We are excited to share the latest release in the ASI-managed Brill Human-Animal Studies Book Series, The Relational Horse: How Frameworks of Communication, Care, Politics and Power Reveal and Conceal Equine Selves.
In this anthology edited by Gala Argent and Jeannette Vaught, human-horse relationships take the central place as the horse’s perspective is examined through questions such as: How are human-equine relationships communicated, enacted, understood, encouraged and restricted? By exploring the “who” of horses, The Relational Horse offers a better understanding of horses’ lived experiences and interests within the worlds they share with humans, and a way forward for human-equine studies that more equitably represents the horse in the hose shared worlds.
ASI co-founder and Board President, Kenneth Shapiro, sat down with The Relational Horse editors to discuss human-horse relationships, cross-disciplinary theories, and ways forward for Human-Animal Studies to better include other animals’ lived experience and interests.
KS: Why did you want to publish this book?
GA: The idea for this book has been around for a while, and changed during that while. The gist developed at a point when there were only a few handfuls of scholarly studies about human-equine intersections. At that point, I wanted to pull together a multidisciplinary volume that addressed both better understanding horses, and better understanding how humans understand them. In the decade since then, the latter aspect received quite a bit of attention from scholars in the social sciences, where the focus was on how humans within this or that human culture or sub-culture perceived horses. This type of work is important, especially as it relates to equine welfare issues, and this volume has several noteworthy chapters that take this approach.
At the same time, from my theater seat with my interest in relationships, the literature was sparse in studies focused on better understanding horses as they are. That type of work is almost exclusively limited to ethological and applied ethological studies, and rarely brought into Human-Animal Studies (HAS). Yet horses, themselves, are half of the relationship equation. Better understanding horses seems to me a crucial first step toward better understanding—and bettering—human-equine relationships. In developing the book, I looked to pull in disciplinarily diverse chapters that presented the horse’s side of things, something that studies centered in the social sciences have found difficult. That is, at the same time these chapters offer case studies, they also serve as models of fresh theories and methods researchers can use going forward to better include horses’ perspectives. So ultimately the chapters in the book address both sides of the horse-human equation, and also the nature and possibilities of these interspecies relationships themselves.
JV: Before I came on as co-editor, I was drawn to this book as a chapter author because it offered a chance to be part of a dynamic conversation about being with horses that didn’t focus only on riding relationships, and it didn’t shy away from the need to analyze the relationships between people and horses that don’t fit into neat categories. There are all kinds of horse-human relationships that aren’t yet well represented in human-equine studies and HAS, and this book introduces readers to corners of the horse world that haven’t had a lot of exposure. When I came into the editing role and I saw the vibrant diversity of horse-human relationships and disciplinary approaches represented in these chapters, it became even clearer to me how important it is to have more of these perspectives become more visible to HAS and equine studies communities. There’s been a really strong push from the social sciences in equine research which has been so successful, and while there’s a lot to be gained from it, there’s also a need for other voices to attend to the qualitative aspects of horses lives with people. So I’m really pleased for this book to provide other voices, other perspectives, who advocate for the horse and their complex intelligences and way of relating.
KS: How does the book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
GA: Horses have been a part of my life since I met and sat on one at two years old, and particularly since I was 12 when a little Appaloosa named Buttons came to live with us. But for a few years since then, I’ve bred them, trained them, and lived with them from their births to their deaths. These horses lived with my family, they saw my sons grow up. We were all, humans and horses alike, a part of an impactful larger entity of kin that included all of us. (So impactful that one of my sons recently completed his MA thesis that used our interspecies family as a starting point.) But horses didn’t come into my academic focus until long after obtaining my initial degrees in Communications Studies, when as a mature student I pursued a doctorate in Archaeology. It was during that intellectual adventure that I found the field of HAS. It enabled me to bring together two essential aspects of my life—scholarship and the horses I’d shared lives with. The HAS field’s interdisciplinary nature also allowed me to reach further into other disciplines to answer questions that interest me, and to become even more of a cross-disciplinary theory geek than I already was.
