Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

One-sided partnerships

horses in barn

When I was a new vegan, a co-worker who was interested in vegetarianism asked me what seemed like an interesting question with regards to animal exploitation, and what he saw as partnerships.

The question was along the lines of: If you ask an animal to perform work, such as helping you plow the field, and in return you provide food, water, and protection, is that exploitation, or is it partnership?

At the time, having never thought about the hypotheticals beyond the tired but never retired “If you were on a desert island…”, it seemed like a thoughtful and thought-provoking question.

Now, it seems obvious. The partnership could not be a real partnership. The non-human animal is given no real choice in the contract, and furthermore, everything provided in return for services are things that he could have provided for himself, most likely with much less effort.

Perhaps in lean times, there is more benefit to the non-human animal in the partnership, but the reality is that if the times get too lean, the partnership is dissolved by means of slaughter.

Sometimes we are so used to seeing animals in certain roles that we forget to question them. Horses are to be ridden, right? Well, as animal rights activists, we wouldn’t think that way, but it is possible people have doubts as to what the horses themselves think.

So. Do they want to be ridden? Have they perhaps been so domesticated over the years that they’re dependent on humans even for exercise and need this interaction?

The bits, the stirrups, the reins…are these means of communication between the horse and the rider, or are they means of control? I’d say control, not communication, and I think the horses would agree.

Terry of Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary told me that many years ago, when they first rescued the horses that live there, they continued to ride them. They probably had some doubts, but the horses needed exercise, and I can see how easy it would be to view the riding as a bonding experience, if you were intent on making something positive of it. Terry couldn’t help but to think about it more, as I’m sure dedicating her life to rescuing animals made her think about these things in more depth than she had before. Eventually she admitted to herself that the only way you could get the bridles and bits and whatever else onto the horses was to trick them.

If you have to trick them, that’s a pretty clear sign that they’re not interested.

And so they stopped riding the horses. The horses get a lot of exercise on their own, as they wander the many acres at the sanctuary, doing things that horses do naturally. It was clear to Terry really quickly that the horses were a lot happier when they didn’t have to deal with being ridden.

Even when we have the best intentions in the world, we don’t always see things clearly, we don’t always make the full connections. It isn’t easy being honest with ourselves, but it should still be a goal.


14 responses to “One-sided partnerships

  1. leindiemeister June 29, 2007 at 10:24 am

    This is interesting, and thank you for bringing this up. When I was a small child (or maybe from the ages of nine to thirteen), one of my best friends was an avid horse rider, and still is today, although ever since Lent last year, she’s been vegetarian. She used to invite me over for sleepovers, where we’d play with plastic models of horses and plastic Barbie horses and talk about horses and look at pictures of horses and watch horse movies and sometimes visit the horses she rode. She was obsessed with horses, and I was awed by them.

    Once, I brought up the issue of controlling the horse. How did she know that the horse wanted to go over this jump? How did she know that the horse wanted to compete? She said that it was simple; that the horse would just do whatever she told it to do, and I wondered why. I asked if the horse had free will, and she said that she had the control over the horse, and that it would submit to her will. That answer wasn’t good enough for me. I knew my cats had free will; why couldn’t a horse have free will, too? For years, I forgot about the argument, until six months ago, when I found that my boyfriend’s sister rides horses. I didn’t confront her about it; she’s not an animal rights person, but it did bring the question of ethics back to mind, and it’s been festering there for a while, but after reading this, it’s resolved.

    I greatly appreciate and agree with the last paragraph of your post, most especially the last sentence, and I fully agree with you.

  2. RichB June 29, 2007 at 11:24 am

    Your last paragraph can be applied to so many aspects of our lives and should be something we all strive to do.

  3. Neva June 29, 2007 at 11:58 am

    This is an important entry. There are many vegans out there who even with the best of intentions still ride horses, sadly. They do view this as a beneficial contract with the horse in some way.

    The difficulty is not just with the very idea of contracts–ie that an animal can’t enter into a contract willingly, but beyond that, we are not talking about anything as simple as an exchange of labor for food. This is not about the horse and the rider making a deal one afternoon, this is about the entire process that leads to that afternoon.

