The other night as the Farewell Falsterbo video was going viral, I was in my kitchen trying to make a vegan version of a classic, Danish meatball dish. The traditional recipe calls for ground veal and pork in equal measures as well as eggs and milk. But after a decade of publishing the occasional equestrian warm up video and being asked every single time by rabid rollkur apologists if I am a vegan and if I don't think it's worse what we do to production animals, I have come to the conclusion that I should indeed cut right back on all forms of animal exploitation. Not just of horses.
In my opinion, making vegan meat balls is a lot more difficult than making conventional ones. Gluten granules do not behave like mushed up pig and calf and nothing sticks together without the magical coagulating attributes of eggs. But of course, I wouldn't expect it to be easy. Or to have the same result as before. This is a new way of making something that is new in itself, necessitated by my desire to contribute less to the sum of horrors in the universe. Rarely do our conscious choices to make things easier for others fail to make things more difficult for ourselves.
Between sips of red wine and muttered profanities at the simmering mess on my stove top, I checked Facebook for reactions to our video. The pattern is always the same. The first people to see our posts are the ones who follow our page, which you would really only do if you are sympathetic to the idea of filming warm up arenas and posting the footage online. Outrage at the riding allowed by officials and federations. Messages of thanks and support. Sip of wine. Glare at stove top.
Later, the apologists arrived. “This isn't so bad”. “I have seen worse”. “You could take pictures like this of absolutely anyone in the world”. “You don't understand how it is with horses.” “What you've filmed isn't cruel but how dare you embarrass the riders by publishing the footage?” “These horses are treated like royalty. “
None of these reactions ever confuse or surprise me. I understand because I used to be where the people are who post them. The mere thought of applying less equestrian force than you have been used to feels like staring into a black abyss. None of us – well, few of us – would knowingly apply more force to our horse than absolutely necessary. So thinking about using less force means thinking about giving up doing certain things. If you allow your horse more choice, he might choose something different than what you want. And maybe then you can't even ride. This is the – often subconscious - logic behind one of the most frequent reactions to ugly pictures and videos from the warm up: “So are you saying we should not be riding horses at all?” What these people are saying is that they don't think their horse would allow them to ride if they didn't use force. Ironically, they usually say it to counter allegations that their preferred style of riding is based on force.
Another staple reaction is this: “Why don't you show examples of a better way instead of always being so negative?” We get this from both sides of the divide on modern dressage. Some sneer it at us, believing themselves to be calling our bluff. As if it were our jobs to prove that the FEI rules for dressage are not a complete fairy tale. Others make the request pleadingly, hoping that we're somehow sitting on the secret to preserving what they think of as their sport or their art.
But just as I don't know how to make pork and veal meatballs without killing pigs and calves, I don't know how to make equestrian sport – or even art - without exploiting horses. I don't know of a way to get a horse to repeat behaviours at the beck and call of a human in times and places of that human's choosing without resorting to manipulation at best and force at worst.
For many years, I have bought meat, eggs and dairy from the least cruel suppliers I could find. I have mulled over humane farming practices and had long discussions with myself about whether hens mind us eating some of their eggs and whether it would be okay to eat cheese from milk you had taken from a calf who was allowed to live with his mum as long as you left enough milk for the calf. On a parallel trajectory, I have searched for the least cruel way to make horses do what I want so I can ride them for my pleasure.
Not until recently have I questioned the basic premise of my consumption. I have not questioned whether I should have eggs or cheese. Only how I should obtain them. I have not questioned whether I should bend my horse's mind and body to my will. Only how it should be accomplished. Cognitive dissonance has nagged me but I have been unable to identify its origin.
