There is a story that I have been wanting to share with you for some time. But I did not find the time to write it. Or perhaps all that time was necessary for the ideas to gather and to make it what I want to tell you. In any case, I will try to tell you this story now. It is about a strong experience I had about two years ago. But the roots of it come from much longer ago; some 20 years ago.
When I was 14 years old, I started donating money to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, a wild mustang sanctuary in North Dakota, USA. It seemed important to me to do that. In return for my donation, I would get their bi-yearly newsletter, with pictures of some of the horses that it helped to protect. The following year, I put on top of my list of things to do (like a bucket list): visit wild horses. This wish was right above the one that said: visit Nietzsche’s house in Sils Maria, Switzerland. I moved to Switzerland in 2014, some ten years later, and visited Sils Maria in June 2015. But it would take 7 more years, in April 2022, until I would be able to visit wild horses (bucket lists take time to move through).
I am quite attached to the idea of visiting wild horses. Construing myself as a guest, that is a temporary presence cognizant that it is not my home, but theirs. During Easter break 2022, I had the great pleasure of traveling to Liguria, Italie with my equine philosopher partner in crime Friederike. After a stop in Rapallo and a couple of steps in the sea, we packed a small rental car, and made our way towards a nook of mountains where a number of wild horses thrive (as well as they can). The horses of dell’Aveto are not wild genetically, but from their lifestyle and behavior. They were once domesticated, they carry domesticated horses’ genes, and were rewilded serendipitously some 30 years ago. Their presence in the mountains above Borzonasca does not please everyone. Many local farmers see these 86 or so equidea more or less as a form of hindrance, not a blessing. The reason is that they graze alongside their cows and sheep, and sometimes come down to the villages looking for food. For short, they take up space that some humans would prefer to use. However, some also regal themselves with the presence of these unusually quiet creatures. Two women have in fact made themselves bearer of their cause. Wild Horse Watching is a project founded by Evelina Isola and Paola Marinari, dedicated to promoting the good of those horses and raise awareness to the benefits they bring to the region.
Frieda and I were lucky enough to have a private guided tour of the mountains and the region with Evelina and Paola. Driving and walking sur la trace of the small equine herds that roam those hills. We were made aware of the political difficulties faced to protect these herds (to protect them against being hunted and killed). Evelina also explained to us that the strongest argument to defend their legitimacy on this land is that they provide ecological benefits to the region. In other words, it is by arguing for their ecological relevance, and not through their inherent value, that they are able to lever protection for the horses.
The day was beautiful, the encounters were mindful and respectful, and some of our discussions were serious – pondering, while eating local pastries, on the future of the horses and the ethical future of the equine world in general. As Evelina and Paola rightly told us: visits here are not like going to a zoo. They are rather like intentionally exposing oneself to a life story, to the story of those creatures. Wondering who they are, what they need, respectfully attempting to understand them better from within their reality.
Our visit lasted overall 3 full days in the mountains, including the one which was guided. The most vivid memory I have of our time there is that of the first morning. We went alone into the mountains, on an early Sunday morning, not knowing whether we would cross paths with wild bends. At about 6:30 am, as the sun was rising, we were walking along the first path. Slowly moving forward, very cold, but also exhilarated with excitement, we finally realized that we were on the right path. We had found the wild horses. We saw some of their tracks in the muddy ground. We just had to follow these hoof-shaped tracks that formed little serpentines up the face of a hill and into the bushes. Then, after having walked for two or three hundred meters, we spotted some of them on the slope of the mountain, a bit far away, but close enough to distinguish their bodies from amongst the low trees. Our hearts were pounding. We were so excited that we were breathless. Some of them were also closer to us. They barely looked at us as we stood there, in the early morning light. Some of them were hidden away behind the small trees (there were no leaves yet, but many small bushy branches).
It is difficult to describe what it was like to see them. It is a whole complex experience that needs unpacking. Striking, in this experience, are the natural elements: especially the wind; the strong, cold wind. The wind was most present. We could all feel it, horses, and humans; it created a common reality for all of us.
Here are some of the notes that made it into my little field book, and helps unpack the experience of meeting the wild horses of dell’Aveto:
Some looking. Many just eating or standing. Faces. Bodies. Wind. Surreal. Simplicity. They are suddenly just there. Foals. Young foals. Peaceful. Very windy. Cold. Distance. Trying to see. Very much alive. Simply living. Simply standing there. Ease, despite the cold, strong wind; they are at ease there. Here.
