The Morality of Horseback Riding

In considering the question whether horseback riding is wrong under an anti-specieisist morality, I have developed a two-part test. However, before applying it to that case at hand, I will briefly reiterate what an anti-specieisist approach to nonhuman animals entails. Peter Singer clarified that all animals have different interests, but that differences in interests are not the relevant consideration in determining how to treat nonhuman animals; the question is “do they suffer.” Humans are not morally entitled to regard their own species as the only species whose suffering matters — ethical concerns should not begin and end with the human species.  We are all animals, we all suffer, and, unless we want to embrace a philosophy of “might makes right,” our conscience should operate for other species, not just our own.  Such is his theory, or, at least, as I understand and apply it.

How an anti-speciesist viewpoint translates to the everyday is clear in many respects: vivisection, meat production, separating a mother from its young, hunting — all manner of treatment that is defended on the grounds that it is acceptable when done to “just animals,” but which would be abhorrent if perpetrated on humans. There are some areas of human / nonhuman interaction that require more thought. A case in point is horseback riding.

One might argue that demanding a horse to do the bidding of a human “uses” the nonhuman animal, which is per se immoral because we would not do such a thing to a human. First, in relying on what we do to humans as a guide for what we do to nonhuman animals, we must understand the degree to which we also use humans and how relevant our use of a human is as a point of moral reference in determining the morality of using a horse. Emmanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher whose statements on morality make up most of Philosophy 101, established that people should not be a means to an end, i.e. we should not use humans. However, we do exactly that routinely. Think about hiring someone to do a job. Kant makes an exception when both parties freely agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement; in such cases the injunction against using people as a means to an end does not pertain. Is it possible, though, for a nonhuman (in this case, a horse) to agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement? One would say no because the two parties do not have equal bargaining power. Therefore, we cannot use a nonhuman because it cannot feely agree – such is the conclusion that follows in equating horses with humans. However, equines are not human, having, as Singer established, different interests. For example, horses do not mind and seem to enjoy standing in a large field at night in cold temperatures, whereas a human and many other species would not like that or even survive the night. Therefore, we cannot use a human standard about interests in evaluating everything that a horse does or might be asked to do. Also, there are even humans for whom Kant’s free- agreement paradigm does not apply.  Children do not feely agree to many demands put upon them, but it is not considered immoral to compel them to do a great many things. Further, to rebut Kant for a moment, it is debatable whether humans actually have the free will to make the choice to be in many of the “using” arrangements that occur in life. Factor in DNA, heredity, nurture, environment, and happenstance and the question of just how free our will is, just how freely we enter into “using” arrangements, is not at all so determinable in favor of free will. Whether we are freely exercising choice in life is certainly questionable.

We would not need a two-part test to answer the horseback riding question if the standard by which we judge is solely by equating horses to human: they cannot freely enter into the arrangement, therefore it is immoral. However, based on the fact that horses and humans do have different interests, I suggest that we need to go farther, and that is where the two-part test comes in. For the first part, we must ask: are we treating the nonhuman as an individual or a commodity.  To understand commoditization, I will relate an anecdote that brought home to me the evils of that practice. David Foster Wallace in an essay about his visit as a journalist to a Midwestern state fair,  tours the farm animal exhibits and brings the reader along with him. The  reality of the swine hall haunts me. He describes how one pig exhibited great distress, such that he thought the creature was suffocating.  He felt an innate alarm and looked around for the owner to alert him that the pig was suffering, maybe about to die –then he realized that the “exhibitor” could hardly be bothered about one pig’s suffering.  They were all going to be killed; were raised to be killed. Incidentally, after the “Swine Hall,” he felt great relief when he visited the equine hall and knew that the “winner” would not be hauled off to the slaughter house.)  What that anecdote from the essay shows is creatures viewed as commodities. That pig was not an individual; it did not have a name; no human was concerned about its individual welfare; any veterinary treatment it had ever received was part of a program not for its welfare, but for the mass; its death would either be a monetary loss or gain. It is born for profit, is kept alive for profit, and dies for profit.

