Horses and Humans: On and Off the Track

Image Source: George Stubbs – Public Domain

News about the brutal treatment of racehorses might lead us to believe that we can clean up the sport, adopting “humane” practices, but even those are extremely problematic.

Images of thoroughbreds stumbling, becoming maimed and collapsing ignited outrage in the wake of record numbers of horse racing deaths in 2018 and 2019. One thousand racehorses were injured on the track and subsequently euthanized in 2018 in the United States alone. Alarm about the high death toll has centered on the hazardous weather conditions in which horses are made to run as well as the sport’s ubiquitous use of “performance enhancing” drugs. Amphetamines, caffeine and anabolic steroids hype them up while anti-inflammatory and anti-bleeding medications deaden maimed horses’ pain so that they can be raced in spite of their injuries. One radio commentator defended the industry, callously remarking, “These animals were bred to be raced. Would you rather come into this world knowing there would be some risks, or not be born at all?”

A federal bill passed on July 25, 2019 ramping up enforcement of laws prohibiting the “soring” of Tennessee Walking horses also unnerved the public. Media reports detailed the torturous methods employed to achieve the breed’s signature artificial gait, including applying caustic chemicals to their legs; pressure shoeing, or cutting the hoof almost to the quick and tightly nailing on metal shoes; placing tacks into the quicks of their hooves; and riding them with chains around their “sored” ankles to increase the pain. As the sored horse tries to escape the agony, they swiftly raise their front legs to a tremendous height with each step while appearing to sit back on their haunches, achieving the desired “praying mantis” effect.

Controversy about horse racing and horse soring centers on the abuse, rather than use, of horses. The implication is that by eliminating the running of maimed horses and ceasing the deliberate mutilation of their ankles, horse sports would be humane. But what if we consider the fundaments of equestrianism itself? At the risk of stating the obvious, horses do not want to be utilized as instruments and must be forced to accede to humans’ wishes, a process called “breaking.” First, they are made to tolerate a series of restraints about their heads and torsos, known as tack. Trainers may quell the horse’s resistance to these restraints by incrementally desensitizing them and/ or applying punishments including whipping, kicking, tethering them in stress positions, fettering their feet and loading heavy weight onto their backs.

The bit, a piece of metal inserted into the horse’s mouth, is used to make them stop or turn, pulled by the reins. Not very different from the mouths of humans, horses’ mouths are intensely sensitive, containing an intricate system of cranial nerves. Bits affect the horse’s jaws, roof of the mouth, lips and top of the head and produce what is called the “nutcracker effect,” the pinching and squeezing of the tongue. As such, even the subtlest movements of the rider’s hands exert great discomfort while any harsh or sudden tugging causes extreme pain and distress. If pulling the horse by the mouth doesn’t work, the rider kicks the horse’s abdomen with their heels. In many equestrian disciplines, spurs are worn on the heels of riding boots to make kicking more effective. Riders also employ whips to strike the horse’s hips and buttocks to force them to move or move faster.

Broken horses will not struggle; they will pull vehicles and can be ridden in sports including racing, polo, dressage, jumping, vaulting, hunting, rodeos and trail riding. The expression, “broke to death,” refers to a horse who has been made utterly submissive and, thus, safe to ride by even an inexperienced equestrian. In the human imaginary, few creatures are considered as majestic, charismatic and independent as the horse, galloping through open ranges. Yet it is thus, with saddles, bits, bridles, blinders, spurs, kicks and whips that we misappropriate their enormous power for human enjoyment.

Given growing awareness about animal sentience, it is reasonable to suppose that equestrian practices might ultimately be denounced. After all, traditions change over time. Ideally, those that foster kindness are cultivated, while others that inflict suffering are abandoned. But while the inroads made by animal rights pose a looming challenge to horse breaking, a movement called Natural Horsemanship is a backlash against change. Popularized in the 1990s, Natural Horsemanship not only subverts but capitalizes on eco and animal-friendliness, casting the use of horses in the politically correct terms of respect for nature and other species. “Natural Horsemen” discard the term, “breaking,” in favor of “starting,” “backing” or “gentling.” Instead of whips, they employ what they call “carrot sticks,” which are essentially ordinary whips with frayed edges.

