It might be a mouthful to pronounce, but anthropomorphism needn’t be hard to swallow. In this article, Dr Kirrilly Thompson moves away from a discussion about whether or not attributing human characteristics to horses is bad, to a consideration of when and how it can produce positive or negative outcomes for horses.
Anthropomorphisation is, literally, the application of human (anthropos) form (morpho) to animals and is, essentially, the attribution of human characteristics to animals. An example would be to interpret our feature photo as two horses laughing at the camera. Anthropomorphising is understanding animals on human terms – not their own.
Given that animals are different to humans, anthropomorphising is usually considered as false and misleading – something of a barrier to understanding how animals might perceive their own world.
However, humans are animals too and this is where things get interesting. The negative view of anthropomorphisation with which we are usually faced is only one side of the story.
Can anthropomorphisation actually help humans understand non-human animals like horses?
In this article, I move away from a discussion about whether or not anthropomorphism is bad, to a consideration of when and how it can produce positive or negative outcomes for horses.
We are often told that anthropomorphising animals is an error that should be avoided, on the grounds that it is unscientific and leads to poor animal welfare outcomes. These concerns are well justified. They come from the scientific study of animals by biologists, ethologists and animal behaviourists seeking to understand animal behaviour without projecting their own human interpretations. This is incredibly important, as animals have their own species-specific life worlds.
We also know that there are significant differences in the brains of humans and other animals that prevent us from thinking and processing information in the same ways.
What distinguishes humans from horses, for example, is our highly developed pre-frontal cortex. We use ours for executive functioning such as planning, reasoning and rationalising. So, to a large extent it is true that horses experience and make sense of the world in ways which are different to ours. And it is here that the line is usually drawn which asserts that humans should not anthropomorphise horses.
In many ways, saying that we should not anthropomorphise horses, is like saying that the human-horse species boundary is so great, that horses are fundamentally unknowable to humans and we can never really know what it is like to be a horse.
Ironically, the implications of these kinds of arguments against anthropomorphising horses can be just as great as the implications of only seeing horses in anthropomorphic (human) terms.
If we think we can never know what it might be like to be a horse, we may stop trying to understand what their world and their interactions with humans might be like.
However, there is more to the story and this is the important point; whilst we may not know if horses make sense of their world in similar ways to us, neither can we say they do not.
As noted by Charles Darwin, ‘the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind’ (1871: 101). That is, horses are not humans, but humans and horses are both animals, and both are mammals.
As such, humans and horses may experience the world in many common ways. Anthropomorphism could then be an appropriate way to consider those shared ways of being in the world.
As such, anthropomorphism is not necessarily the erroneous attribution of human characteristics to horses, but an acknowledgment of doubt that neither can we be sure that they are not like humans.
It is anthropomorphising to say that horses are friends with one another, as some critics would say that humans have friendships but horses form bonds. But calling out this instance of anthropomorphisation does not mean that horses cannot have friends. Rather, it means that we are not certain that horses experience friendships with one another in the same way in which humans experience it.
When we see anthropomorphism as an expression of doubt, rather than an error, we move from making horses unknowable to us to creating the possibility that humans can know, empathise and understand horses – maybe even create a shared language with them – and vice versa. And this can provide the motivation for us to try.
In the past few years, progress in research design and methods have allowed scientists to recognise that horses can do many things previously thought particular only to humans.
For example, a 2016 article reported that horses have many complex facial movements in common with humans.
Papers from 2018 report that horses can read submissive and dominant body language in humans, that they can recognise human emotions from facial expressions and they can remember the emotions of individual humans. Just like (most of) us!
Of course, due to cognitive and physiological differences, there are many things that horses and humans can never have in common, but this is not to say that there may be many that we do share; feelings of love, sadness and confusion, for example.
Some forms of anthropomorphisation can indeed contribute to negative welfare outcomes for horses – examples of these are over-rugging, punishing a horse that is assumed to have ‘known better’ or assuming that a horse is not in pain if they still have an appetite.
Some forms of anthropomorphism are indeed completely inappropriate such as assuming a horse is being vindictive, doing something to annoy you or taking revenge. Scientific research suggests that these are probably human-only traits.
Projecting these kinds of complex anthropomorphic interpretations onto horse behaviour often lead to questionable or unethical practices. For example, facing a horse at a jump it has just refused for the purpose of whipping it, has no relationship to how horse’s learn (and would not be acceptable for teaching humans either).
However, there are forms of anthropomorphisation that can contribute to positive welfare outcomes for horses. Just like humans, they can experience pain from equipment, bits, whips and spurs.
So, instead of just calling out anthropomorphism, perhaps we need to move the discussion to the implications of specific types of anthropomorphism relative to the impacts on equine health and wellbeing.
We might then begin to differentiate when anthropomorphism is appropriate/inappropriate, useful/not useful or good/bad for equine welfare. After all, some of history’s most tragic events are characterised by humans not recognising their similarities with other animals (and other humans for that matter).
It only follows that some of humanity’s most noble and compassionate achievements have come from recognising what we have in common with those who may at first glance seem so different.
The ideas in this article are explored in greater depth in ‘Thompson, Kirrilly, and Clarkson, Larissa. “How owners determine if the social and behavioral needs of their horses are being met: Findings from an Australian online survey.” JVB (2018)’ available here or by request to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Smith, Amy Victoria, et al. “Functionally Relevant Responses to Human Facial Expressions of Emotion in the Domestic Horse (Equus Caballus).” Biology letters 12 2 (2016).
- Smith, Amy Victoria, et al. “Domestic Horses (Equus Caballus) Prefer to Approach Humans Displaying a Submissive Body Posture Rather Than a Dominant Body Posture.” Animal Cognition 21 2 (2018): 307-12.
- Proops, Leanne, et al. “Animals Remember Previous Facial Expressions That Specific Humans Have Exhibited.” Current Biology 28 9 (2018): 1428-32.e4.
- Bekoff, M. (2010). The emotional lives of animals: A leading scientist explores animal joy, sorrow, and empathy—and why they matter. New World Library.