The Agency of the Horse vs the Agency of Me…


For me, as a horse owner, a facilitator of equine assisted interventions, having had a riding school, a boarding facility, it became very important to not only look at the physical welfare of horses, but also their emotional, social and cognitive welfare. I have spent a lot of time the last 17 years thinking of this, from all kinds of aspects and perspectives. I have dived into the books, the clinics, the research – but also the experience of horses. I have prided myself with being a fast learner and a good thinker. Well… 17 years later – I am still not done… and I know with certainty (this is in fact the only thing I am certain of), that I will never really get there…

But it started long before that. It started the first time I entered a riding school when I was 8. I instantly fell in love with horses, but not the environment they where kept in, not the things they were made to do, not the people in the environment. I could hardly stand being in the riding school, but I did not understand why. I really wanted to. I wanted the dream that I read about in horse books for girls, the companionship, the adventures, the camps, the competitions, the hard work of being a horse girl… but I did not manage to go to the riding school, though I kept trying throughout growing up, turning into a young adult. I went to different riding schools (but their concepts were remarkable similar…), I went there, and I quit, I went there, and I quit… again and again and again. If it had not been for my sister, who were a riding instructor, who moved to a farm and had horses of her own, I would probably not be doing what I am doing today. With her, I felt safe enough to try some things out, outside of my comfort zone. That put me up to follow the path I am on today, working with horses and human growth. Doing research in the field, giving educations, assisting in starting programs.

I find the mental and psychological welfare of the horse to be so important. I have dived into topics and questions about choice, decision making, self-care for horses, problem solving, exploration and curiosity, the voice of the horse, his language through behavior, social dynamics in herds – you name it – I will have explored it, thought about it, and probably written something about it – and also of course, about the question of the agency of the horse.

What is agency?

You have agency in your life when your decisions count, when what you say matter, when you can impact your situation, when there are appropriate learning and growth opportunities for you, when you are heard, seen and respected as an autonomous subject, an individual with a right and the possibility to make choices about yourself and your own life.

Not having agency is stressful and potentially traumatic. It can cause you to either act out or shutdown. It will also make your relationships complicated. You are supposed to learn about your agency when you grow up, from the ones that care (or are supposed to care for you) and the environment they provide, but these people whom you are dependent on, are also sometimes the ones limiting you and potentially even abusing you (emotionally, physically, sexually). The ones that were supposed to support your sense of agency, and your literal agency so it could grow, are instead putting you in a cage, in a prison, limiting your sense of agency and your factual agency. Most animals are very habitual animals, also humans. You get so used to your cage or prison that you stop seeing it, and often you accept it as natural and even contribute with enforcing the bars, putting more locks on etc.

We limit and restrict our horses in many different ways. We keep them fenced in, we keep them in stables, we halter them, we ride them with restrictive (and often punishing) tools.

When we do not interact with them (we do that when we want to, on our terms), we leave them to their own devices in often under-stimulating environments. All these are important welfare issues. We can all, I think do better when it comes to the welfare we offer to our horses.

With this said, I will continue to speak and write about the agency of the horse. I will continue to ask myself, and you, how we can give more agency to our horses. I will continue to ask hard questions – as – do I, do you, actually want your horse to have more agency?

But… what about my agency?

How much agency do I have in my life? How much can I problem solve, make choices, make decisions, how much does what I think and feel matter, how much can I impact what happens to me, and around me?

Or – how much do I think I can impact; how much do I think I matter? Etc…

The question is not always about how much agency I have now – but about if I grew up understanding, feeling, knowing, growing into having agency.

When I engage in learning more about horses, their behaviors, way of communicating, relating, about their needs etc – and then voice that, to create more awareness around questions like horse’s agency, their ability, or right to choose and so on – who am I really advocating for?

The horse?

Or me?

Is it easier for me to stand up for the horse? Than for myself?

And when I project MY life onto the horses’ lives – is it my current life I project onto them, or my past life?

How much of my own felt powerlessness, aspiration to lead another more freer life – am I seeing in their circumstances and needs?

This is of course not black and white. There is a lot of horse welfare issues out there. But for me it has become more and more important to ask myself these questions. Who am I doing this for? And not deceive me.

I do it partly for the horses.

And partly for myself.

I am learning to stand up better for myself – not as in asserting myself so much, as in daring to be me. I am curios at myself here. How will my view on horse welfare shift when I grow more and more into being me?

When I feel I have a voice, choices, that I matter, that I can impact my life – when I know, in a felt sense of knowing, that ultimately, I am responsible for my own choices and what I choose to voice, when I live my life for me… then how much will I feel the need to engage in horse welfare questions?

I think the need will still be there. I am pretty sure it will. But I do look forward to when I am even better at separating between what belongs to me – and what belongs to the horse.

Then the next step would be to figure out - what happens when the agency (as I perceive it) of the horse - is colliding with my agency? (as in how do I know when my freedom to be me in interfering with his freedom to be him?)

Awareness is the first step.

The second is to ask myself the uncomfortable questions.

Then follows – to listen… and listen… and listen. To myself.

Then to listen to the horse when he responds to me changing.

This is MY way to becoming a better researcher, educator, facilitator, and horse (and human) person.

What is yours?

Text and picture are copyright protected © Katarina Lundgren 2020

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Friday, 12 July 2024