Pat Parelli, an influential practitioner of Natural Horsemanship, devised the Seven Games, purportedly based on positive reinforcement rather than punishment, “containing” rather than “restraining” horses’ flight instinct to form a “partnership.” The “Friendly Game” induces the horse to accept handling. The trainer begins by rubbing parts of their body where they will tolerate touch, incrementally pushing against their threshold of discomfort and fear while making sudden, jerking movements that inherently startle horses. According to Parelli, this game builds trust, enabling the “nervous, fearful” prey animals to suppress their instinctive vigilance and “adapt” to humans. Once the horse is desensitized and stops reacting, the trainer is able to lie, kneel and even stand on them. “The Circling Game” calls upon the horse’s instinct to bolt in panic, run in circles and eventually acquiesce, a process Parelli claims “tests the horse’s respect and ability to listen to you.” Horses are naturally claustrophobic, since small or tight spaces spell disaster for prey animals. In the “Squeeze Game,” the horseman backs up and corners the horse, desensitizing them to move through progressively more cramped quarters. Parelli alleges that getting them to accept these uncomfortable situations will “Help your horse overcome his fears.”

Cloaked in the language of friendship, Parelli’s games achieve the same result as traditional horse breaking, effectively forcing unwilling subjects into submission. He asserts that he embodies the alpha horse to situate his “leadership” as natural, but even animals who would perish without meat kill their prey in a singular attack; no other species holds their victim captive for life, exerting total, perpetual control over every aspect of their existence.

Parelli’s so-called “play” is consistent with a number of other allegedly gentler approaches to the treatment of animals. The “humane livestock handling” innovations of animal scientist Temple Grandin feature curved cattle chutes which prevent the animals from seeing what lies ahead; as such, they are calmer and less resistant to being led to their slaughter, reducing injury to workers and facilitating a more rapid and efficient assembly line.

Understanding about the imperative to adopt a more reverential attitude toward non-human life is on the rise. Plant-based diets are catching on in response to concern about animal welfare and the environmentally devastating effects of animal agriculture. But the pretense of humans’ gentle dominion poses an insidious obstacle to such progress. Meaningfully questioning the ways humans relate to non-humans and the environment requires acknowledgement of the hostility at their root. The fact is that the fatality figure for racehorses cited above includes only recorded, on-site killings. Thousands of “retired” racehorses are annually sold and exported abroad where, often still conscious, they are shackled, hung and dismembered in foreign abattoirs for dog food and glue. These procedures are of a kind with standard animal industry practices including live-plucking ducks’ feathers for puff coats, suffocating male chicks, useless to the egg industry, by the bag full and, indeed, debeaking, dehorning, tail docking and castrating farmed animals without anesthesia.

As political scientist Dinesh Wadiwel observes, our treatment of animals is symptomatic of an ethos of war: “The scale by which we kill and harm animals would seem to confirm that our mainstay relationship with animals is combative or at least focused upon producing harm and death.” Holding horses captive and forcing them into servitude — like shackling and shuttling cattle to slaughter or burning and dismembering guinea pigs for scientific experimentation – are battles waged against perceived enemies. The drive to “break” an idealized species – demonstrating our feelings for them with whips, bits, chains and kicks — reflects an exceptionally perverse form of animosity. The only way to repair our treatment of animals is to abandon our weapons and recognize them as allies, individuals with inherent value rather than means to an end, fellow “earthlings” like us who strive for freedom and the chance to live out their lives. By definition, there is no humane way to use them.


*All attributions to Pat Parelli are from his website:

** The attribution to Dinesh Wadiwel is from his book, The War against Animals (2015).

***Horseracing Wrongs is the single non-profit organization committed to eradicating horseracing and the dissemination of accurate, up-to-date information about racehorse deaths in the United States.

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her publications on Critical Animal Studies and the legacies of African enslavement include “Haunting Pigs, Swimming Jaguars: Mourning, Animals and Ayahuasca”(2019), “Akbar Stole My Heart: Coming Out as an Animalist” (2013), and White Negritude: Race, Writing and Brazilian Cultural Identity (2008). Her current book project, “Home Sick,” blends theory with creative nonfiction to meditate on grief, end of life, the medical-industrial complex, Islamophobia and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.