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  • Writer's pictureMaude Ouellette-Dube

Why is it always about riding?

When we do philosophy, we start with a question. That's our primary starting point. Although we'll try to formulate an answer, we'll usually end up with more questions. And that's a good sign. As I read through a number of different horse books, which portrait themselves as innovative in terms of the outlook they provide on the horse-human relation, I'm often assailed by the question: why is it always about riding?

I pile up books and magazines where I seek to find some interesting ideas about the nature of the relationship between humans and horses and even when I think that I am very close to noteworthy material, I end up always encountering the same assumption: the horse-human relationship is a horse-rider relationship. Take American horse trainer Ray Hunt's ground breaking book Think Harmony with horses: An In-depth study of Horse/Man relationship. Just with the title, this book sounds very promising and one can already get her hopes up in terms of finding new avenues to nourish thoughts about the horse-human relationship.

Don't get me wrong this is an important book, which recognizes horses as individuals, with their own perspectives and towards who humans should have respect informed by understanding and humility. Hunt's ideas are groundbreaking, especially considering his attempts to challenge the brutal methods of the buckaroo tradition. Hunt speaks about building friendship. However, from the very start and despite the title's suggestion, we find this assumption: that this friendship will be based on riding. As he puts it in the introduction: "If you find a friend in life [...] you're real lucky. You'll meet a lot of people and have a lot of acquaintances, but as far as having friends -- they are very rare and very precious. But every horse you ride can be your friend because you ask this of them."

That it is always about riding reflects what the American Literature and Feminist Studies scholar, Natalie Corinne Hansen, names the "entrenched instrumentalism" of our relationship to horses. As Hansen notes, this riding narrative "limits the possibilities for our engagements with horses." So why is it always about riding? Where does this assumption come from?

When I think about this question, comes to my mind a horse I met when I was 17. The rather uncreative name given to him was Beauty, but I suggested to his owner that it did not suit him and he was baptized anew Moby Dick. Moby was a beautiful horse. The mixture of Trakehner and Paint Horse in him made for a very attractive profile. That said, Moby was classified as a "problem horse". He greatly disliked to be ridden, both in the area and on the trails. He was temperamental and showed very poor bodily agility in his movements and gymnastics. He bucked and protested to most riders. Moby was uncontroversially disliked and seen as useless by others in the stable. On my part, he is one of the horses I have loved most in my life. I was taking care of him, upon the owner's approval. A job which no one else wanted. I rarely bothered to try to ride him, but I did spend a fair deal of time with him. I found Moby to be curious, enthusiastic, playful and very gentle. Personality traits which could only come out if you were not interested in putting a saddle on his back. Did Moby have a problem? Well, he certainly had the problem that humans did not understanding him. And he had the problem that all that humans see in a horse is riding potential waiting to be realized.

So why is it always about riding? An answer to this question can be that we see and know of no other alternative. Being with a horse, without the instrumentalisation, is so unknown to us that we find ourselves trying to think about a round square. If the idea only, but crosses our mind, we see a black wall: dead end. Millennia of the "Art of Riding" have left us with very little ressources to think otherwise. This leaves horses like Moby in a very uncomfortable position, prey to the frustration and exasperation of humans, who helplessly try to fit a puzzle piece where it does not belong. Having had the time of my life with Moby during the years before he was sold, I do ask myself why is it always about riding, and, more importantly, what is lost because it is so?


Book hint: See Natalie Corinne Hansen's article "Dressage: Training the Equine Body" in Foucault and Animals (Brill; 2016)

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