Raise your hand if you’ve ever been chastised (or heard someone else being chastised) for anthropomorphizing a horse? In the horse industry, “anthropomorphizing” is typically considered a mortal sin. But in my experience, overzealous attempts to avoid anthropomorphism can be far more dangerous… often leading to serious misunderstandings, injuries, illnesses, accidents and (dare I say it?) downright abuse.
For those who may not be familiar with the term, anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities, including animals such as horses. Anthropomorphism gets a bad rap because, when taken to an extreme, it can lead to an excessively anthropocentric stance, where a person attributes an entirely unrealistic number (or type) of human characteristics in animals where they may not actually exist. For example, when a human assumes all horses feel cold, and need to be blanketed, whenever that human feels cold or needs a coat to feel comfortable outside. Or, when a human assumes all horses will be more comfortable, or safe, sleeping in a barn than being outside overnight simply because most humans feel safer and more comfortable sleeping in a house than outside.
But what about the excessive avoidance or rejection of anthropomorphism (even in the face of clear behavioral evidence), which leads to a devastating denial of the very real and vast similarities we share with horses? In my experience, this denial is far more rampant in the horse industry – and far more dangerous for both horses and humans – than excessive anthropomorphism will ever be. For example, how often do humans choose to categorically deny that horses experience the same types and frequency of physical pain or discomfort in their bodies as we do in ours, despite a multitude of behavioral responses suggesting this pain exists? How often do humans choose to ignore or deny the fact that horses form incredibly deep bonds of friendship with other horses (and even with particular humans) and that they have strong preferences about who they live, spend their time and interact with (again despite clear behavioral evidence)? And how often do humans choose to pretend that horses (should) somehow naturally enjoy being ridden, feel comfortable wearing excessive tack, or voluntarily give up what little control they have over their lives, their bodies and their choices when we ourselves would never tolerate such treatment?
Did you know that anthropomorphism is actually considered to be an innate tendency in human psychology? This means it may well exist in, or be determined by, factors that are present in us at birth. If this is true, it indicates that evolution has deemed anthropomorphism to be essential to our nature (and survival) as human beings. Perhaps most significantly, it is tied to empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
In her Op-Ed Why Anthropomorphism Can Be a Good Thing, Mary Hood Luttrell explains that anthropomorphism is a positive, animal-centric tendency that allows humans to recognize the similarities we share with animals. She explains that by allowing ourselves to recognize similarities between ourselves and animals (while obviously respecting differences too), we are better able to see the ‘whole animal’. And by seeing the whole animal, we’re less likely to commodify its individual parts – its skin, its fur, its physical conformation or athletic abilities, its usefulness for human purposes or gain.
I seriously doubt there’s a rational horse or human anywhere who would deny that there are differences between our species! Many of these differences are immediately obvious, which is why both humans and horses are naturally cautious and nervous the first time we encounter one another. Other differences, such as the fact that horses can’t breathe through their mouths or that they have no vomit-reflex, may be less obvious. But no two individuals (even within the same species) are the same in every way, so it’s only common sense to presume there are differences – both innate and acquired. Shouldn’t it be equally common sense to assume there are similarities?
In an article entitled Shared Science: Human and Equine Health Similarities, Sara Evers Conrad even acknowledges that “horses suffer many of the same health conditions that people do including cardiovascular disease, samonellosis, Lyme disease, joint disease, uveitis, tendon issues and cancers. The two species also exhibit similar clinical signs, even when the root causes may be different. For example, equine grass sickness and Alzheimer’s; self-mutilation in horses and cutting disorders in humans; foal rejection in mares and post-partum depression in women; equine metabolic syndrome in horses and diabetes in people; asthma in humans versus what was classically called heaves in horses.”
Both Comparing Humans and Horses and Comparable Parts – You Are More Like Your Horse Than You Think! provide detailed explanations of the vast similarities between the equine and human musculoskeletal systems. There is also scientific evidence that Facial Expressions are The Same in Humans and Horses.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a staunch advocate for learning everything we possibly can about horses, and for never blindly believing anything without due diligence and research. But I’m also a staunch advocate for using one’s intuition and “following your gut” anytime you interact with horses. The best way to build a relationship of trust – and to stay safe – with horses is to practice empathy as liberally as possible, to never put yourself in a situation that feels unsafe, and to never assume a horse will want to do anything you yourself wouldn’t want to do if you were in her “hooves”.
Here’s one thing I know for sure: when you visit my farm, I’d MUCH rather you anthropomorphize my horses than deny their innate “sameness”. In return, they too will look for, and recognize, the “universal one-ness” we all share.
For more information about Kim and her heart-centered equine-assisted experiential learning business visit www.unbridled.guru.