Thursday, June 24, 2010

anthropomorphism and horses

Over and over again, I read and hear horse people saying, "I don't want to anthropomorphize, but..."  Or it's used as a cautionary statement, "You shouldn't anthropomorphize your horse."

What IS anthropomorphism anyway? And why shouldn't we do it?

One definition from defines anthropomorphism this way:

The attributing of human characteristics and purposes to inanimate objects, animals, plants, or other natural phenomena, or to God. To describe a rushing river as “angry” is to anthropomorphize it.

On some level I agree that we shouldn't make a habit of attributing human characteristics to anything other than humans. However, the case for not anthropomorphizing our horses has become a way to say they don't have human characteristics, therefore they don't think with logic. They don't feel emotion. They don't share affection. They can't truly bond.

My frustration with this mindset is that we assume all those characteristics are human in the first place! How presumptious!

Back in 1927, Pavlov wrote that animals should be viewed "without any need to resort to fantastic speculations as to the existence of any possible subjective states." 

That makes it really easy to subject them to both experiments and a kind of treatment in training and caretaking that we wouldn't dare apply to our children or other family members.  Yet this approach is all too common in horse training the world over.

That kind of training works, but at what cost? If we merely observe and seek to shape a behavior without also looking at underlying emotion, we discount an entire layer of a horse's state of being. 

Darwin wrote:

Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber, who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies.

Many of us who live with horses see on a daily basis the complex emotional responses they are capable of: playfulness, affection, annoyance, anger, loneliness, fear, compassion. The list goes on. 

Why then are we discouraged from saying: my horse loves me, or my horse misses his buddy, or my horse is afraid of the umbrella?

Probably so we can feel okay about selling the horse when he gets too old to ride, or too expensive to keep, or his buddy gets too old or too expensive, or so we can feel just fine about shoving the umbrella in the horse's face against his will in the name of de-spooking him, all the while considering that any movement away from us, self-appointed herd leader, is disobedience.

Do I sound frustrated? I am. I've been reading anecdotes of horse people saying I don't play with my horses, as if doing so might make them less 'professional.'

And that when helping a young horse learn about fly spray, you put him on a halter and lead line and never stop spraying until he stops moving, because god forbid you reward him for his fear.

To eschew anthropomorphism allows us to also eschew empathy, and to do things in the name of training we would never do if we had to consider the emotional impact of our methods.

Frans de Waal wrote:

To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.

So yes, the next time someone suggests I'm anthropomorphizing Keil Bay, or Rafer Johnson, YES, I will say, ABSOLUTELY.

Because every time I open my mind to the reality that these equines are thinking, being, loving, intentional creatures, I allow the beauty of real relationship to blossom and flower.

My life, and theirs, is richer for it.


Anonymous said...

Blessings to you !!
I am guilty of saying "I may be anthropomorphizing, but..." Which is my "nod" to science, and to avoid involvement in a circling arguement; this "man-made" WORD - which in my own mind is like a curse that has allowed for the objectification of animals.
Of course I don't "know" what an animal is thinking or feeling - wrong !! Any more than I don't "know" when my baby is humgry, scared, happy, curious, bonded to me, again - WRONG !! . . . there are some things that "science" can't confine to any "scientific method" (to spank or not to spank). The word and it's concept, to me, are archaic.

Which does, however, bring me to another pondering . . . "what is it about girls and horses" - I'm wondering if we relate so well because, in a sense, we are both "prey" to the "use" of men? Just a thought, but does make me go hummmm.

Thanks for sharing, Billie, beautifully expressed :)
Namaste, Beth (Charliehorse), in Virginia

Anonymous said...

I think failing to attribute (often human or analogous to human) emotions and feelings to horses and other animals often is just an excuse to allow people to treat them any way they want without regard to how the animal feels about it - such as using punitive training methods. But I think it's also a mistake to think that horses have the same way of feeling and thinking about the world as people - horses are different from people. But even acknowledging that leaves room for a simplistic (and I think mostly wrong) attitude that I have to be my horses "alpha" and the horse has to "respect" me as if I were a herd alpha - people aren't horses and horses know the difference. It's our job, I think, to look for and try to understand their feelings and emotions as expressed through their body language and actions, and to treat them with the respect they deserve as sentient creatures with their own take on life.

billie said...

Hi, Beth, it is so good to see you here again!

You've nailed it when you wrote that science cannot measure all that is going on around us.

I agree that the word itself is archaic. The categorization of certain characteristics as being human is artificial and contrived - and says more about the narcissism of humans more than anything else.

I'm not sure what it is about girls and horses - but there does seem to be a very powerful and potent connection there.

Hope you are well and not having the extreme heat we are - and that the girls are staying nice and cool too!

billie said...

Kate, I don't doubt that horses have different thought processes than we do - but at the same time I think getting stuck too much on that is what takes us away from simply being with them and allowing them freedom of expression, choice, and the chance to speak to us with as much clarity as if they were using the English language.

Which I feel they can and will do if constraints such as locked stalls, cross-ties, bridles and bits, whips and spurs, and most of all, our own assumptions about "the way horses learn" are removed.

