is therefore silly at best and disingenuous at worst.
Then there is the familiar statement: “we will only see horses in the zoo!” I am not really a fan of zoos, but I did once produce a video segment about the pony pen at the Copenhagen Zoo, and I can assure you that the enriched environment the ponies had there (which included human contact and even riding at the ponies’ discretion) was superior to the vast majority of equestrian setups I have seen, but not otherwise particularly outlandish. Ponies lived in a stable social group with free access to shelter and the outdoors. Biologists regularly switched out the features in the enclosure to give them new things to explore. Other species (mostly chickens) could wander in and out and interact with the ponies. And the pen where the pony rides took place (in return for cookies) was accessible to the ponies but it was up to them whether they went there. Some chose not to. They had free choice forage in the child-free area.
Is that what you’re afraid of? And if so, on whose behalf? Perhaps you are thinking about the more sinister type of zoo setup where animals live in individual cages, unable to form social bonds. Where they develop stereotypies and exist only for the entertainment of humans? Kind of like a typical performance horse stable, which is really – when you think of it – not unlike an old-fashioned private zoo for rich people.
Julie Taylor is a Danish journalist and activist and the author of 'I Can't Watch Anymore' - The Case for Dropping Equestrian from the Olympic Games.