To be ethical means that you are doing what is morally right. But the ‘right’ way to interact with our horses is open to personal and fashionable interpretation.
Within the huge range of what ‘might’ be deemed acceptable my view is still far from ‘super ethical’. At this point on my journey, I think that in principal, if the horse is comfortable, and the rider is considerate, then it’s probably okay to ride, I even like to think that it might be possible to have a relationship with a horse whereby the horse likes being ridden! But lets consider a couple of examples of views from one end of the scale.
“all sentient beings, have a basic right not to be treated as the property of others” The Abolitionist approach to animal rights.
“…the horse is not designed to be ridden. The horse should not be ridden at the cost of their health and well being”. Academia Liberti
The views of both the Abolitionists and the Liberty trainers may seem extreme to the vast majority of horse enthusiasts, however if we are to count ourselves as ‘horse lovers and carers’ as opposed to ‘horse users and keepers’, there are elements of their beliefs that must surely be given due consideration. Personally, I have huge respect for these views (see their websites) and admire these people who live by their super high values.
For millennia we have practiced speciesism, presuming our superior intelligence to animals and our right to dominate and exploit them because of their inferiority. But researchers from all over the world are making remarkable discoveries about animal intelligence. Just one example is from the University of Adelaide, where researchers argue that humans really aren’t much smarter than other creatures — and that some animals may actually be brighter than we are, in fact Dr. Arthur Saniotis, a visiting research fellow with the university’s School of Medical Sciences, says “science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings” and Professor Henneberg (also from that faculty) says that “The fact that they may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our ‘intelligences’ are at different levels, they are just of different kinds. When a foreigner tries to communicate with us using an imperfect, broken, version of our language, our impression is that they are not very intelligent. But the reality is quite different”
Now… it is also widely recognized that, just like us, animals feel pain. But horses are stoic creatures, they have to be, if they acted like footballers every time they got a knock, then they would historically have been eaten! Then there is the concept of animals feeling emotions, however controversial this may be, any empathetic person will tell you that animals most definitely do have feelings, we recognize in our horses emotions such as excitement, depression, contentment, and anger… to name but a few.
Given that horses are intelligent, sentient beings, what right do we have to use them, or to use force to make them perform for our entertainment?
We should question every part of our training and ‘use’ of horses, and we should allow horses to live as closely to their natural condition as it is possible in this crowded world. At this point on my journey, I am not suggesting that we all stop riding horses, and I want to believe that there is a way to interact with horses in a respectful and mutually beneficial way.
But how would you like it? If we accept that horses can feel, just like we can, then all we have to do is imagine ourselves in their place. How would you like to be kept in your bedroom (no matter how comfortable your bed is, or how smart your wardrobe is) 23 hours a day? and how stiff and unfit would you feel if the other hour you were made to work hard in the gym? What would work better for you, Pilates and Yoga or having straps and draw reins to make you stay in ‘the right shape’? Would you be happier running towards pleasure, or away from pain? If someone insisted you had a piece of metal in your mouth, and you opened your mouth because of some discomfort, would you want someone to listen to you, and look to remove the discomfort for you, or would you want a crank cavesson, or tightened flash to stop you showing your pain? And where does this pain originate? Generally from ignorance on our part.
As long as horses are part of an ‘industry’ they will be open to abuse. Industry is all about money, there is no room for sentiment in business. But horses need time and understanding, and as long as we accept that horses are part of any industry, they will be bred in huge numbers, ridden before they are mature, forced to perform, broken down, and then discarded. So it is paramount that the governing bodies of ALL equestrian sports have welfare, and the constant improvement and implementation of welfare at the very top of their agenda. At the present time, it is my belief that most of them just give lip service to welfare, they are still governed by the need to make money, please sponsors, and make the sports more spectacular! But sports are the theatre of horsemanship, what the elite show, the masses will believe is right, and will follow… sports governing bodies have a huge responsibility for equine well-being.
The best horse people listen to their horses, and they feel their pain. Oh my dear God, I am SO far from getting this right! I am human, but I hope that I am learning from my mistakes, I hope that the horses forgive me and continue to teach me, and I pray that humankind wakes up, and we become kindhumans.