What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Hurn, S. What’s Love Got to Do With It? The Interplay of Sex and Gender in the Commercial Breeding of Welsh Cobs.  Society & Animals, Vol  16, No. 1, 2008, 23-44.

With regards to the commercial sex industry and studies in the social sciences, the lack of research on commercial animal sex is clear.  As subjects in the commercial breeding industry, the animals do not have a choice about their involvement. Like many of the humans involved in sex work, nonhuman animals are, to all intents and purposes, enslaved by more powerful members of society and even by the mechanisms of globalization. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to argue that nonhuman animals are yet another exploited and muted group. Animal breeding, under the conditions of domestication, is a practice orchestrated by and for humans.

The issue of gender politics is also a dominant theme that is linked to the breeding of Welsh cobs (hardy, stocky native ponies) in West Wales. Studies have suggested that Cobs are engendered according to culturally dominant ideas relating to desirable human characteristics, both feminine and masculine. These human ideals are then projected on nonhuman animals who become markers of identity.

A study was based on five years of observation of a rural farming community in West Wales, where the breeding of Welsh cobs is of immense political, social, economic, and cultural significance. The author also speaks from field experience as a Welsh cob caregiver (owner), breeder, producer, and exhibitor. The main focus of the study was the act of purchasing sex—the cost of using a stallion and the factors that lead a mare’s owner to choose one stallion over another. These choices are determined by attitudes toward gender, and toward what they regard as acceptable treatment of their equine charges.

With the exception of companion animal-keeping (pet-keeping) in Western societies, the author argues that the vast majority of human interactions with domesticated animals are exploitative and commercially motivated. The act of domestication automatically places humans and animals in an unequal relationship, however, several scholars argue that domestication is actually mutually beneficial. Studies observe that the animals we eat, as well as those who are used for fur, hide, scientific research, or entertainment are bred by humans for human gain. Although not as commercially significant as the production of livestock for human consumption, animal breeding is big business.

Welsh cob stud fees and the enrolment of individual animals into breeding programs are usually determined according to their success in the show ring and their ability to live up to certain gender stereotypes. However, these economic gains must usually be offset against other, less tangible costs. The life of a male stud animal, for example, is often regarded as enviable (usually from a male perspective), as exemplified by the following quote from an informant with reference to his own stallion: “What a life! I know what I’d want to come back as if I ever get reincarnated!” In reality, the sexually “entire” status of a stud stallion brings with it certain disadvantages. As with the human sex industry in the commercial trade in animal sex, financial gain is usually only possible at the expense of the animal’s rights.

Another example of this exploitation can be seen in the practice overfeeding stallions to the point of obesity so that fatty deposits along the neck (crest) give the animal a more imposing presence in the show ring. Scholars describe similar practices involved in male body-building sub-culture.  Furthermore, stallions used for breeding purposes are mostly kept in a permanent state of isolation and housed in 12′ × 12′ loose boxes. The stallions emerge only to put on a show in front of prospective punters (mare owners) or to cover (the term used to refer to the sexual act)—a process that is over in a matter of minutes. The vast majority of stallion owners, and especially those with more than one stallion, reportedly tended to “keep them in,” especially during the showing season. Explanations tended to be functional—that it was easier to keep weight on them (“he runs himself ragged if he’s out—pacing up and down by the gate”) or that it was safer. Due to their enforced isolation, stallions usually emerge from their stables, highly receptive for sex. The stallions do not consciously demonstrate their masculinity as such but rather the characteristics—both physical and temperamental—that which epitomize cultural ideals of masculinity and that mare owners hope will be transferred to their offspring. Although these characteristics are present in more natural contexts, the stallions’ behaviors are shaped by their human owners in order to emphasize the animals’ sexual prowess. Nonetheless, because horses are naturally herd animals, the practice of keeping stallions in solitary confinement causes significant stress, often resulting in the development of abnormal behavioral conditions. Consequently, when they see a mare or are taken to shows, the stallions become extremely aroused and difficult to handle. This behavior is regarded as appropriately masculine.

The author observed in show rings that male handlers did in fact wind up their exhibits by shouting, whooping, hissing, and flicking them surreptitiously with whips, while female handlers were more intent on keeping their charges as quiet as possible.  Cobs also become metaphors for their owners’ sexual prowess. For example, several (male) breeders would joke about the link between an acquaintance’s infertile stallion (who had to be gelded) and the acquaintance’s own effeminacy—even going so far as to question his sexuality.

The ethics of commercial animal sex and the methods used reveal much about how people perceive nonhuman animals. One stud proprietor reported habitually sedating his primary brood mare, and physically restraining her to prepare for the sex act, which constitutes as rape. From the proprietor’s perspective, the mare was fulfilling her biological destiny (which was equated with her femaleness), and he was exercising his right, as a human male, to selectively control the breeding process for financial gain. Exemplary of this dominant, culturally acceptable attitude, mares belonging to most commercial Welsh cob breeders will spend most of their adult lives in a perpetual state of pregnancy and nursing, being used for breeding just 9 days after giving birth. Thus, they become—in the eyes of some breeders “baby making machines”.

In line with previous studies, the author emphasizes that masculine performance is the criterion against which cobs are valued, and that females (mares) are successful only when they are able to emulate stallions by exhibiting the same, culturally valued masculine characteristics, especially in the show ring. In the arena of commercial cob breeding, it appears that masculine, procreative performance sells. In other words, animals successful in the show ring are those with the higher stud fees, and subsequently, their stock becomes more valuable. The animals are prized in the show ring if they exemplify the masculine characteristics of the stallion and are deemed able to pass on their promising virility to their offspring. Mares are measured not only in terms that they emulate stallions, but also in terms of their reproductive ability, and their biologically ascribed, natural femaleness.

In line with observations based on previous studies, the female handlers are usually incapable of subverting the show room ritual, indicating that their sex (lack of physical strength and speed) prevents them. As one scholar notes, “women who ‘make it’ in racing are often described as “unfeminine” because they are “strident and self-assured”.  However, in some instances, female cobs (as well as racehorses and female handlers) are capable of “subverting the ritual” through their successful exhibition of masculinity.

In the world of commercial animal sex, this study has demonstrated that, for Welsh cobs at least, their enrollment in the sex trade is related to their embodiment of certain culturally determined, gendered characteristics, with an emphasis on heterosexual masculinity leading to procreative reproduction. It appears that the masculinity of the horse/handler pairing in the show ring is also an important criterion, as women handlers and the feminine (slighter and more placid) mares consistently fail to get placed.

The author concludes that in the world of commercial cob breeding, love has nothing to do with sex. If a mare takes to the stallion, then it makes the process easier for all concerned. If she does not, then there is little she can do about it. The situation is always in the hands of the human (usually male) agents who choose procreative pairings based on their knowledge of the show records of key individuals and heir lineages—with particular emphasis on male ancestors. Like numerous human sex workers, many nonhuman animals are forced into having sex (often against their will) for the financial gain of their caretakers. Although the paper has focused on the breeding of a specific type of animal in the geographical region from whence the breed originated, many of the themes raised here could also be applicable in other ethnographic contexts.

Summary by Effie Heotis

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