Horseback riding: Is it vegan?
Well, let’s first ask, what is veganism? Veganism is the idea that non-human animals do not exist for human purposes or consumption. The practice of being vegan involves doing whatever we possibly can to reduce our contribution to animal exploitation and suffering. So then the question is, Are horses being used for human purposes in horseback riding? The obvious answer is yes, as that is literally what it is about. Humans riding horses. Seems simple enough, but apparently not to the equestrian community, so let me elaborate.
The biggest thing I encountered when discussing this was a fundamental misunderstanding of what exploitation actually is. Exploitation isn’t necessarily physical abuse. Exploitation is the process of taking advantage of the resources and labor of someone else. In this case, the horse’s resources are they are very fast, strong, and clever. Their labor is carrying humans on their back, and in many cases, being made to race, jump hurtles, or in especially odd cases, perform specific steps to the beat of music. The rider takes advantage of these resources and labor by riding, which most find enjoyable by itself, winning prizes in competitions and shows, and monetary gain through “leasing out” these horses to other riders. Ipso facto exploitation.
But then isn’t everyone exploited in some way? Well, yes. In a capitalist society, the ruling class exploits the working class, mostly for money and power. That’s just how it is, but just because we are being exploited beyond our control, doesn’t justify our exploitation of others, especially of non-human animals who wouldn’t have any part in our society, if it weren’t for human intervention.
So as it’s been proven thus far, at the heart of horse riding is exploitation of horses, which cannot ever be vegan, no matter if you only train through flowers and kisses. Moving on from that, I’d like to also address a lot of other questions that were presented to me by the equestrian community:
What about dogs and cats? Isn’t owning them exploitation too?
First, if you consider yourself an animal/pet owner, you probably don’t really respect the animal’s self agency. No human can own an animal. I don’t hear people referring to themselves as “child owners”, after all. That aside, if you bought the animal, that is exploitation. Animals are not commodities to be bred, bought, and sold as humans deem fit. Domestication of a species is never vegan and can only be ended by people refusing to buy more animals, and only adopting the ones already in existence. Like dogs, and unlike cats, horses weren’t domesticated for companionship, they have been specifically bred for transportation, agriculture, warfare, and sport (dogs being bred for hunting, herding, etc), so horses are more willing and able to do what humans want. This is obviously very exploitative.
Just adoption is not enough. It also depends on whether you adopted the animal for a specific purpose (riding) or if you just wanted to give them a better life. For instance, if I adopt a purebred dog, but then train them to perform in dog shows, that is exploitation.
Many people compared riding a horse to walking a dog. If I walk a dog because they need exercise and fresh air, that is not exploitation. That is having their best interest in mind, but if I hop on their back and make them carry me, that is exploitation. Another, more ridiculous example, is if I thought a good way for me to get exercise is to run with a dog, so I adopt a dog for that purpose and then go running with them really for my own benefit. Would I be hurting the dog? Probably not. Would the dog receive benefits from being walked and living under my care? Sure, but that’s not the question. The question is am I using the dog to serve my own interests, in this case my own physical fitness? The answer is yes, so it is exploitation because it means that my deepest concerns are of my own, not the dog’s.
What if I’m really nice to my horse? That’s ok, right?
I would really hope you are being nice to the animal you’ve enslaved and forced to work for you, since that’s the least you could do, but no matter how nice you are, that doesn’t make it not exploitation, as explained above. A lot of people told me they use less forceful techniques, as if any unnecessary force on an animal is ethical. Some people even told me they use natural horsemanship practices. Briefly looking into it, I see that is is the “humane” way to train a horse. They train through patience and understanding, rather than pain and fear (whips, spurs, etc). Many do not “break in” horses, as I’ve been told, and instead of paddocks and stables, they use free-roaming fields. That’s obviously much better than the abusive alternative, but it does not negate the fact that they are still training, coercing, and conditioning horses to use for sport and entertainment. This is animal-welfarism, not animal rights. Moving on
Horses need exercise. Riding is like going to the gym!
When I look up horse exercising I see a lot of articles discussing the reasons horses need lots of exercise. Not surprisingly, the biggest reasons are that horses who are kept in stables, need to be freed from them often or they will become sick. The other most popular reason is so that the horse is strong enough to compete in competitions. It seems the obvious conclusion is get rid of the stables and the competitions and the horses won’t need so much exercise. If anything, I’m sure you could run around with a horse on a lead or in a fenced field, without riding on top of them. I also have a hard time believing a wild horse, allowed to run around freely, would have problems not getting enough exercise without human intervention.
