The Benefits – or Not – of Freedom

Imagine the Earth before there were any countries or borders of any kind. No lines, no names of this or that, no maps, no fences… nothing. The only sounds were the sounds made by Nature. There was no “time” according to human parameters. Just the continuous, ever flowing cycles of life. All creatures were free to wander wherever they would, or could. They were unbound by man-made constraints and the defining qualities brought about by the human tendencies of wants, needs, and ownership.

We couldn’t leave well enough alone, could we? We had to make countries and borders then create weapons of war to protect the countries and make enemies of those from other places. Horses were captured and domesticated to assist humans in their pursuits to “divide and conquer”. Unwitting participants along our path of so-called civilization.

It’s almost like we’ve painted ourselves into a corner after centuries of nation-building and social development. Are we free or not free? We’re surrounded by borders and rules telling us where and when we can and cannot go to visit or live. What of all the animals we’ve domesticated and bred? If we and they have wonderful, fulfilling lives, should there be judgement placed on how such great societies have been created? What about the millions of people and animals who still suffer so greatly on this planet, with no freedom to escape bad situations? If we have compassion for all beings, how can we be at peace until all beings on Earth are at peace?

According to Professor Lori Gruen’s interesting viewpoint, there are serious ethical questions to be asked about keeping animals in cages… or in the case of horses, the reference would be to keeping them in stalls and barns as our “captives”.

“Though conditions of captivity vary widely for humans and for other animals, there are common ethical themes that imprisonment raises, including the value of liberty, the nature of autonomy, the meaning of dignity, and the impact of routine confinement on physical and psychological well-being.”

Now, imagine what the implications would be if everybody just quit riding their horses, opened all the stall doors and paddock fences and set them free. It’s likely chaos would ensue. Sure, they might run amok for awhile or stop by the neighbour’s apple trees but most would be right back at the barn doors at feeding time looking for their next meal. Some wouldn’t leave at all. A few might join the wild herds, as in the deserts of the American Southwest where the economic downturn really did lead some people to turn their show and companion horses loose to fend for themselves. Rescue operations bordering desert communities have found themselves with “strays” looking for food and water.  Domestic horses don’t do well on their own.

"Nick" - photo by Natascha Wille

“Nick” – photo by Natascha Wille

Let’s face it. Horses are big animals that leave a big hoofprint on the environment. In our “non-ideal” world as Dr. Gruen refers to, we have to “do the very best we can for them while their lives are compromised to various degrees in captive settings”.

Dr. Marc Bekoff, the writer of the article states, ” let’s hope that open discussion of the issues and the questions at hand, including what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals and their capacity to suffer and to empathize with others, will work on behalf of those unfortunate billions of individuals who lives are a mess because of their confinement”.

So somewhere in the middle of “let’s turn all the horses loose” and “let’s keep them confined for our own pleasure and use” is the question “what is the most compassionate way to care for and interact with our horses?”

There is new, emerging research all the time that is telling us what causes distress to horses. We know for sure that ulcers are a man-made condition in equines, caused by stress placed on them due to excessive confinement, travel and showing. In our human rush to conquer and control everything, have we gone too far with horses and committed them to a lifestyle that is so unnatural for them that we’ve changed their genetic makeup? Probably. Is this bad? What have we done to other humans with such a mindset? Even in such things as personal relationships. Are we being compassionate to our partners when we hold them “captive” according to our wants, needs, schedules and whims?

Ah freedom. Look your horse in the eye and ask if he’d rather be turned loose to run and graze wherever he wants. No more grooming, hoof trimming, veterinary care, clean hay and water or forced exercise. Would he tilt his head like a curious puppy and ask “why”? Or would he immediately start nodding his head, pounding on the stall door with the enthusiasm of a football player charging into the opponent’s end zone for a touchdown? What would happen if you told your human partner or spouse they were free to go wherever they choose, whenever, and with whom?

My guess is the equine and human responses would vary, but most would fall somewhere in the middle of the extremes. Having compassion and wishing to alleviate another’s suffering means first of all, to be mindful of the fact that they’re suffering. Is your horse (or human partner) suffering in silence and you’re not seeing it? If you opened the door to set them free, would they go? Would they come back to you after realizing how kind and compassionate you were to them? Do they recognize freedom as being of benefit to them, or are they looking for the security of the home they’ve become so accustomed to and are willing to compromise their freedom to remain “captive” in a potentially less-than-ideal situation? These are the gists of the ethical questions posed by Dr.s Gruen and Bekoff.