    My father is very, very dense on this particular topic and I’ve almost despaired of talking to him about it. As a child he had a very unhappy home life, he was neglected, at times abused, and also left at home completely unattended while his mother and grandparents went to work. His grandfather who lived down the road bought an older horse who was destined for slaughter. Left alone together for days on end my father and the horse developed a remarkable relationship and she would kneel down to let the child climb on her back for a ride. When my father tells this story he emphasizes two things: 1) the horse chose to be ridden and 2) the horse was one of the few wonderful things during an otherwise dark time.

    Now setting aside any romanticization, we might accept that yes, this particular horse expressed her affection for a small child by willingly giving him rides. In that sense, maybe there was a contract. What the horse had never agreed to was being bred into captivity and used, abused, and worn out only to be taken to an auction and miraculously not slaughtered but bought by an old man who thought she might be a good friend for his grandson.

    Likewise, sled dogs (whose owners swear they love to mush and savour competition) never asked to be bred, often being born in terrible conditions and ripped from their mothers who are immediately re-impregnated, only to be trained in grueling, often cruel conditions. Perhaps at some point any individuality has been so beaten out of them that they do express themselves only through sledding. But everything that brought them there is a different story.

    I argued with my dad that maybe his horse liked to be rode by a four year old child, but did horses like to be rented out from parks to riders who aren’t used to horses, who might weigh upwards of 200 pounds? He had no answer but couldn’t quite manage to think of it from the view of what benefits the horse. What about wild captured horses who are “broken” as well? Would it take destroying their spirit if there was some kind of willing contract involved?


    Horses, dogs, cats, and other animals don’t owe us entertainment and service simply from the accident of their birth. Likewise cows, chickens, and other animals don’t owe us their bodies or their eggs or milk simply because they were born into servitude and born into those bodies. Just as children don’t owe abusive parents silence and respect simply because they were born to them.

  4. Deb June 29, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    leindiemeister, I had a friend who was really into horses too. She showed, mostly in dressage I think, but also in some of the other styles, or whatever you’d call it. The horses were very prone to injury, many of them would fake injuries as well so they wouldn’t have to be riden! It was well known that some horses hated to be ridden, and would go to lengths to avoid it, but it was always presented as them being “stubborn”. What the horses wanted was never taken into consideration. And my friend had mixed feelings about the process of “breaking” the horses. Even though she saw it as necessary (for her purposes), she admitted that the horses were never the same. (which goes to one of the points that neva made in her comment!)
    Glad it helped you resolve the issue in your mind!

    Rich, I totally agree. We can all work on this!

    Neva, you brought up so many excellent in-depth points! Though my post was more or less specific to horses, this general concept is definitely applicable to all species. And, of course, as you pointed out it isn’t as simple as the hypothetical that had been presented to me. Things never are! It was helpful to me to keep it simple to make the point, so I have to thank you for bringing up all these other important points that are related.

    It really is our entire perspective and relationship with animals (human and non-human) and nature that we need to examine and rethink. It is too easy for us to assume things are “okay” just because it is what we grew up with. Mary at animalperson made a point not too long ago that talks about “tradition” (or was it “culture”? or both? I’m sure there are many more than one posts on the topic!), and why it isn’t a good enough reason/excuse for perpetuating things that are not ethical or moral.

  5. Mary Martin, Ph.D. June 29, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    Believe it or not, I recently ghostwrote a book for an equestrian. There’s a list of reasons why, one being that after a lifetime as an equestrian, and being brought up in that world (I live in polo country), she came to the realization that what we do to horses is simply wrong. And this is someone raised with horses, who bred horses, who trained horses, and who regularly rode them. And if she needed a couple of extra bucks, she’s sell one. The horse world (meaning: people who use horses) is a hideously cruel one, with a facade of the Kentucky Derby, Palm Beach Polo, and “romantic” rides in Central Park. But horses are probably the most abused non-food animal, at least by Westerners. I urge everyone to always put themselves in the hoofs or paws or fins of the animal being used. How would (fill-in-the-blank) make you feel? And if you’re answer is, “Not great, but it’s what we do here,” think again. That’s not a valid answer.

    With that said, perhaps certain individuals have contracts with each other. I wouldn’t doubt that. But as a society, we have no such contracts with any species. Deb’s right–what we have is a vehicle for controlling them that they did not agree to. And those contract–that aren’t really contracts–are what makes up our “culture.”

