Is Horseback Riding Exploitation?

Short answer: no, but it can be.
There. That’s the end of this blog post.

Nah, just kidding. I love ranting about societal and cultural issues way too much to just leave it at that.

First off, a reasonable question to ask myself: am I biased because I myself am a passionate horseback rider? Definitely. Will I let those biases cloud my judgment in this post and cause me to draw conclusions based on anything other than facts? Absolutely not.

Let’s admit it, we’re all biased in some way, all of our perspectives are inherently and inevitably colored. But just because I’m coming from my own background with my own experiences and my own frame of reference, doesn’t mean I’m unable to have a factual and objective discussion on a topic. Otherwise you can just throw anything anyone has ever written and anything anyone will ever write in the future right in the trash, and that would be a waste of my precious time. There’s only so little of it in a day.

Right, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get down to it.

What prompted me to write this blog was this video I recently came across on YouTube by YouTuber RaleighLink14, an equestrian who actively advocates against cruelty against horses, and against people on the internet spreading nonsense about horses. She also happens to be vegan. Remember that, it’ll be important later.

This particular video features her reacting to a video she was sent by her fans, which showed a vegan activist saying that horseback riding is exploitation and therefore not vegan. Of course you could just watch her video for her response, but I’d like to add my own two cents to this discussion.

So this lady in the video that Raleigh is commenting on is trying to explain that horseback riding is exploitation, that it’s wrong, that it should be stopped, and that it’s not vegan. I don’t mind anyone trying to argue that, but where she gets on my (and Raleigh’s) nerves is where she just uses… bullshit arguments.

She’s commenting on a video of someone galloping on their horse outside, just enjoying nature, and letting their horse stretch their legs for a while, saying that ‘horses don’t run in straight lines like that, they’re taught to do that’. That’s where she completely lost me. I thought running in a straight line had been the most efficient way for herds of wild horses to get from A to B for millennia, and running is actually kind of what horses were built for from an evolutionary standpoint.

Then, she goes on to say that horses are only fed if they behave. If that were true, I think 95% of all horses in existence would’ve died already. There wouldn’t even be any horses anymore because all the mares would’ve died immediately. Mares have a way of not behaving, really.

She then says that horses only let us ride them because we have, and I quote, “broken their spirits”. And yeah, the horse in the video sure looked depressed and broken-spirited with its ears pricked up and its head heald high in enjoyment. /sarcasm

What I notice about people like this, is that they’re somehow unable to think in any other shades than black or white. She’s trying to tell people why horseback riding is wrong, and uses arguments that aren’t untrue in an of themselves, but only apply to a very, very limited subset of horse owners.

Yes, there are absolutely people out there who ‘break’ them for riding, who wear them out until they can’t stand on their legs and then climb on. There are people who hit, kick, whip or otherwise intentionally hurt a horse to punish it or force it to do their bidding. There are people who starve their horses as punishment. And there are a lot of people who use horses for their own selfish gains, which are almost invariably monetary gains, and money can make people do sick things. I could write about six whole blog posts just trying to list them all.

But even though people like that are easy to find in the public eye, that’s precisely because they are not the norm. If a swimmer is attacked by a shark, you’ll hear about it in the news. If someone is not attacked by a shark, even in an area that has sharks, you hear nothing about it. With a lot of these things, our perception is invariably incredibly skewed, because only the instances where it goes wrong are reported. Just like with shark attacks, it’s the reprobates that abuse horses that get more attention than those who treat them right.

There used to be an actual nose attached to that dog’s face, once

Exploitation is defined as treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from them. So imagine someone who is breeding dogs to have snouts that are so short and heads that are so small that they often need surgery to remove part of their skull to relieve the pressure on their brains because otherwise they live in constant, unending agony (looking at you, Cavalier King Charles spaniel breeders!). Their goal isn’t for these dogs to have the happiest, healthiest life they can have. Their goal is to sell them for inordinate amounts of money so they can make a profit. And the shorter that snout is, the cuter people will find them, the more money they’re willing to pay for them.

Are there horses that are bred to have unnatural and harmful features? Oh, absolutely. A few years ago, there was a massive (and completely justified) uproar about an Arabian foal by the name of El Rey Magnum, that was bred to have almost alien features. They basically took everything the Arabian horse has stood for, and bred it to the extreme. I just looked him up again, to see what he looks like now, and I was actually almost amazed that he’s still alive and hasn’t died of some respiratory disorder. (You can see a photo of what he looked like when he came into the public eye here, and what he looks like now here. I haven’t figured yet out how to do copyright and image hosting so I’ll just put up links until then).

Mongol horses are a lot stockier than our modern sport horses

But horses have been selectively bred by humans for centuries, and they’ve actually mostly been bred to better accommodate being ridden. Horses were originally more squat, square creatures, and they were a lot smaller. Horses that were used in wars weren’t elegant, long-limbed Spanish purebreds like you see in movies so often (look for the front legs that flail outwards, that’s usually a Spanish-bred horse). They weren’t even stout, coal-black Friesians or Friesian-like horses, as you see in the trailer for the new live-action remake of Mulan (right here at about the 30-second mark). Horses have mostly been bred to be larger, so they could carry our weight better, aside from being made to look more elegant and ‘decorative’.

So the way we breed horses isn’t always inherently a bad thing. El Rey Magnum is a good example of selective breeding gone mad, but your average run-of-the-mill pedigree-less riding school horse is just the result of centuries of breeding to make horses large enough to comfortably carry our weight without detriment to their health.