JV: My own chapter draws from my background working on breeding farms and later as a veterinary technician working for a theriogenologist, so there’s a really direct connection there. But the book as a whole, and its main aims, also align with that background and the experiences I had over many years of doing that work. So much of my work during that time was about building relationships with the horses I was responsible for—raising foals, caring for mares, and also caring for stallions both mentally and physically. All of that is deeply relational work, and sometimes it’s not easy to put words around that or to even see it as a worthwhile object of reflection and study. As I went through graduate school and was introduced to HAS and Science and Technology Studies scholarship in my interdisciplinary PhD program, it became more possible to examine these spaces from my prior work. While these chapters all have very different origin points with each author, the authors all very bravely take up that challenge in their own way to put these elements of relating at the center of their analysis.
KS: Place your work in the context of literature in the field of Human-Animal Studies. How is it addressing and advancing current debates/issues/problematics in the field?
GA/JV: The essays in the volume are bracketed by two major tenets of the field of HAS. The first is that at one level or another, they all consider human-nonhuman animal (here, human-equine) relationships, which we conceive as bi-directional, interactive, and mutually influential partnerships. This focus on relationships opens up innumerable channels of interspecies touch points for human-equine scholars to pursue and reframes not only what we study, but also how we study it. The second principle of HAS we drew on calls on us to bring nonhuman animals into our research “as such,” that is, to include their lived experience and interests outside of our perceptions and constructions of them. This has proved for scholars more difficult than the focus on relationships. Part of this is due to survivals remaining from the social sciences’ anthropocentric beginnings. Another part of the issue tracks to the widely held belief that we cannot access others’ minds and therefore we should avoid attempting to do so. The chapters in this book together show we can speak to, from, and for animals’ perspectives at various levels of scale, from the species-level to very individual ways of being. This book thereby begins to offers ways around this roadblock for both HAS and Human-Equine Studies.
KS: What are some of your major messages?
GA: Overall: There is more to horses than most people imagine—even horse people. Horses speak, but they speak softly, with the flick of an ear, the swish of a tail, easy to miss. Because they are cooperative creatures, we often mistake their inherent cooperation for consent or enjoyment of what we ask of them. The biggest problem in EuroAmerican horse culture(s), in which horses most often are objectified and instrumentalized as tools for human recreation or entertainment, is that many humans don’t see horses as beings in their own right. Both Jeannette and I grew up in this milieu, and both of us have instances of regret—and we discuss this a bit in the book’s afterword—about the ways we were told to behave with horses by our human teachers. We now know the horses were the real teachers, and the ones to whose interests we needed to attune and attend. As we’ve learned more about horses through our own and others’ research, our consciousness concerning them and ways of being with them have shifted, for the better of the horses in our lives. We hope this book will convey something to readers who are horse people that encourages them to scrutinize and unhook from aspects of the Western horse world that no longer can be seen to benefit horses’ best interests.
JV: The most important message is that it is possible and necessary to advocate for horses through interdisciplinary scholarship. And also, a key message of this book is that there are multiple valid and useful ways to explore and understand horse-human relationships. I hope that readers of this book all encounter a pocket of the horse world here that they had not encountered before, and also that they all find a chapter that reframes something familiar to them in a new way, so they can evaluate their own advocacy and relationships with horses anew.
KS: What policy implications does the work provide regarding the advancement of human-animal relationships?
GA: Beyond my own interest in better understanding the horses I share worlds with and horses in general, the point of my work has always been to inform people about capabilities of horses they might not know about, particularly as within horse-human relationships. This isn’t just for the sake of intellectual curiosity. Anything that increases our knowledge about equine cognition, sociality, or relationality helps us better understand horses. The reality is that most horses today are kept by humans. A further goal that always drives my work is the hope that through letting the others know how incredibly capable, communicative, and complex horses are, this knowledge will shape perceptions that will fan out into bettering human-equine relationships and welfare at individual and policy levels. This anthology as a whole contributes in that same way. The overall point of this book for me—and I know Jeannette feels similarly—was to attempt to extend this further, using voices in addition to our own to amplify this message.
JV: We very much hope that this volume will circulate widely among people whose personal and professional lives intersect with the horse world, such as barn managers, trainers, veterinarians, breeders, and riders. This book contextualizes and at some points challenges many of the norms that operate in those spaces. Our hope is that better attention to equine welfare in commercial, professional, and recreational contexts can result in more protective policies for horses.
We invite you to enjoy The Relational Horse‘s Introduction: Humans and Horses in the Relational Arena and Chapter 2: Can You Hear Me (Yet)?—Rhetorical Horses, Trans-species Communication, and Interpersonal Attunement which have been made Open Access.
For more information and to purchase your copy of The Relational Horse, click here.