Horses Don't Have to be Ridden

two icelandic horses in natural landscape

Today in an online forum for equestrians, someone posed a question: they wanted to know how to get themselves motivated to ride, because they often spend their time at the barn just loving on their horses and clearly feel bad about that. I was heartened to see some of the responses by other people who posted, which echoed my own thoughts: it's OK to just hang out with your horses.

Truthfully, it seems to be a relatively rare opinion in the equestrian world. After all, aren't horses meant for riding? Otherwise they're just hay-burners; listless, expensive livestock without jobs to give their lives meaning. At least, that's what I've heard my whole life. Time after time I've had conversations with other horse owners who admitted sheepishly that they don't ride much, seemingly displaying a guilt that they've been somehow "duped" into being soft or indulgent horse owners that don't demand the work their horses ought to do. I, myself, have been that person: after I adopted an unrideable rescue mare that nobody else had wanted, I faced many incredulous people who wondered what the point of owning a horse is if you can't sit on their back. Even as I work to train my new-ish horse, people continue to ask when I'm going to start riding her (the answer: when she's ready - no sooner than that).

we're so used to the tradition of horses being ridden that we've naturally assumed that that is what they are here for.

But here's the thing: these opinions that base a horse's value on the work they're able to do are based on very old beliefs that led us to domesticate horses in the first place. Before cars, trains and planes, human civilization relied upon intelligent, easy-trained equines (horses, donkeys and mules). We rode upon their backs, hooked them up to carriages, plowed our fields with them. Battles were fought on their backs. New spices and flavors and goods traveled to different regions of land, introducing cultures and spreading ideas and languages. Indeed, there are still working equines across the world, helping to manage herds of cattle, plowing fields, carting goods and people in areas where mechanical vehicles are not available or cannot be operated.

Because of this massive role that equines have played in human history, we continue to think of them as workers - as a species that provides us with a service. Even in the majority of the equestrian world, where horses are now kept for pleasure versus day-to-day necessity, we're so used to the tradition of horses being ridden that we've naturally assumed that that is what they are here for.

But just because horses have proven that they can be ridden and have been successfully domesticated does not mean that that is why they exist. Horses do not exist for us - they exist, and we decided that we were their purpose for existing. This is NOT just my personal opinion - as someone who studies equine behavior, I pride myself on my ability to look at this topic on an objective level based on ethology.

Horses do not exist for us - they exist, and we decided that we were their purpose for existing.

While it is true that horses have mainly adapted to human demands in the domesticated world, a look at the lives of feral horses offers an excellent baseline for understanding just how much humans have projected our own ideals onto their lives. In a horse's natural lifespan without any contact with humans, there is no situation in which any creature sits and rides on the horse's back the way humans do. All horses within a feral herd are equal in value, according to nature, which does not apply judgment to individual lives based on human systems of belief. And yet, we've created and generally maintain a false system of valuing the lives of horses who are ridden more than the unridden ones.

I am not using this argument to say that horses shouldn't ever be ridden. That ship has long since sailed and many horses who are trained for riding or other work have adapted relatively well to their jobs. But I am advocating for an adjustment in perspective within the equestrian world, based on this truth. Most of us no longer live in a world where riding is a necessity, and thus, our beliefs about the unridden horse should change, too. A horse that is not ridden still has the same basic life value that any other horse has, according to objective reality. And indeed, many horse owners still derive a sense of fulfillment from caring for their horses even without riding as a factor.

It's time for us to draw into focus our hidden belief systems and consider the ways that they might be impacting this entire species. If we become aware of the relative absurdity of human expectations that fly in the face of the natural world, we can start to act fairer. Kinder. Perhaps fewer horses would end up in kill pens after they became "unusable" by their owners, for example. And maybe we could learn to see ourselves in a different light, too - perhaps question the hidden belief systems that also value or devalue human lives based on our productivity. But that's a different topic, for another blog.