I have another post in line that has to do with the whole human as alpha business.

Thanks for stopping by - I appreciate your perspective!

ponymaid said...

Billie, with a few exception like yourself and your readers, humans tend to be very reluctant to recognize the same qualities and emotions in other beings that they themselves experience. That we others have complex social bonds and relationships is obvious to anyone who cares to observe. We sometimes find humans a tad limited but we do our best to educate in a gentle and non-threatening way. To see Jack greet Sheila after a few months' separation is to know for certain that we all feel the same emotions.

From My Soap Box,

billie said...

Sheaffer, your soap box is my soap box, dear friend - and thank you for reminding me of Jack and Sheila, a beautiful example that donkeys can and do love and miss and recognize a dear human friend when they are reunited.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Great post. I agree with all you have to say. I'm guilty of giving my equine and dogs human characteristics and go so far as to talk for them in what I would consider to be their voices. (I really have to get out more)!

After being around horses and their personalities and quirks for many years it's foolish not to notice or think that they don't have feelings, of course they do. Mellon still misses Erik, we can tell, not because we're psychic but because we know him so well. I'm not going to go into a huge explanation but more than one stranger told me when I had Erik "that horse loves you" and I knew he did by so many of his actions. And even though they don't think like us, they DO think and solve problems. I've seen it first hand many times. One of the reasons it's so hard for us to sell or 'get rid' of a horse is because we do give them feelings, perhaps if we didn't anthropomorphize we wouldn't have a barn full of horses that can't be ridden.

Máire said...

Billie, this is so well thought through and expressed. I remember, way back in my college days, studying behaviourism and it sent shivers down my spine at the clinical way it viewed behaviour and the manipulating of that behaviour. I also completely agree with you about desenstiizing; what we do to horses when we do not connect with their feeings is quite scarey to think about.

billie said...

Arlene, you're not guilty of giving your horses anything - you are caring and responsible and attentive enough to recognize that they HAVE FEELINGS and to treat them accordingly.

You have a barn full of horses that can't be ridden because you have a heart, and because you have relationships with every one of those horses.

I wish you would tell the story of Erik, either here or on your blog. I would love to read it.

billie said...

Maire, thank you. I had the same response to behaviorism. I don't think I will ever in my life forget the video I was shown about the baby monkeys and the non-responsive wire mother. It made me cry then and I suspect it would now.

I also recall a video of mothers instructed to ignore their toddlers for a period of time. One child in particular I can remember - became extremely distressed and then completely shut down. It was the saddest thing I think I've ever seen.

(these experiments were about attachment, obviously, and sure proved that it exists - but cold and clinical for sure)

Valentino said...

Great post Billie.

Regarding the baby monkeys with the wire mothers experiments...

How about the group of chimpanzees who, after spending nearly their entire lives caged, having been the subjects of medical experiments, were moved to a special reserve created for them by some compassionate humans and allowed to be outside, uncaged and touching the earth for the first time.

I can't even put into words the emotional impact this film had for me.

The film ends with the reunion of several of the chimps, with a woman who had helped them with their transition so many years (25) before. Not only did the chimps recognize this woman, but witnessing the tender, loving embraces they exchanged... pure emotion, absolutely broke my heart.

In the bible it says that god gave man "dominion" over the animals. I believe the interpretation of "dominion" should be stewardship, not domination. Promoting the idea of us, separate from them, allows for subjugation and cruelty.

Stepping down now... you really got me going on this one Billie :)

billie said...

V, what a wonderful film you've described - I never saw that one, but wish I had! Thank you for sharing it.

I love what you wrote about stewardship rather than domination.

Since we moved to our farm and brought our horses here, I've realized that so many of the things I learned are either not necessary or just plain wrong when it comes to living with horses. So many of the rules and standards stem from a place of domination.

And once the domination piece is removed, all sorts of amazing things start to happen.

Janet Roper said...

Anybody else notice that anthropomorphism seems to be viewed as taboo when the characteristics of the animal are perceived as positive, such as compassion, friendship or trust. When the characteristics are perceived as negative, such as greed or cruelty, the anthropomorphism is accepted without debate. Wonder what that says about us humans.....

Great post Billie! Thanks

billie said...

Janet, so true. I don't know what it says about us humans, but it isn't very pretty, is it?

Matthew said...

Beautifully said, Billie. Absolutely a must-read post.

billie said...

Thank you, Matthew - for the comment AND all our discussions about this topic!

jme said...

yes, yes, yes! i have been pondering this for years but have never managed to put it into words as well as you have here. as an anthropology major and amateur observer, it has always annoyed me to hear people speak of 'human characteristics' as if the qualities we attribute to 'humans' are unique to us. not to mention that there is absolutely no agreement on what, beyond the physical, defines us as human. sorry for ranting, but i'm a bit sensitive on this subject :-\

billie said...

I was hoping you'd come by for this one, and would love to read your take on this whole issue at some point.

jme said...

oh i'll be back! ;-) i'm off to bed now but i'm sure you haven't heard the last from me yet...

billie said...


June said...

Well said.

billie said...

Thanks, June.