Freedom is not about owning and controlling. Perhaps we need to consider that with our “captive” animals and being mindful as to how they are affected by confinement and the tasks we ask of them. Horses have evolved to fit with a domesticated lifestyle, as have humans, and many of the other pets we keep. Turning them all loose would not necessarily be conducive to their health and wellbeing. We all need to depend on each other for care and love, otherwise we lead a lonely and vulnerable life. The kindest approach of all is to acknowledge everyone as a free spirit, accepting who and what they are, with a compassionate heart and mind.


Rescued by a Rescue

This is always a difficult time of year as it seems to emphasize the biggest differences between those who have enough money to celebrate the holidays with all the trimmings, and those who need help just to survive from day to day.  Whether it be homeless animals or homeless humans, the sad, shallow, look in the eyes is frequently the same and the aura of despair is palpable.  There never seems to be enough to give to relieve the suffering of so many.

I watched a video the other day that’s circulating the internet about a dog who was rescued from a junkyard.  A video crew followed the rescuers to the wretched, exposed pile of garbage the dog was living in, and being too weak and sick to fight, she was easily caught and taken in to the shelter.

Within a week or so of her recovery she was a completely different dog, and subsequently adopted another tiny, scared rescue who was brought to the same shelter.  The video ended with two joyful dogs and a plea for their adoption.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen rescued animals turn right around and rescue another.  Those of us who have had strays, rescues, and otherwise rejected animals know how much they seem to appreciate their fortuitous circumstances after finding an adopter.  It may also be the case that those of us who have known the hardships of not knowing who or where to turn to, and understand all to well what rejection feels like, may also be the ones who most quickly recognize those same feelings in animals.

One of the horse trainers I worked for was a self-proclaimed non-cat-lover and never would have kept one as a pet.  So I was shocked the day he showed up at the barn after teaching off site with a tiny, quivering tuxedo kitten in his hands.  He said the kitten mewed at him ringside so desperately he figured the dogs would have had him for lunch had he just left him there in the hot desert sun.

We set up a “cat stall” in the barn for the new arrival who let it be known he would have nothing to do with being a barn cat.  I took him into the house, thinking it would be temporary.  After tending to the afternoon’s training rides I went back into the house to find “Bonz” as he’d been named and he was nowhere in sight.  He was barely old enough to be weaned and I was afraid he’d crawled into a small, dark space somewhere, perhaps impossible to find.  After searching the house I went into my room and found he’d climbed up the comforter on my bed and was happily snoozing on my pillow.  This teacup-sized feline baby sure knew what he wanted!

Once big enough to go outside, the personable Bonz found a frightened tabby Manx kitten whom he adopted and also convinced to move into the house, teaching him what it was like to live in the lap of luxury!  My non-cat-loving partner now had two of them, and didn’t seem to mind one bit.

When compassion settles into the heart, all beings benefit.  When the opportunity arises to relieve the suffering of another, it just happens because that’s who you become.

I’ve witnessed something else in my own journey and immersion in the world of animals.  

Several years ago I was in film school working on a documentary about the equine slaughter industry.  It is a brutal, disturbing topic that was heart-wrenching to research.  I made myself watch the most horrific videos and read the statistics in spite of how hard it was to do so.  Even as a long-time trainer, I had absolutely no idea how many horses ended up in the kill boxes every year.  Thousands of homeless horses.  Rejected by humans for whatever reason… and there are many… not deserving the kind of fate they received.

I showed the film’s trailer to my class, made up primarily of city-dwellers with an interest in environmental and social justice issues.  

I had included undercover video footage of horses in the pens inside the slaughterhouse, and noted to the class how scared the horses were, knowing what was going on in there.  One close up of a distraught chestnut in particular, would be read by any experienced horseman as being in a very depressed, shut-down state.  Long past just the fear of the situation.

When I mentioned the expression on the horse I was met with blank stares from my classmates.  After a few awkward moments of silence, one of them finally said “how can you tell the horse is sad?”

I thought everyone, horse-person or not, could read the expression on this horse’s face.  Then I realized the truth of the matter was that wasn’t the case.

It made me realize why some people have compassion for animals and others do not.  They literally cannot read when a horse, or perhaps any animal, is signalling they are in fear, stress, pain, or depression.  I also realized how much work there is still to be done on a very large scale to help humans develop compassion for horses.  There are so many in the system now who are homeless, neglected and abused.   Apparently there are also many people who do not recognize the level of suffering these horses are experiencing.

It’s an interesting quandary, and one worth contemplating…  because those of us who have rescued horses know exactly how those horses have, in turn, rescued us.