  6. Deb June 29, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    I remembering you mentioning that book, in passing on your blog, I think. Equestrians are in a curious position – both part of the problem and among those who would know best exactly how the animal feels about it. I really do think that we blind ourselves to these things because it would take away our pleasure. Yet, I can’t deny that my friend, and I’m sure leindiemeister’s friend, and probably the equestrian you ghostwrote for, really loved horses. It seems like a contradiction, but it isn’t, completely. It isn’t right either.

    The horses were my friend’s top priority in her life. That didn’t stop her from selling them when they weren’t quite what she “needed” and probably when she needed the cash to buy another horse. She told me once that relationships with horses were different than with “pets”, because the horses were more like your partner. One of the reasons is that you can only “ask” a horse to do things. That doesn’t exactly hold water; not when you have a painful bit in their mouth, among other things that effectively exert your control over them. The partner perspective also came into play in the justification of the selling. They weren’t pets, right? They were partners. So even though you were buying them, you weren’t committing to taking care of them for their entire lives. They could form a “partnership” with someone else, later.

    The potential for deniability when their “uselessness” to you ended in slaughter for them is rather large, with this perspecive. My friend told me that one of her horses, spatz, she had a special bond with and that when he couldn’t be ridden any more, she would put him out to pasture and let him live out his life as lazy as he pleased. That didn’t happen, of course. She ended up selling him. There was plenty of justification, about how he was a good “match” for his new owner, it was better for him, etc.

    My friend isn’t a bad person. She really does love horses. She just is blind to what they want and need independent of her. The horses take first priority in her life, but it is really her pleasure around what she gets from them that take first priority. Not the horses themselves, as individuals.

    Is the equestrian’s book you ghostwrote, is it an expose of the horse world?

  7. Mary Martin, Ph.D. June 30, 2007 at 7:07 am

    I wish it was an expose. It’s actually not about horses too much. And she, too, adores them. But every time she talks about using them in any way, she has this profound look of guilt on her face, and she can’t look me in the eye. I took her on as a project, and I succeeded in that she has a very different view of horses and how she used them. And she swears she would never buy another one, but she might rescue. And now rather than getting pure breeds she adopts rescues. And she only eats vegan food in my presence–which is kind of weird because I’ve never said anything about that. Finally, she says that if she weren’t 52 years old, with the business and family situation she’s in, she’d be a vegan and activist. I don’t really believe that, but I do know that her views about animals have transformed, and some of her behaviors have transformed with them. This took over two years, by the way, but I believe that my job is to change the world, one person at a time, and one animal at a time. Sometimes that change is only partial, but it’s better than nothing.

  8. Deb June 30, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    That is inspiring, actually. I think that I never end up following through on things. Maybe if I thought of it as a project I’d do better at it.

    I do have friends who now cook vegan meals periodically, who actually introduce their omni friends to the wonders of vegan cooking. It isn’t the same as convincing them to go vegan, but I continue to hope that with their knowledge of how amazing vegan food is, that they are one step closer to being open to veganism, and even bringing others that same step closer. So many people come at it from the other direction. “I’d go vegan if only I didn’t have to give up [animal product x].” These friends, when I’m coming to town, the first thing they say is “can we have a vegan dinner night?”

    Partial change is better by far than nothing.

  9. Lauren July 5, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    I’m going to go out on a limb here. I am an avid amateur horsewoman. I support two horses – an 11 year old Bavarian Warmblood gelding named Floris and a 26-ish year old Tennessee Walking Horse/Quarter Horse gelding named Sam.

    Sam is retired and spends most of his time sauntering around a large, lush pasture, lounging in the sun, or hanging out in the shade with a few equine companions. He gets regular foot and medical care to make sure he stays healthy and comfortable. Floris is younger and schools in dressage and goes for trail rides. He spends his considerable down-time (about 23 hours a day) much as Sam does, though he does come in to the barn and hang out in a large, airy box with deep, clean bedding, abundant hay and fresh water, and an open window to the outdoors. He is not agitated in his stall. I most often find him munching hay or curled up in the shavings, having a relaxing snooze.