Their bodies; their beauty.
Their beauty is integral, but also very different from horses who live with humans.
They have very different horse bodies. They have ‘real bodies’, ‘ordinary bodies’, rugged bodies.
Sun, horses laying down, horses resting, human resting, only watching us when we are moving too much.
What might I say to my 14-year-old self, that I learned from this visit? There are many valuable insights I would want to pass on to my younger self. One is how calm and peaceful there horses generally were. Standing in the sun, early in the morning, only protected by bushes, to catch the morning sunlight. Stillness is definitely what qualifies their stance. Curiosity also, especially in the younger ones (given that it was April, many foals were born, some not even a week old). The young ones were wondering about the two-legged creatures sitting at a distance in the long-yellowed grass. We encountered little or no fear. They were not fearful of us, rather sort of indifferent. Humans, we noticed, might as well be tree stumps for what they care. But the most striking memory I have of this encounter is the realness of their equine bodies. What does that mean?
The point I want to make here is that wild horses, if we take their existence and reality seriously, provide us with criteria for equine appreciation that do not align with common, folk conceptions of the ‘wild horse’. They are very different from common images of wild horses, like the wild American mustang stallion, freely galloping the plains with a strong muscular body; a symbol of strength and freedom. However, as we were well shown during this visit, the wild horse is not an individual, but a plurality; it is a relational creature, who lives in a group and is tied to this group through care, affective associations, and life needs.
Wild horses are not a symbol of individual freedom and power, but a symbol of relationality, of togetherness. Equine freedom lies in relations of dependence.
Moreover, the strong equine body, in its ‘natural’ state, is not akin to the common groomed and trained dressage horse; the equine body is an irregular, variably muscled body that provides a very different aesthetic picture of horses, then the one we made of it. The strong, tall, agile equine body we tend to idealize (paradigmatically, the Anglo-Arabian stallion) is a human construction. It is alive and exists, it is not a chimera, but it is not either a ‘bare’ horse – a ‘real’ horse.
The aesthetic picture wild horses give us compels us to appreciate imperfect bodies, rugged bodies, asymmetrical bodies. Bodies that encounter cold winters, bodies that seek to conserve energy. Bodies that age faster. They are beautiful to be sure, but for different aesthetic reasons, then those I find thrown around in the equestrian world.
I think that wild equine bodies, if anything, can allow us to come to terms, that is to find peace, in the fact that equine bodies age. Aging is a problem in the equine (especially equestrian) world. Older horses are not valued because equines, that is, worthy equines need to have able bodies, strong bodies, awe inducing bodies, marketable bodies, powerful bodies. Older horses, sometimes as early as their tenth birthday, fall out of that picture. They become a burden. They are not valued.
Again, I would want to say to my younger self that the encounter with those wild horses was a deep aesthetic experience. Some philosophers describe an aesthetic experience as one within which our attention is fully engaged with another reality; it is a form of deep attention. Not exactly a form of concentration because it is not like doing a task with a practical goal in mind. During an aesthetic experience our attention opens and is engaged with another reality (or literally with the reality that is before us), like the life of those rugged and brave dell’Aveto horses. During an aesthetic experience practical goals are suspended. It is, by all accounts, felt as something powerful, and also freeing. As the German philosopher Susanne Schmetkamp writes, within an aesthetic experience, one feels freed, released, even playful. As I understand it, it is something like an experience of joy that is brought about because of our deep involvement with the world; with what or who stands before us.
Three days of careful immersion within the realities of the dell’Aveto horses can change your perspective. Any aesthetic experience can change your perspective because it brings you in close contact with aspects of life and lives that were perhaps unknown before. These lives, in all their complexity, reveal their meaning to you, they show themselves in ways that they can be appreciated for what they are. Did my 14-year-old self know that it was important to sponsor wild horses to preserve this relational space, this space of joy and encounter? Did she know that their lives, just as they are, are so beautiful and worthy? I’m not sure, but I think this experience allowed to understand better now, why many horsey people sort of intuitively recognize the value of wild horses. We perhaps know, even without paying a visit, what they preserve.