Increasingly, the trainers I have preferred filming have been the ones who care the least about the short term behavioural outcome of their training. Trainers like Ben Hart who happily shrugs and says “perhaps another day” when a horse doesn't do as he had hoped, even in front of an audience. Trainers like Kirsten Alexa Hansen who values the quality of the horse's physical expression above obedience. Trainers like Angelo Telatin who solves problems by removing whatever obstacle blocks the horse from performing, whether that's a tense rider, a badly fitted bridle or a requirement for more time to learn. Or people like Emily McDonald who puts so many hours into helping horses without any hope of riding. I have liked filming these people with horses because the horses are most beautiful when they have some choice. When who they are and what they want comes to the surface and they are allowed to be creative, to play. Most of all I have loved to sit among the ferns and lavender of the Gredos mountains in Extremadura in Spain, filming the feral Pottokkas and learning about their sophisticated social skills from legendary ethologist Lucy Rees.
At the beginning of last year, I was looking for ideas for the next Epona.tv training series. And I was intrigued to learn that I had someone on my Facebook friend list who was a very highly regarded ethologist and who did not believe that horses should be trained at all. Most of the ethologists I know are all about behavioural modification and many give training clinics or are qualified riding teachers trying to incorporate behaviouristic learning theory into equestrian training. Dr. Francesco De Giorgio seemed to reject all this.
The very idea of not training our domestic horses caused my conflicted brain to do the Macarena. It was so outlandish to me that I decided to fly down to Holland to find out what it was all about. You can find the video series here and there is more to come. I won't presume to explain what Dr. De Giorgio does with animals instead of training them. Suffice to say it does not result in chaos like you might expect. Meeting him and his wife and business partner, José De Giorgio-Schoorl, made me see where my nagging cognitive dissonance was coming from. It wasn't that I couldn't find a training method humane enough to make me want to film it. It was that I didn't want to film horse training at all. Any horse training. I wanted to film horses learning.
Watch the series Rediscovering Horses with José and Francesco De Giorgio here
For a while I had been wondering about the saying: “You are always training your horse.” It gets repeated a lot to remind people that horses learn from every interaction with humans – not just the interactions we intend to change their behaviour. But is everything an organism learns a result of training? Can't we just learn without anyone making us learn? The example in my head was a hypothetical walk in the woods with my kids. All the time we walked, we were talking, learning about each other. If I knew the name of a certain tree I would tell the others. My son knew the name of a fungus and I learned it from him. My daughter knew the location of a swing and showed us the way. At the end of the walk, a lot of learning had happened but had any training occured? I didn't think so. And I was trying to figure out the difference between learning from training and just learning.
Dr. De Giorgio, a philosopher as well as an ethologist, provided me with the short answer: “Learning is learning. Training is training” he said. Basically, they are two different things. This is hard to get your head around when the words “learning theory” makes you think of operant conditioning. But my mind was primed for the message.
I love to learn but I hate to be trained. I was thrown out of the third grade. My teacher told my mother I “undermined his authority”. He was a bully and I was good at standing up to bullies because I learned to play that game before I could tie my shoelaces. I knew how to neutralize my enemy by giving way to his force of attack. I possessed a weaponized sarcasm and a poker face no nine-year-old should have. I broke my teacher to show him and perhaps the bully in my house that I myself could not be broken.
To this day, I harbour a deep and relentless hatred of control and manipulation. Even subtle control and manipulation. Especially subtle control and manipulation. And here I was looking for the best way to control a horse by manipulation. No wonder I found the search to be frustrating.
That's what training is: Manipulation. I read it many years ago on a dog behaviour blog and thought it was a bit harsh at the time. Now I know it to be true. When we say that we “teach” a horse to stand still or walk sideways or pick up an item, we are grossly deluding ourselves. A horse already knows how to stand still and go sideways and pick up objects. What training does is manipulate him to repeat those behaviours when we say so. Horse training – Dr. De Giorgio made me see – has nothing to do with equine learning and everything to do with human control. That's why my favourite horses to film are the ones who have never been trained. They are the most real and therefore the most beautiful and interesting.
Perhaps you are beginning to see why Epona.tv won't be the ones to supply the world with evidence that a better, kinder dressage is possible. There is no doubt I can find softer, more patient riders who take their time, ride with lightness and correctly fitted tack. I can even find riders who ride without a bit or bridle. But on the deepest level, it will remain unsatisfying for me to film or even watch a horse being manipulated by a human. Feel free to replace the word manipulate with a euphemism of your choice. It all looks the same through my camera lense.
