She, the little girl, was not of the horse community or in the horse community. As an adult with a family of her own, she understands implicitly that those who are part of said community have a unique perspective which many of us may not fully understand. This little girl’s name is Laura and her adult perspective was born of watching and witnessing someone who was of that community.
He was not a good man in so many of the important ways and definitely not a healthy role model for a young, impressionable child whose heart decried the violence and abuse she witnessed. She hoped with that little girl’s heart that he did not in any way represent the majority of those who do have horses, who care for them and who love them within the framework of “ownership”. Yet, it is the invisible, dark side of owning someone to use him or her that the adult Laura believed needed to be addressed, for the sake of all the animals who are used and exploited by humans. So, one day she decided to speak about it.
The man, as you may have guessed, was her father, Dougal. He is no longer here to defend himself against her declarations, so she relies on her desire to be transparent and honest and hopes that said describes well and truly what she witnessed and why she thinks her father treated horses and other animals and humans the way that he did.
Dougal was a big man in stature and demanded and commanded respect from all those within and without his life. Power, the need to have it, to flaunt it, to exercise it over others was a driving force that burned within him. Laura believes that he equated it with status, physical proof of his value and place in this world of men. The more powerful he felt, the more control he had. And yet, he could be gentle at times and loving and generous. This was a side that she did not see often enough because it was mostly obscured by the violent temper, the bravado, the arrogance and the cruelty which bubbled constantly and ferociously just below the surface of his psyche. It was the gentle side that people in her family loved and for that she of course gives him credit. But the other and more predominant side was to be feared and fear it little Laura did.
Her father owned horses as a hobby, the goal of which was to breed them, to ride them, to show them. She watched him train them with force, load them into trailers with force, often discipline them with whips and sometimes a board whenever they balked at being used according to his wishes. Dougal did not countenance being disobeyed.
Laura was obliged to attend local horse shows and to watch as Dougal vied for top place. Being first was so very important to him. Sometimes he rode, sometimes others did. It was such a miserable experience for Laura that she would try to say no to attending. Occasionally it worked, but more often than not it did not.
When there, she would try to disappear, to exclude herself from watching the events, but he would notice and admonish her. Reaching the age of sixteen or so provided a modicum of freedom for Laura because she would stand shakily and defiantly in front of her father and say, ”No, I am just not going!”. He would stomp away in anger, calling the girl an ingrate, the meaning of which she did not even get the first time he laid it on her. Being insulted and bullied was far less traumatic for Laura than having to watch the rampant exploitation present at all of these shows. So, she felt free as a bird and powerful in her own right. She had stood up for herself and won!!
Apart from forcing her to witness the cruelty and obliging her to attend shows, Laura’s father would also try from time to time to “make her learn” how to ride. She can’t really say whether her fear of horses and most animals comes from being forced onto the backs of some, despite her repeated entreaties to be spared, or whether she was just a fearful kid. Laura says that she does remember with great clarity, protesting and sobbing and shaking so much that she could not access the stirrup easily and she would have to be hoisted up, very roughly into the saddle. The sobbing never stopped and the poor girl could not get the hang of matching the horse’s gate. So, Laura would bounce awkwardly up and down, each slap of the saddle a jarring reminder of how much she did not want to be on top of this horse’s back. Laura never did learn how to ride, but became quite adept at making herself scarce when the threat of riding loomed on the horizon.
And yet, despite knowing all that she did of her father’s lack of respect for and exploitation of the animal dependents in his care, she reluctantly admits to enjoying family sleigh rides in the dead of winter in a pertly painted little sleigh. The gold bells attached to the side of the sleigh would ring in time with the rhythmic crunching sound of the horses’ hooves as they met with the hardened snow of the streets they traveled in her small hometown.
Going to the Sulky Races became another family favorite when grown up Laura would visit her parents, kids in tow. They would have an early supper, pile in to the car and head out to the local horse track. It was exciting to watch the horses run, to watch them compete, to celebrate when the horses on whom they had bet did indeed prevail. Win, Place or Show was thrilling for those who had guessed correctly. They would laugh, high five, collect their winnings and place yet another bet.
Why the disconnect she asks herself? Had she distanced herself from the use in order to enjoy family time? Did she not grasp that horses and other animals are not commodities? Did she believe that her father’s casual and often brutal treatment of them was solely about him and not about the accepted and age old culture of domesticating and breaking horses in order to use them? Laura does not have the answer. With a sad shake of her head, she admits to herself and those to whom she is speaking that maybe it is a little bit of everything.
Dougal’s history with horses may be an exception. It may not. But, after hearing Laura’s story, I am not sure it really matters. When we domesticate living and sentient beings, we do so in order to use them for profit, whether financial, emotional or psychological. I have learned from Ren Hurst, author and former horsewoman that these animals, whatever our reason for “owning” them, are captive dependents. “They rely on us for their very survival: quite simply, they are not in a position of power to say yes to their use, and most have forgotten how to say no.” And so, we should not use them. If we do, we should not call that love, no matter how lovingly we treat them.
I climbed on board, and I placed my hands palm down across your back, withers, gently and lovingly. I asked, “Cisco, is it OK with you for me to be on your back and training you?” I felt your body stiffen. Then you let out a deep sigh and dropped your head, and your body relaxed. I had your permission. My eyes welled up, I slid off your back, and I never climbed on top of another horse again.
~ Ren Hurst: Riding on the Power of Others, page 116
Annie’s Vegan View
History and culture do not denote permission to continue using others for personal profit, whatever form that profit takes.
As a species, it is incumbent upon humans to look inward for the triggers and emotional trauma which lead us to seek validation and safety through the use of others, especially dependents in our care.
Veganism……for the liberation of all animals, even those who will forever be in our care, for the planet, for humans.
May all beings be happy and free.