    Many of you recount examples of poor horsemanship as evidence that horse ownership is inherently wrong. Those examples are all too common, often perpetrated by well-meaning but uneducated novices, sometimes perpetrated by professionals or serious amateurs motivated by their driving ambition to abandon respect for their equine partner. Those examples are hated by any good horseman, as much as and likely more than they are by those less familiar with the kind and generous nature of the horse. While this is a serious issue, and one that needs policing from inside the industry and from knowledgeable and courageous individuals, I think it is sad to condemn the many of us driven by a deep awe and respect for the horse who engage in equestrian pursuits. I believe that those pursuits can develop and deepen a mutually respectful relationship.

    When I go out to the field, my horses come willingly to me with bright eyes and relaxed ears and loosely swinging tails. I don’t chase, bribe, hide the halter behind my back, or have to lasso them. Even when they know they are going to work, they come willingly. I have many times had horses go out of their way to help me to recover from a mistake I made while riding, or refuse to take advantage when the opportunity was handed to them. Sam, the older horse, was a very good therapeutic riding mount when he was younger. One day, when a paraplegic rider lost her balance on a trail ride and all of us human side walkers were panicking, Sam simply took a huge step to put his back underneath that rider’s weight — he CAUGHT her of his own volition. No one could have MADE him do that — he did it of his own kind nature and dedication to his job.

    Yes, my horses have the life they have because I derive pleasure from my association with them. That pleasure causes me to devote considerable amounts of my income to making sure they have excellent living conditions and are handled respectfully and in concert with their needs as horses. If I did not, they might be living lives far less pleasant than they are now (as at least one of them was before I acquired him).

    From the comments above, I’m not sure what y’all would have us do. Are we supposed to turn all the domesticated horses loose and not work with them anymore? If so, then we first need to all burn down our nice houses and move underground so we can restore the habitat they need to be healthy and happy and living the life (grazing, drinking, procreating and evading predators).

    I respect the passion all the commenters have brought to this thread, and I would enjoy some feedback. I’m not sure we want such different things.

  10. Deb July 5, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Well, for me, there are questions I would ask, because I don’t fool myself that I have all the answers. And something like this is something you’d have to answer for yourself anyway, even if I think I have the answers. I have no doubt that you really do love your horses, and it is clear that you provide excellent care. Yet when I read your statement, “Yes, my horses have the life they have because I derive pleasure from my association with them,” I think that is what we are all getting at, in the end. The questions become variations on why they are here, in your mind. For humans, or for themselves?

    The what-if’s also come into play. What if Floris got cranky and was no longer such a pleasure to associate with? Or couldn’t be ridden for whatever reason? Based on your retired Sam, it sounds like you would continue to support Floris as well, which we know is not always true of people. In fact, it might just be enough of an exception that you are an “edge case” as we call it in programing. You’d know better than I do – I’m not involved in the horse world, I grew up in the dog world. But going with that assumption, that you would simply retire Floris, the question then becomes – do you enjoy your association with Sam as well as Floris? Would you continue to enjoy your association with Floris even if you couldn’t ride her?

    What I’m getting at is why does your pleasure and your enjoyment require the riding? If it doesn’t require the riding…and what if you stopped enjoying them altogether? Burnt out, or … well, whatever reason people stop doing things they once enjoyed. Does the care you provide depend on your enjoyment? That seems dangerous to me. You do not seem the type to abuse or neglect an animal, but if the care you provide is tightly linked to the pleasure they provide you, would you end up neglecting them if you didn’t enjoy them as much?

    Honestly, I don’t think you would. Which would mean they aren’t required to provide enjoyment for you to provide them care.

    I bred and showed dogs for years. I didn’t think there could be anything wrong with it, but when I look back I can acknowledge the niggling doubt when I thought about the dogs in shelters. My response was to not think about that. I wish I had thought about things more then, but I suppose better late than never. And I might have been too close to the situation to be critical of it in any case. My issues with animal “use” go a lot deeper now than simply thinking about the overpopulation, and the abuses that brings, but … it is a good starting point in any case to begin examining our relationships to the animals and the environment around us.

