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  • Writer's pictureMaude Ouellette-Dube

Can we be friends with horses?

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

The question of friendship with horses is important for many people and has probably never been more popular today. A number of horse magazines and blogs now actively discuss the question like, for instance, the German magazine Cavallo, whose moto “Because we love horses” is supposed to be self-explanatory. Forms of natural horsemanship which promote respect and kindness towards horses also think in this direction. And we can think the outlook of a child towards her horse “he’s my best friend in the world” for a common example.

Friendship is related to the idea of building a relation based on trust and harmony with our horses, as opposed to the relations often based on dominance and violence, which have typically prevailed. One might nevertheless remain dubious. It remains unclear when and how humans can be friends with horses. Or even whether they can be friends at all. Can one really be friend, for instance, with a horse who is expected to be a proficient show jumper or a horse who is primarily expected to race well? Can one develop something worth calling friendship when the primary relation is one of utility? And why not?

The ancient grecque philosopher Aristotle is known to have written important work on friendship – work which remains highly relevant today. What Aristotle writes on the topic helps clarify what friendship is, including the many forms which it can take. This philosopher distinguishes between 3 types of friendship: friendship based on utility, friendship based on pleasure and the third one – what he sees as true friendship – named philia, is friendship most of all. As Aristotle explains, the first 2 types of friendship are common, but of lesser worth because based on shaky grounds – the one who is friend for utility or pleasure loves the other only insofar as they gain some good for themselves from the relationship. This makes this kind of friendship likely to dissolve as soon as the other no longer fulfills her purpose. Philia, on the other hand, is true friendship because it is based on a love for the other herself – a love based on who she is without qualification. In this kind of friendship, one wishes good to the other for her own sake. As Aristotle says, Philia involves a form of love which needs time to grow and thrives as long as the friends can trust each other.

I think that those who care about developing friendship with their horse, those who care about developing relations of trust, mutual love and respect, are after what Aristotle calls philia. But then again, we might want to remind ourselves of the 2 lesser kinds of friendship – those based on the kind of utility the other brings to one or the kind of pleasure one expects from the relationship. Reminding us helps have a better view of the moments when these sneak in and take up all the space in the relationship. And it might help us get clearer on the question whether we can really be friends with horses.

Working for many years with my uncle at the track, I remain to this day amazed how much he loved his horses – some of them, he adored. But I can’t forget how far away from this sentiment his choices and behavior could get when he had his mind set on winning a race. This reminds me that we’re like dancing a funky tango here with these two positions: on the one hand, we love our horses and wish them good, on the other, we have a set agenda for them, an agenda which has nothing to do with their happiness. I don’t know what Aristotle would say about humans and horses, but he sure thought that true friendship between humans is not possible if we have our own agenda. From this, I take it that it is possible for humans to develop friendship with horses, but it would demand a pretty honest evaluation of the reasons why we live with them and that we ask ourselves why we ask them to do what we ask them to do.


Book hint: Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle

Photo by Irina Kajdakowska

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