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  • Writer's pictureMaude Ouellette-Dube

Should horses work?

Hello dear reader. Welcome to my blog. I am back after a long hiatus. That is the time it took for me to finish my doctoral thesis. Now that this is behind, I’m glad to say that I am back with exciting prospects for 2023. Starting with this new blog post, you can also expect a book review in the next months and a blog contribution from animal ethicist and horse lover, Dr. Friederike Zenker. To get back into our philosophical inquiries, I would like to discuss the topic of horses doing work or working with you today.

Let us start by acknowledging the common assumption that horses are workers. Not only in the literal form, for instance of those horses working on a farm performing physical labor (puling carts, plowing fields), but we also commonly talk of doing ‘ground work exercises’ or having ‘worked’ well or doing a ‘workout’. The francophone and German expressions ‘faire du travail au sol’ and ‘Bodenarbeit’ similarly convey the presence of a work culture surrounding equines. Work is a ubiquitous concept within equine and equestrian practices, much more so than, for instance, a language of play and fun, that we more regularly find in our relations to other animals, like dogs.

Despite its ubiquity, the fact of horses working is controversial. On the one hand, some think it is legitimate that horses get a workout, perhaps for their own health or do their daily work, perhaps because it is considered as a legitimate contribution to their living situation costs. On the other hand, some see in work a form of forced labor that is oppressive and commodifying – it commodifies horses for human profit (monetary or other). Thus arises the question: should horses work?

There are many ways of answering this question. Recent research in animal ethics studies different forms of animal labor to draw out its ethical flaws, but also virtues. Thus, authors of the recent influential volume Animal Labour survey different forms of animal work, to make the argument that it would be beneficial, from an ethical point of view, to recognize some animals as workers. The intuition is that there are at least some forms of work, similar to human work, that support one’s flourishing, development, even creativity. In such cases, animals would be recognized as individuals performing a certain kind of labor, experiencing effort, and being granted recognition for this work in the form of breaks, leisure time, good perspectives of retirement and the possibility to refuse to work. There are many ways in which this growing research can inform our life with horses. Especially, when it comes to the pressing question of horse retirement. This might be the topic of another post. For today, I would like to discuss relations of work with horses.

A few years ago, as I was giving a class on equine ethics, a participant was happy when I presented the distinction between asymmetrical relations, friendship, relations of work and relations of utility. I draw on ideas from Care ethics to make distinctions that help us understand the relations we develop or we wish to build with horses. This participant was glad to be able to put words on her daily experience. As she runs her own stable, she has boarding horses as well as her own horses under her care. She found it difficult to describe the kind of relation she shares with each individual horse. Some of them, she realized, are those with who she maintains a relation of work. She values them and respects them for more than their mere utility, but she is not as involved as with the mare and gelding she calls friends.

Let us zoom in on these particular relations of work. What are those? How can they be ethical? How does thinking in terms of relations of work help us answer the question whether horses should work? Let me take a detour through Care ethics to answer those questions. Care ethics is a feminist ethics that emerged in philosophy and social sciences some forty years ago and sees, to put it in a nutshell, an ethical situation as embedded in a network of relations. In contrast to the historically dominant ‘masculine’ ethics of justice, care ethics does not start from the I, the individual seeking to position himself or herself according to universal moral principles ( ‘be fair’, ‘don’t lie’, ‘help those in need’), but starts from a we. It asks: Where do we stand? How is our relation fairing? What do we need? It is a relational ethics that considers ethical situations as they emerge in ordinary life.

From the perspective of Care ethics, thinking about whether horses should work, asks that we situate work and labor within its relational context.

At least three important distinctions can be drawn here. First is that where horses are doing labor, but are not recognized as workers within that relation. These situations can become abusive, oppressive or alienating for horses. An example I recently read about, is that although hundreds and hundreds of horses played crucial roles to support the army during the First World War working alongside human soldiers, most of them were not guaranteed any future after the war, like it was the case for human soldiers. Many horses were simply sold for slaughter. Humans and horses were closely interdependent during the war, but once it was over there was a break in the story – the relation of work and the care that it presupposed became neglected or ignored. To put it in relational terms, we can say that at some point relations brake. In such cases, horses are treated unethically.

Thinking of relations of work in term of caring relations is fruitful not only to identify when relations break, but also when forms of work are life affirming for horses and when horse and humans work together – collaborate. Ethical relations of work should be life affirming for horses. This implies that as humans asking or organizing labor for them, we find ways to stimulate their creativity and their capacity to learn. This would play into promoting their physical as well as their cognitive health and development. This also implies that horse’s communicational and emotional labor be recognized within their daily work life. The work horses put into reading human demands and adjusting to them should not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Moreover, within the “we” of relations of work, we will be interested in situating horse labor in relation to the humans who provide care for them. We want to recognize that daily human labor goes into maintaining the life of horses. In asking the question “how are we fairing”, we care about the good of horses, but also about the good of the humans who tend to their lives. Thus, for instance, we might recognized that horses should do some work as they are embedded in multispecies relations that have real practical demands. They might need, for instance, to help raise money to pay for their livelihood. We can imagine that a rescue center, to maintain the funds necessary to care for all those involved, will ask that the horses do some work, thus not leaving the financial burden only in human hands (I have in mind here, for instance, that small groups of children can come and respectfully engage with horses).

All this to say that situating equine labor within the framework of relations of work asks that we formulate a “we” that can keep going and be maintained and that we situate that work within this ongoing narrative. I work with you, you work with me – we put in effort, we grow together.


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