    The thing is, no matter how we approach domesticated animals, there are aspects that we have forced on them for our pleasure, and not theirs, in order for these situations to exist in the first place. The horses have to be bred, and there is a lot of room for abuse in that. Even given the absolute best circumstance, is it the horses choice, or ours? And then breaking them to saddle. There is something that is done to the horses that they are definitely not choosing for themselves.

    I watched one of these breakings once, and I imagine it was about the best of the best. As close to a horse whisperer as you could find outside the movies, the man breaking Gabby was as gentle as possible. He seemed to mostly play mind games with her. I haven’t seen any other horses broken, I don’t claim to speak from that sort of experience or authority, but what I witnessed seemed a fairly gentle process physically. Yet I saw the horse change. There was something heart-breaking in it to me, and my friend, who was an avid horsewoman since childhood, expressed her mixed feelings as she watched. I know I didn’t experience that sadness only because I prefer animals to have a level of self-determination that generally precludes humans imposing their will on them. My friend who was paying this man to break her horse so she could ride her horse (and she was a horsewoman much like you, except she sold her Sam instead of retiring him) expressed similar feelings.

    For me, when I look at the horse separate from human concerns, it seems clear what the horse wants. It seems clear what the humans want too. I think we often think that these things coincide, but when we’re removed from the overall situation, we can see things in a different light.

    Should we turn the domesticated horses loose? Nope. We’ve altered them mentally, and have often physically moved them to landscapes that they would not be found naturally in, so that is clearly not a good choice. I don’t think that humans need to ride the horses though, while they care for them. Or breed them and continue that cycle of breeding/breaking/making them dependent. It doesn’t have to be limited to the choices you presented. We can save them, care for them, enjoy them, associate with them, etc, all without riding them or asking them to be anything but themselves. And so why don’t we?

    Personally, I can’t imagine anything more pleasurable than seeing horses in the wild, living unfettered by human concerns. As you pointed out, this is not perfectly reasonable either, given that we have destroyed so much of this earth. That is something we should be working to correct as well – the climate will only be so forgiving, and it looks like we might be tripping the triggers every day. Yet there are herds of wild horses living in this country, or at least in certain parts of this country. That is my vision of ideal.

  11. Mary Martin, Ph.D. July 6, 2007 at 12:16 pm


    Thanks for coming here and feeling safe enough to write about your thoughts and experiences. I unintentionally live among equestrians and, without exception, like you, they adore their horses and treat them well. They too can tell horror stories, if asked, and do worry about how many others treat their creatures. I’m of the minority of people who believe that nonhuman animals aren’t ours to use. Though suffering and cruelty are important issues, the reduction of suffering, despite the fact that I’m a quasi-Buddhist, isn’t my core concern. My core belief is an ethical one that says we have no right to use nonhuman animals. They have the same capacity for pleasure, pain and terror as we do, and they have the right to live their lives without being forced to be in the service of humans. For anything, including our pleasure. And mind you, I have adopted two rescue greyhounds and an FIP (a fatal disease) kitty, all of whom live lives similar to your horses in comfort and love. Horses, cats and dogs, because we have created the current situation by breeding, are in a special category, I think, where we can’t just stop their usage (particularly as companion animals) in one moment. We could, but I don’t think that would be kind or humane or practical. The first step is to immediately stop the buying and selling of the animals, which helps de-commoditize them. At the same time, we stop the breeding of the animals. That freezes the human component of taking control over their reproductive systems. They aren’t ours to fiddle with, anyway. So what’s left are the ones that currently exist. And for them, if only they could all be adopted by people like you, that would be optimal. There could be more sanctuaries where they would live out their natural lives, relatively free (which is an oxymoron, but I think you get the idea). It’s not a perfect solution, but it would, certainly within a lifetime, succeed. I hope that makes sense, and I’m happy to clarify any of it or discuss it further. Thanks again for commenting.

  12. mikejmu July 7, 2007 at 10:20 am


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  13. Margery July 8, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Iditarod dogs are a classic example of animals who have no choice. Mushers have a history of forcing sick and injured dogs to run. For more information, visit the Sled Dog Action Coalition website,

  14. Deb July 8, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks Margery. I did focus on horses in this post, but of course it is just one example of a one-sided partnership. Sled dogs are another excellent example. The sad thing is we could probably come up with an unending number of examples.

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