Even creatures whom we name, give veterinary treatment, and recognize as having something of an individual identity might still not be anything more than a commodity. Race horses come to mind in this category; they certainly have names, the vet is called for any lameness, they have a groom and riders, and a great deal of attention paid to them; however, none of that counters the underlying view of them as a commodity.  They are like gladiators—well treated only to the degree that it enhances their usefulness as a money-making proposition. Of course, there are exceptions for the few famous horses.  But for each Seabiscuit or Secretariat or Barbaro there are thousands of thoroughbred horses put through the mill and discarded. That means that they are still viewed as a commodity.  All creatures raised for food are soundly in the commodity category, and some other nonhumans – such as horses and dogs used for sport —  might or might not be. Even if a creature does not fall into the category of a commodity, it of course can still be abused; hence the second part of the test, which asks: are we treating the nonhuman with kindness that approximates a golden rule-type principle befitting the interests of the kind of creature. Perhaps even more than our tendency toward commoditization, we have a great tendency to be abusive. We abuse many creatures who are often not viewed as commodities – children, spouses, elders, whomever is vulnerable. That reminds me, as an aside, that the movement for prevention of cruelty to animals sprung up in England in the 19th century after the publication of the novel Black Beauty; the leaders of that movement addressed cruelty not only to horses but also to children.

So, let’s apply the test – am I treating the nonhuman as a commodity and am I being cruel or kind to that creature. Here is one case at one end of the spectrum: the beloved family dog. No vegan or ardent animal rights advocate would question that having the company of a dog is morally wrong. Why? Because the last thing the dog is for us is a commodity.  The well-cared for dog has a name, which goes beyond identification like the name of a racehorse: its name expresses our view of the creature’s identity and his or her special place in our lives. The dog is well fed (sometimes clothed), given veterinary attention, love, and respect for its wishes.  When he or she dies, we mourn. We do not view his or her passing as an economic boon or as dinner on the way. Although there is always the potential for abuse, under the second prong of the test we would say that they are treated with kindness; we walk them, caress them, get them comfy beds, and care that they are living a good life. Now, there are dogs, however, who are “used” by humans.  They are educated from puppyhood to perform for human benefit; they are bomb sniffing dogs, police dogs, rescue dogs, sled dogs, seeing eye dogs, medical alert dogs, comfort dogs, guard dogs. Is that acceptable to an anti-speciesist morality? I think that under the typical vegan-animal rights evaluation, such uses of the dog would pass muster, assuming that the dog was well-treated.  It cannot pass muster on the basis that the dog agreed to perform any given role, which is the standard we would propose for a human in a using arrangement.  It must be, therefore, that application of the two-part test reveals that working, per se, in not inimical to vegan ethics. We humans are coerced in a sense to work.  We are not entitled to do nothing. I could regard putting on panty hose, carrying a heavy load of documents, navigating mass transportation to a day of confinement in an office with short breaks to maintain my sanity as less than my ideal way of life, but such was the work I had for many years and such is life. Let’s remember Darwin who observed carefully and came up with the all-encompassing truth that life is a struggle.  For me, then, I think that having a job is not repugnant, even if the dog did not request it; however, in that inherently unequal using arrangement the demands on kindness by the more powerful party are exceptionally high. Indeed, there is no situation in life that requires our kindness more than when dealing with a nonhuman because it is the most vulnerable of creatures.

The working dog example, in addition to suggesting that work imposed on a nonhuman is not necessarily morally repugnant nor so dissimilar from what humans do, also reveals the constructive quid pro quo defining the existence of the domesticated nonhuman animal — the arrangement of “this for that” even if not actually agreed to. It is true that the dog is acting at the behest of another without having overtly accepted the assignment, yet it cannot be said that he does not benefit from the arrangement. As lives go, he might and can be seen to exhibit every indication of content in his job. It is obvious when a creature is suffering and not so much less obvious when he is satisfied with the state of things. That situation describes the idea of the imputed contract of domestication—nonhumans lend humans a hand and humans give back in return with food, shelter, care, attention, affection and a home free of the harshest aspects of living in the wild. On that latter point, let us not forget that nature is very harsh.

From working dogs, we move to working horses, since a horse can be said to be working when it is ridden. To what degree does using a horse for riding equate to the uses listed for dogs? Is it moral under the two-part test? I posit that if using dogs passes muster, then, a fortiori, using horses for riding does as well because dogs have a place in the human world purely as companions that horses do not have. So, if we can accept using our idle companions, we can come to terms with using a creature that would not exist if not for use. (With regard to that last assertion, few are the people who have a horse just as a companion.  The requirements for land, the upkeep of at least one other horse to satisfy the horses need for equine companionship, and the cost of room and board are so great that they must fit into some other scheme than a companion creature.)

