A woman running with her horse at liberty

Are you Ready for Equine Agency?

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The term ‘agency’ is commonplace in human-animal studies and was featured in public debate via ‘The Equitation Welfare Workshop’. The event gave practitioners, equitation science researchers, vets and therapists from around the world a chance to openly discuss agency and the sport horse.

But what is agency and how does it relate to people and horses?

The following discussion is adapted from the book ‘(Un)Stable Relations: Horses, humans and social agency’ which I co-authored with Lynda Byrke.

In the social sciences and humanities research field that is concerned with ‘animal studies’, agency is used to convey how non-human animals have the capacity to make choices and impact other human and non-human animals.

In many ways, the concept of agency is an attempt to recognise animals as subjects, that is beings who are capable of having subjective experiences and relationships, and not deny them similar or the same capacity as humans.

The term is problematic for humans and non-human animals alike, in that it carries a sense of ‘free will’. But agency does not exist in a vacuum of unlimited capacity for voice and action. Rather, it exists in relation to structure.

There are social, physical and symbolic structures which enable and constrain the extent to which we (feel we) can act upon our agency depending on who we are and with whom we are relating (e.g., male/female, human/animal, young/old).

Some social structures are liberating but others can be coercive or exploitative. Some might have the appearance of free will but have been built on invisible systems of power, threat, fear and subordination.

For example, democracy might seem to provide people with more choice than, say, communism, but many people would point out that in many democratic societies, voters are largely constrained to a choice of only two parties.

Horses too are located in political systems. Some forms of horse ‘training’ may seem to prioritise choice, such as work at liberty, but the horses may not be ‘agents of free will’, especially if they interact with humans in enclosed spaces where the horse is less capable of removing him or herself from human-horse power relations. ‘Resistance’ is a sign of agency, but what are we going to do about it?

It is important to recognise that horses are agents or have agency but it is something else entirely to interact with them in ways which honours and enables their agency.

For example, sometimes when we ride, we make demands of our horses and even if we are ‘listening’, we may have already decided which responses are acceptable, unacceptable or correct. Or we put horses in positions which greatly limit the range of responses they can give. This is not always bad. It is important to set horses up for success, however, it is us who decides what success looks like

Sometimes, we ask horses questions instead, respecting their agency by allowing them to respond in many different ways and accepting their response without judging it as correct or incorrect. However, the conversation we had yesterday on the arena may not be based on the same terms today out on the trail when we are about to cross paths with a snake.

“If you are going to fully commit to allowing your horse to express their agency, you need to be prepared for them to say ‘no’, ‘not now’ or ‘no, not like that’.

This is why context is so important and why agency should always be seen as relational. That is, equines are agents but their agency is a product of the relations between a human and a horse at any given time, subject to the social, cultural and historical context of all parties, not to mention the emotional states of horse and/or human.

Projected worlds

Humans work for their living and have social obligations and cultural expectations to meet.

It is not uncommon to hear an equestrian state (for the apparent benefit of their horse), ‘you have the other 23 hours of the day to yourself’, usually when a horse appears ‘naughty’ or reluctant to ‘work’. I sadly admit to having said this myself until some years ago. But now I realise I was saying it for my own benefit – to override my feelings of coercion.

It is simply not enough to say that ‘everybody’ has a job to do. Just because most humans work as a trade-off for enjoying their non-working lives (often in a job they do not enjoy), does not mean horses must do so too. That is no more than a projection of our human world and social contract onto horses – and one which is akin to telling a horse to ‘toughen up’, ‘get over it’ or ‘get used to the real world’.

These are all examples of humans projecting onto horses the things we have heard or have had to face ourselves but have not had enough agency – or have had too much structure – to challenge.

In any case, when did horses give informed consent to this 1 hour contract in return for 23 hours to themselves? And what do they get to do in those other 23 hours? Are they 23 hours of a life worth living or are they spent standing in isolation in a bare yard waiting for two feeds which arrive around 10 hours apart within a 24 hour period?

Such a horse might technically be an agent. They can react and respond to their conditions during the 23 hours they have ‘for themselves’ or even resist during the 1 hour they are expected to defer their agency to humans, but can we call that agency?

Over to you…

Agency is, as social scientists describe it, an emergent property of human-animal relations. That means that whilst your domestic horse is considered an agent, their ability to exercise agency largely depends on you. You might relate with your horse in ways that narrow or expand their agency. They probably relate in ways which narrow or expand yours. Whatever the case, as the primary instigators of interactions with horses, it is our responsibility to create the conditions that facilitate the expression of equine agency. But this is not as easy as unclipping the leadrope and opening the fences.

If you are going to fully commit to allowing your horse to express their sense of agency, you need to be prepared for them to say ‘no’, ‘not now’, ‘not today’ or ‘not like that’. Beware – you might be surprised by how this makes you feel about yourself.

In addition to equine agency, other emergent properties of your new and improved social relations with horses may very well be feelings of being disrespected, ineffective, powerless, voiceless, incompetent or unloved. It is important not to buy into those feelings or interpret your horse’s behaviour in those ways (for example, crafty, disrespectful, bullying, powerful, loud, lazy or ungrateful).

By listening to horses and negotiating with them as social agents (who have a right to give and withdraw their consent to engage with us), we can critically reflect not only on human-horse relations, but how we relate with and to each other and ourselves.

There has never been a better time to challenge the world we have created for horses or the world we have created for humans. We all deserve to be seen, heard, acknowledged and allowed to express ourselves – and we would all benefit from applying less judgment to what emerges.

The theoretical background and potential application of these ideas are discussed in much greater length in the book, ‘(Un)Stable Relations: Horses, humans and social agency’ by Linda Birke and Kirrilly Thompson, available at Amazon, on this link.

This article appeared in the September-October 2020 Magazine. 

Kirrilly Thompson PhD (Social Sciences)
Dr Kirrilly Thompson

Kirrilly Thompson, PhD, is Participation Manager at Pony Club Australia, Vice Chair of the Horse Federation of SA and a freelance qualitative research consultant. She has more than a decade of experience as an equestrian social scientist and has published over 100 journal articles, chapters and industry reports. Together with Lynda Birke, she is co-author of the book (Un)Stable Relations: Horses, Humans and Social Agency (Routledge Human-Animal Studies Series) which considers the role of horses in human-horse relations.

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