The fun part, by the way, is that training a horse, in modern dressage for example – and by that I mean normal, healthy dressage, not the physical abuse that is rollk├╝r and affiliated abusive practices – is meant to make the horse stronger and better able to carry the weight of the rider. The flexion of the horse’s neck shouldn’t be used as an aesthetic device, but should bring about the rounding upwards of the horses back to better support the rider’s weight.

Think about it like this: if you’re on your hands and knees, and you hold your head up high and curve your spine downwards, it’s gonna hurt if someone puts a lot of weight on your back. Bringing your head down prompts you to round your back upwards and tilt your pelvis bringing your tailbone closer to the ground, which makes it a lot easier to carry weight on your back. That’s what dressage should be about, and that’s what a lot of non-competition riders do. And that’s completely fine. But there are branches of horseback riding, or subsets of people in certain branches of horseback riding, that are totally not fine at all whatsoever.

Racehorses are bred to run on virtual matchsticks way before they’re fully developed

Horse racing is a great example of animal exploitation. Racehorses are absolutely only bred to be trained for races and then entered in races to make money, and that’s their sole purpose. It’s not like all of them are mistreated off the race track, but a lot of them are. They usually start training at such a young age that their bodies haven’t fully developed yet, just so they can put them out on the race track sooner. If you do that with children, you bet your ass you’re gonna get that same ass sued.

Racehorses are built for speed, but not for durability. Their legs are bred to be incredibly long and thin, but they are in fact so long and thin and so massively overstrained and overused while still developing, that it’s become a common occurrence that a horse breaks its leg during a race and has to be put down on the spot. Horses can usually live up to about 25-35 years.

The average life expectancy for a racehorse is about 5 years.

And if that number wasn’t bad enough, take a second to think about how that’s the average life expectancy. That means a whole lot of them die even younger.

So there are exploitative horse breeders. There are exploitative horseback riders. There are people who find winning a competition more important than their horse’s health. I’ve even seen a video of a woman in a barrelracing competition whose horse refused to enter the ring, who had installed a motherfucking electric zapper at the back of her saddle to administer electric shocks to the poor animal. I still can’t quite believe that it was real. And don’t even get me started on rodeo. There are people who treat their horses like things, things they can use, things that are their property to handle as they see fit, things they have and assert dominance over, things they are the boss of, things they can command.

But those people are not the norm. Yeah, horseback riding is huge, and yeah, there are many issues in the professional equestrian sports (don’t get me started on bits and spurs and nosebands either), but there are so many recreational riders who devote their entire lives to their horses, throw thousands of bucks at them for their health and happiness, and would rather chew bark for a month than let their horse go without that one type of special feed they thrive so well on. So many recreational riders just venerate their horses, and would do anything for them. Is that exploitation?

One could argue that horseback riding is unnatural and therefore exploitative, but one would be wrong. We’re talking about animals that can easily weigh half a metric ton (as my toes can tell you from experience) and can easily kill you with a well-placed kick, or at least shatter some valuable bones. If they really don’t want to do something, they won’t. I know from experience that most horses kind of love to work. They have a lot of energy, since they’ve evolved to be mostly trekking animals, and once a horse trusts you, they can give off a lot of signals of actually enjoying what they’re doing.

A well-known video (that you can find here) shows a showjumping horse that accidentally loses his rider, and just keeps on going, jumping fences for minutes on end, not wanting to be caught. He could’ve easily gone around the fences if he wanted to. I know from experience, having jumped horses too, that it can even be really, really hard to pull a horse away from a jump at times. If you look at professional showjumpers, you more often see riders pulling (way too hard) on the reins to slow the horses down, rather than having to goad them over the fence. If they had been forced by us to jump, wouldn’t they rather grab the first chance they can get not to have to jump?

These horses don’t look broken-spirited or exploited, do they?

So we have people who love their horses, provide for them, take better care of their horses than of themselves, and we have evidence (obviously more evidence than I just provided) that horses can absolutely enjoy what they’re doing. And no, you absolutely don’t have to “break” your horse to be able to ride them. You can do that just the same (or even better, actually) by building up slowly, and working with trust and patience, without any use of force or punishment or coercion.

There’s a ton of issues in the equestrian world that needs to be addressed, like the use of bits, spurs and whips, or the maximum weight of the rider, or whether it’s better to have your horse in a stable or in a pasture, etc. etc., but those aren’t issues that stem from the concept of horseback riding itself. They are imperfections and flaws, but they don’t mean that horseback riding itself is inherently wrong. Is having a relationship wrong because there are people who are manipulative and abusive in relationships? Or are just those relationships wrong? The same goes for horseback riding.

I see some vegans like the woman in that video arguing that things are wrong because they are exploitation, and in their eyes any form of using another living being to your benefit is apparently wrong, even if it doesn’t explicitly harm them. But here’s the thing: using other living beings isn’t inherently wrong. Did you know that we ‘use’ bacteria in our gut to help us digest our food? Did you know that not shearing a (domestically bred) sheep can negatively impact their health because they’re unable to shed? And if using a horse for your own emotional needs is ‘exploitation’, then so is having friends.

Making use of something another living being has to offer isn’t necessarily always exploitation. It’s just living together. There are so many forms of horseback riding that don’t harm the animal that I simply cannot get on board with the idea that it’s somehow inherently exploitative and therefore wrong (and not vegan). Even if we bred those animals to better suit our needs, the animals in existence are better off in our care than off in the wild. Would it be more vegan if we never bred horses for ourselves? Sure, but it’s a little too late for that. Unless you want to complete eradicate the existence of horses on this planet, you’re going to have to accept that the way horses are generally used by us humans is not exploitative just because we use them, it’s mutually beneficial.

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