Special to Tuesday’s Horse
Written by CATHERINE GORE
England in the late 18th century was sometimes called a “hell for horses.” As such I’ve often wondered how a person could have lived then, or at anytime earlier, when using horses for travel and transport was unavoidable in much of the world. I’ve wondered how anyone with any propensity at all for empathetic feeling could bear to see so much suffering around them, let alone actually use all the different modes of conveyance which exploited horses, as the average person had little choice but to do so.
In fact, though relatively few in number, there were exceptional individuals who took a stand against the abuse of horses in their midst. In Romanticism and Animal Rights, David Perkins notes the American Quaker, John Woolman whom he says “refused to use the stagecoaches when he was traveling in England. He had learned from friends that their fearful journeys often killed or blinded the horses. For the same reason he didn’t use the public mails.” Perkins also quotes Lord Erskine, speaking in Parliament in 1809 referring to “the common sight of post horses panting – what do I say! Literally dying under the scourge!”
Though it might appear I’m singling out Britain, as we know, the abuse of horses knows no national boundaries – it occurred, does occur, everywhere. The ASPCA, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the world’s first organized animal protection group, was founded in England almost forty years earlier in 1824 by a group of animal welfare advocates lead by anti-slavery champion William Wilberforce MP. Then there was Henry Bergh, “The Great Meddler”, who founded the ASPCA in 1866 mainly in response to the under-watered, starving, beaten, dying horses he saw on the streets of New York City.
I can only conclude myself that populations living in the pre-motorized era instinctively checked any concern for the well-being of the oppressed horses they saw daily and everywhere. And that this suppression of feeling was achieved by a learned behavior of viewing horses essentially as objects, not sentient beings. Millennia ago, when horses were turned into vehicles, they effectively became “things.” Dominating them essentially required us to objectify them as though they were machines. No doubt there have always been lucky horses who have been loved and cared for, just as today. And just as some of us today might also care for our cars, for there are indeed many among us who profess to “love” our cars.
I also wonder how people can consume meat, dairy and eggs knowing about all the suffering that goes on in those industries, but I also know how those industries go to great lengths to prevent (and protect) the public from seeing the atrocities. In pre-motorized times, however, the suffering of horses took place in full view, and participation in such suffering was all but unavoidable, more so even than the consumption of animal products. Even so, wounded, scarred and lame horses were often used at night in order to hide the effects of their abuse.
The legacy of horse enslavement seemingly extends into our consciousness so deeply that the concept of the horse as vehicle may be considered a kind of archetype, a universally understood “idea” of the horse, so that we unconsciously perceive them as vehicle-objects for riding and pulling, with their strong bodies and perfectly formed backs, created naturally, for us to sit on.
We still refer to the basic unit of engine power as “horsepower,” and when we finally relieved horses of much of their burden with the invention of trains (though finding other ways to abuse them instead) when first introduced, trains were called “iron horses.” Same object, different material.
Horses were used as “things” for so long, for eons, the concept of horse as vehicle, as big, strong object, persists in public consciousness, while the pleasure and entertainment activities for which we use horses today perpetuate that perception. I simply have no other way of comprehending how thousands of people every year get into the horse-drawn carriages in NYC, how millions of people every year can walk past these poor shackled animals, and ignore the injustice of forcing them into that noisy, urban, nose-to-tailpipe existence.
Today, horses used for racing, jumping shows, polo matches, the circus, for hayrides, the rodeo, might as well be cars or bicycles. (Hey, if one breaks, get another one). Perceived as physical objects, horses are invisible as feeling, sentient beings with their own interests and needs.
Horses at all the horseback-riding outfits around the country are essentially objects to the strangers who come through eager to rent their backs. Just the other day I drove past one of these businesses and saw at least twenty horses standing out in the hot sun, completely saddled, like bicycles lined up for rent. Indeed, I have always found that we make a great assumption in believing horses don’t mind having us on their backs.
And when a horse is no longer useful she is discarded, like an old or broken appliance not worth keeping around. After all, you can’t curl up on the sofa with an old or lame horse. She is often sold, continuing her downward spiral of uncertainty, each time worth less and less, like a car with so many added miles on it.
I wonder if what resonates in the public’s consciousness at the sight of wild horses, at simply knowing there are wild horses, is a recollection that stirs beneath our deep-rooted perception of horse as vehicle, of a knowing that these horses are as it should be – untouched by humans, unencumbered, unburdened, bit-free, free.
Ask not what horses can do for you; ask what you can do for horses.
Catherine Gore is an animal rights activist, movie script supervisor, and community college English instructor living in Northeast Pennsylvania. Catherine has an M.A. in English literature from Brooklyn College, and a B.F.A in filmmaking from City College of the City University of New York.