And I know I am not alone. In fact, I think I am far from alone. The famous nit picking of armchair equestrians is – I think – a symptom of the same, deep longing to see a horse who is truly free to express himself. No matter how minor the flaws in a riding video, people feel compelled to comment. They think they are annoyed by the horse's tack, the rider's posture or some other detail. But really, they are frustrated by a lack of beauty and they don't know why so they blame it on whatever happens to catch their eye. I could try to make a video series to “show a better way” for dressage fans, but aside from finding such a task extremely boring, I also know that it will never satisfy anyone. It will not satisfy the rollkur apologists because a more sympathetically trained horse will disappoint their appetite for dramatics. And it will not satisfy those who truly seek to do better for horses because what they are looking for – the horse's own enthusiasm and expression - will be absent from such a video in direct proportion to the advancement of the training.
All the time I was asking the wrong question. I was asking how I could feel better about myself without sacrificing my exploitation of horses. Instead, I should have been asking whether I wanted to exploit them in the first place. This is a choice we all make, but most of us don't know it. For me, it was an invisible choice because it was made on my behalf by my culture and my parents before I was born into a racing family. If someone could have asked me before I ever met a horse: “Hey Julie. Do you think it is okay to prod and poke this animal to make her do what you want instead of what she wants just because you feel like it?” I might have said no. But I was never asked that question and so I was unaware that I was answering it every time I made a horse do something that horse did not want to do.
We choose to appropriate the bodies and lives of horses and other animals for our pleasure or amusement. Or we don't. But it is always a choice. (This YouTube video made that painfully clear to me recently)
As Dr. Iris Bergman so brilliantly puts it, we make those choices based on our values - not scientific knowledge - and many of us don't even know that we have such a set of values or that we apply them to how we treat others. Now that I have asked myself the previously invisible question out loud, I know that the answer is no. I do not think it is okay for me to prod and poke a horse or any other animal to make them do what I want just because I feel like it. And if I want to sleep at night, I have to adjust my behaviour to accord with my conscience.
Watch our interview with Dr. Iris Bergman here
That brings me back to the vegan meat balls. When I first became aware of the suffering of production animals and knew I didn't want to contribute to that, I searched for a way to relieve my conscience without changing my behaviour. When I couldn't find one, I settled into a convenient if somwhat volatile truce between my moral aspirations and my feelings of entitlement. It wasn't until I asked the question out loud (yes, I am talking to myself now): “Do I feel morally justified – under any circumstances - in taking over the lives of other sentient beings and making their existence all about producing what I want to eat?” that I was able to provide an answer. I don't feel that I am morally justified in doing that and so - like with the horses – if I want to sleep at night, I have to adjust my behaviour to accord with my conscience. If I don't want to spend the rest of my life bargaining with my own inner voice, I have to accept that making meat balls will never be easy again and that the result will never taste the same. But you know what they say: There's no such thing as a free lunch. Only lunch that somebody else has paid for.
Thinking about a life without horse training no longer feels like staring into the abyss for me. In fact, it feels like escaping from a prison. In the past few years, the most fun I have had riding has been jumping on my big gelding in the field and letting him take me wherever he wants to go – or nowhere – before jumping off again and just hanging out with him and the other horses for a while. Nothing involving control has given me any joy for years, so I don't mind giving that up. Instead, I look forward to finding out who they are. The horses who live with me and who have learned to adapt their behaviour to cater to my preferences. The horses I thought I knew but realise I didn't because I never asked them who they were. What do they want to do? How will we interact? Where will we go together? With each day I approach them without an agenda, I watch them grow more curious to know me too.
I am often asked if I want riding to be banned. My answer is always that I do not want to decide what other people can and cannot do. What you do with your horse is your choice. But if – like me – you have been repeating invisible choices made on your behalf by your culture, consider making those questions conscious. And answer them out loud.
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