Horses are big animals. They wouldn’t do anything they didn’t want to!/My horse loves riding and competing/Horses like having a job to do
My guess is the rider is just projecting their own happiness and desires onto their horse and evidence would confirm my suspicions. According to an article from The Horse magazine (which I had to register for in order to view this):
“For a social, prey animal, it’s not surprising that horses will generally choose feeding and social contact over locomotion,” said Uta König von Borstel, PhD, researcher at the University of Göttingen in Germany.
König von Borstel and her fellow researcher Julia Keil, BSc, of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in Vienna, Austria, created a study in which horses were given the choice of more or less work. The team trained 18 warmblood horses in an arena set up with a Y-shaped entrance. If they took the left branch of the Y, they would work two circles before the rider dismounted. If they took the right branch of the Y, they would work only one circle before the rider dismounted. Once the horses had been trained sufficiently in that pattern, the riders dismounted and the horses were allowed to make the choice themselves: right branch or left branch?
As it turns out, they didn’t seem to choose either one, König von Borstel said. In fact, their favorite choice was usually the exit.
“Results from the study suggest that horses prefer exiting the riding arena rather than being ridden at all,” she said.
Seems odd that they would still promote riding horses, right? but then their true colors show
“The very vast majority of humans won’t keep horses only to keep them as a pet on pasture,” she said. “So the decision, then, is between having: (1) horses whose welfare might be slightly compromised for an hour or so per day by us riding them, or (2) having, in the long run, very few or no horses altogether, as we will have no ‘use’ for them and they are too expensive (for most people) to be kept as pets.”
So at the end of the day, people want to ride horses, no matter what the horse would prefer.
Why don’t horses just refuse to work, since they’re so large and powerful? Well, my guess is thousands of years of breeding, social conditioning, and training. Just because they let you do it, doesn’t mean they enjoy it and it’s important to understand that it’s not in the hands of the victim to express their discomfort. If you are doing something that involves the body of someone else, you do not get to do whatever you want until they throw you off. You do not get to use them at all and sitting on top of a horse and controlling where and how fast they go, is using their body.
If the horse doesn’t really mind, and they benefit too, what’s the problem?
You do not have the rights to anyone else’s body, actions, or life. When given the choice, a horse would rather lay around with their horsey friends, then perform strenuous activities. As someone who says they love and care about horses so much, you should respect their right to self agency, even if it means you don’t get what you want from them. A horse doesn’t owe any person anything, no matter is they provide shelter, companionship, and healthcare. There are other ways to bond with a horse than to ride around on their backs. Respect horses. Don’t ride them.
So what are we supposed to do? Set them all free?
That’s one option, as all horses retain the ability to live as feral; however, it would probably be very ecologically irresponsible to dump millions of horses in the wild all at once. I suggested to a lot of people that they just keep their horses, but not ride or breed them (according to the humane society, almost all 9.2 million horses in America are the result of purposeful breeding or from not separating mares and stallions), so the sport would eventually die out and only wild horses would exist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of responses I received were “Why would I spend all that time and money to not ride?” One person went as far as to refer to a horse, an animal they claimed they loved and respected dearly, as “essentially a lawn ornament.” Yikes. I mean, it really shows what the mentality to these horse’s lives are. They see it as merely a trade off. They get to ride and the horse gets to live a life of safety and grooming, but they do not truly have the horse’s best interests at heart, if they no longer see any reason to care for a horse they weren’t riding.
Another person pointed out to me that many people cannot afford all the expenses of a horse by themselves, so they have to rent their horse to others, in order to cover the costs. This is incredibly exploitative, to begin. The idea you can just rent out a horse to someone, like a car or dvd is a truly awful way to think of a horse’s life. It also brings up the issue of what happens if the horse gets injured or becomes too old to ride? Maybe old horses are less expensive to keep, I wouldn’t know, but it seems like the horse would probably be disposed of in some way because costs of living couldn’t be met. That aside, the worst case scenario would be to continue letting others ride your horse until the end of the horse’s life, and then not raising anymore. Certainly they shouldn’t continue to promote horse riding and they should discourage others in their horse community to stop as well. Or as I said earlier, they could just set them free, if no other options are available.
Since I’ve never ridden a horse before, and have no intentions to, I’d like to include testimony from a former horse-back rider, turned vegan.
To conclude, using horses for riding, sport, entertainment, or transportation is in its very nature exploitative and therefore, not vegan, no matter the situation.
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