I followed the sad tale of a ‘killer’ horse on a fellow blog. In the end, the horse ends up being euthanized and the owner may never walk again. But what actually drove the horse to the extreme of throwing and trampling his rider was psychological abuse. The real lesson in this is that the predator/prey model of horsemanship is perilously inaccurate.

In nature, horse’s primary enemy is the weather. Horses die from hypothermia in winter, drought in summer, and starvation when grazing is scarce. Weakened animals are picked off by the occasional courageous wolf pack or lion. I say courageous because it only takes one quick smack with a hoof to break bones, and for a predator that is a death sentence.

Veterinarian and author Robert Miller DVM says flat out that horses have the fastest reaction time of any domestic animal. He knows first hand that if a horse wants to hurt us, we humans cannot react fast enough to get out of the way. Contestants in bronc riding competitions are required to stay on their mount for all of eight seconds in order to receive a score. Many of them don’t make it that long, which should tell us that when a healthy herd animal turns on a human as though we were a predator, we really don’t stand a chance. 

Denying that carries a great penalty for both humans and horses. Rodents are prey animals. Horses are herd animals.  In denying the the horseness of the horse, the woman whose horse threw and trampled her made herself an enemy and the horse treated her as any healthy herd animal would treat a predator.

We humans are slow, puny, and generally pathetic as predators so we need to engage our minds and hearts when we work with horses. What humans offer horses is food, water, and shelter. In return horses help us to survive. They lend us their power, strength, and majesty carrying us on their backs 

And over the thousands of years horses and humans have explored this mutually beneficial relationship, it has changed both of them. As any horse widow/er will tell you, horses pull people into their world. While it looks utterly peculiar to an outsider, there is no doubt both parties are thoroughly invested in the relationship. Activities such as horse racing, bull fighting, airs above the ground, are all cooperative ventures. They appear in some form in every horse culture throughout time, and are as important an expression of their being to the horses as they to the humans.

Animal rights activists insist horse racing is cruel while people in horse racing insist that you can’t make a horse race if they don’t want to. If we actually look to the horse, there is evidence some race horses not only know their job, they are more than willing. In this race, Fort Larned went to his knees and dropped his jockey at the gate. Then he decided to come from behind, take the inside rail  and moved into the lead. His speed was phenomenal (he was clocked running at 44.6 mph), his strategy was impeccable, and he won his race by a 16th of a mile.  

While, as humans, we do have an ethical obligation to maintain our side of the arrangement and treat our equine partners with respect and compassion, we would do well to keep in mind that includes the horse’s will to work, even excel, whether that is care-taking kids, working cows, dancing in place, leaping obstacles, or running to win. Here is a horse working a bull on his own. My own Spanish Colonial horse agreed with this horse’s approach to handling cattle. I could persuade him to move them along from behind, but when there was a problem he was positive that the best way to get a cow where it needed to be was by picking it up by the back of the neck and putting it there. If I put him out to pasture with cattle, he entertained himself by running them ragged. 

These examples are situations where the horse knows his job and that his and his rider’s lives and livelihoods depend on it.  Athletic horses with this sense of work ethic, like working breeds of dogs, are often frustrated and troublesome when they are not given opportunity for meaningful work. There is a subtle but thoroughly insidious cruelty in denying such individuals purpose in their lives.

  • much of animal husbandry
  • caring for animals as they are –
  • somehow got replaced by animal science–
  • using animals as “production units”
  • without considering how they work.
  • How animals “are” based on their wild heritage is called telos,
  • from the Greek word for “purpose” or “goal,”
  • and is a concept that has been around since the days of Aristotle.
  • When referring to animals,
  • it relates to the essential nature of that particular species;
  • in other words, the idea that
  • “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly,
  • and cats gotta climb and scratch.”
  • Dr. Tony Buffington

Working horses may be treated roughly, their efforts may cripple or kill them, but as long as there is meaningful work, the horse/human contract holds up. I came across this unusual insight into the contemporary challenges of an ancient horse culture by a Traveler (gypsy) become RSPCA inspector.However poorly others may perceive the Travelers treat their horses they never lose their respect for their horses’ telos, the mystique of their horseness.

When I first published this post I was pretty sure I would be drawn, quartered, and hung out to dry by people on both extremes of the horse/human issue.  I seem to be in one piece so far, but I do feel the need to clarify my position on meaningful work:

Conversely, when we honor the telos, the essential horseness of the horse, we ourselves become better beings.

and all those concerned about the welfare of working equines worldwide, please support education and care among our poorest and neediest families please support the Brooke Hospital for Animals.

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