Positing a horse owner of the type that I am, I will proceed with applying the test. First,  the human who keeps a horse does not view the horse as a commodity. The horse is not owned for the purpose of monetary gain—as I write that I wonder if the gross understatement will be recognized (anyone who has a horse will get it). The riding horse is not kept to fetch a good price or to serve as a main course.  The horse has a name and a very distinct identity – what does the individual like to eat, how many blankets does he need, how often does he get shoes, what weather does he do best in.  The concerns for his welfare are too numerous to list. The death of a horse occasions some of the most intense grief I have ever witnessed, which attests to the strength of its individuality and the bond with the human. The foregoing itemization of individual needs also addresses the second part of the test: is the horse treated kindly in accordance with its equine interests. There the individual human makes a difference; there are abuses, but that a situation can be abused is not an argument against its existence.  That statement is a rather facile argument, however, which would not hold up if there were rampant abuse, such that even if some people could be kind, so many were not such that it would be best to abolish riding horses altogether. I am of the view that the abuses are not so great as to justify the end of riding on that basis alone, and would prefer combatting the abuses.  However, whether the abuse outweighs the ostensibly good aspects of riding is an empirical question for which I have no data, just anecdotal experience of my own.

Therefore, if the horse is not a commodity and it is treated kindly, riding him or her is not immoral unless, as with the dog, imposing a job on the horse per se is immoral. The job alone might be a problem for many, although I don’t know how such people would come out on the question of working dogs.  As for horses, there is a popular opposition to the carriage horses in New York City. Oddly though, I have not heard the same concerns for police horses. I would rather stand in the traces and saunter slowly around the park than stand around with a cop on my back.  Of course, as required by the second part of the test, these horses must be treated with kindness consistent with their interests, and that is where I see the problem equally for both of these working horses.  It is not that they work during the day, if the job is subject to reasonable standards as should apply to any worker human or nonhuman, but rather that the horses never get to enjoy a pasture or field where they can indulge their natural behaviors.  If they live in the metropolitan area, they live in a stall.

The horse whose job is carrying a human around for pleasure and sport, I would conclude, is not inherently treated immorally. It is not commoditized and is treated well –at least by me.  And it is my actions that concern me most in writing this analysis.  I don’t think for a moment that I am persuading anyone that riding a horse is or can be squared with an antispeciesist-vegan morality.  I know from experience that I am powerless to convince anyone of anything. If I can show a generally decent person how farm animals are treated and that person still feels okay with participating in that atrocity, then I certainly cannot convince anyone on a question having as much nuance as this one. In addition to not seeking to persuade, I do not need to mount a case to protect my continued enjoyment of my equine activity; no one threatens that. I have meandered through this issue for myself.  As the Stoic Seneca said, “Don’t ask why you learned this thing, you did it for yourself.”  Beyond Stoic self -sufficiency, I am wary of being the fish that does not know he is swimming in water.  I have for so much of my life, like most people, accepted whatever culture handed out as the way to live, only to finally realize that just knowing what part of culture to question is a huge first step.  I know not to think that just because we have ridden horses for centuries it must be okay to do it.  If something has been done for centuries it has all the indicia of very much needing to be questioned. I am open to the possibility that I will someday decide that I was wrong. So, I have questioned. Now I will quit cogitating and drive to the barn with my large bag of carrots, brush my horse, rub his face and behind his ears with a towel, show him my love and then respectfully request that he indulge me for an hour.



4 thoughts on “The Morality of Horseback Riding

  1. The World Is Too Much With Us

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

    So, LP, can poetry still be found today? Was it always the province of the few? But didn’t the working class of England go to see Shakespeare? Have you seen schoolbooks from the early twentieth century, the elevated level of discourse?

    Or am I simply wallowing in times past? My favorite bird – the Wallow Wing……

    What do you think, LP?


  2. Hi Jay, I have very little interest in or appreciation of modern poetry; I would be inclined to say that poetry is an art of the past. Your question, though, about poetry still being found might question whether we still find poetry in the world around us –to which I would say definitely “yes;” just as Wordsworth found poetry in nature, we can. Nature is one of the things Keats described in “Endymion” as a thing of beauty that is a joy forever. All the more reason (if we needed more of a reason) to not devastate it and kill.
    I do wonder what about my post about horseback riding provoked you to post this lovely poem by Wordsworth. Did I suggest I was out of touch with nature?
    Last, it is hard to name a favorite bird. I like the sound of the mourning dove because it always reminds me of a certain place and time.

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