What do we know about the science of horse breeding when it comes to alleged utilitarian advantages of pure breeds?
Kristen Guest: I think we don’t know nearly enough, or think enough, about the science of “breed” when we produce purebred horses. Margaret Derry, a leading historian of breed, told me once that breed history is economic history and I agree with her entirely: the emergence of pure breeding has been driven to a great extent by the imperatives of industry, marketing and fashion. One result of this is that much of the time we’re focusing on specific traits (speed, kinds of movement, kinds of appearance) without anticipating the long-term consequences of what we’re doing. Purity as an ideal is an ideologically tricky issue, but as something we’ve tried to create or impose it has proven to have a very steep price tag for horses in the real world.
Monica Mattfeld: There is a lot of discussion about the ‘advantages’ of purebred animals, with many breeders and advocates arguing for the improved genetic pool; temperament predictability, and hence relative simplicity of training program; knowability of inherited diseases or other medical problems; and ‘naturalness’ of animals performing the duties they were bred to perform. Such discussions are often couched in welfare terms, with purebred animals thought to be healthier, happier, and in some cases better cared for than their ‘mongrel’ compatriots. Of course, such discourses, and practices of selective breeding/sterilization that accompany them, raise a host of questions and ethical conundrums with no clear answers or solutions.
As such, we don’t know enough about the implications of purebred breeding (and often accompanying small or closed gene pools), and we often don’t think enough about the assumptions underlying such arguments. Also, we certainly don’t know or think enough about how utilitarian approaches to breeding/animal management have repercussions for questions of speciesism, ongoing anthropocentrism, and ableism. Indeed, as Sunaura Taylor rightly points out, for instance, breeding practices that artificially cull (sterilize or kill) the ‘deformed’, the ‘weak’, and the ‘disabled’ from the breeding line in order to improve overall breed or pedigree health (and purity) are innately ableist, denying those individuals life, agency, and subjecthood on their own terms.
In regards to “purity,” you note that, “It is a contradictory phenomenon, on the one hand thought of as ‘natural’ and on the other as a product of scientific advancement: It is ‘grounded in fantasies’ of origin and unshakeable stability, but also ‘demonstrates the disastrous consequences of closed gene pools;’ it ‘works to exclude or marginalize the mixed other, but is also always hybrid.’” It’s a sharp observation which can be read as a (perhaps deconstructive) criticism of racial ideas. Many other passages in the introduction part of ‘Horse Breeds and Human Society’, too, can be quoted and read in isolation as social criticism. I wonder if you intend it to be as such by design?
Kristen Guest: The project is very much motivated by trying to study breed as a construct and category of animal identity in relation to parallel human categories of similarly constructed identity (such as race or nationality) that gained traction over the same historical period. It’s a fairly long arc of development that coincides roughly with the emergence of Euro-colonial modernity and the attendant consolidation of technology, science, capitalism and globalization as a means of organizing and controlling nature. There’s really interesting work being done on the evolution of the language of blood and race from the early modern era onwards, and I don’t think it is accidental that the consolidation of pure breeding as a discourse and a practice in the nineteenth century coincided with the rise of racial science.
Monica Mattfeld: As Kristen points out, there is a long and interwoven history of animal and human categories of identity, with breed, race, and ableism, for instance, acting as inter-informing concepts from at least the medieval period onwards. As our project starts to illustrate, and as other scholarship is beginning to show, breed is but one element of intersectional systems of categorization, construction, oppression, and value. Our project’s emphasis on breed was intended as a first step towards thinking about not only how breed functioned as a shaping discourse and practice over time, and across geographic regions, but also how it influenced, and was influenced by, human identity categories.
Expressing racist ideas in modern societies is normally out of the question, but talking about “pure breeds” of animals doesn’t seem to raise many eyebrows. Is it possible that at least in some cases, a psychological process of sublimation is at play, whereby the suppressed “horrible” sensibilities of the former type find expression in the latter “acceptable” form?
Kristen Guest: In a roundtable Monica and I moderated, historian Harriet Ritvo noted that it’s “always a bit easier to let things slip out, or to say things unintentionally, when you are talking about other animals then when you are directly talking about people.” Animals act as avatars for us in all kinds of ways, and allow us to work out the contradictions in our worldviews.
Monica Mattfeld: Talking about ‘purity’, ‘blood’, proper breeding, and pedigree, for instance, is indeed a normalized activity in a way that talking about similar concepts in relation to humans is not. This phenomenon regularly appears with not only horses but animals in general. As scholars of animal studies constantly point out, from pop culture to fine art, humans regularly rely on non-human others to act as avatars for ongoing debates on complex human society.
Progressive minds have also raised ethical objections to the commonplace practices of breeding – about things which don’t amount to outright animal abuse as it’s generally agreed-upon, things such as giving animals more autonomy to choose their mates. Given your reflections on the intricate relationship between breeding and wider social processes, how do you analyze such emerging critical themes?
Monica Mattfeld: Many animal-studies scholars and animal rights activists (past and present) consistently undermine the apparent separation between human and animal. In doing so they destabilize human exceptionalism and anthropocentric understandings of the world, while arguing for a more ecological and egalitarian approach to animal-human relationships. Stemming from feminist gender studies and ecocriticism, there is exciting new research emerging that illustrates the historical, and contemporary, conflation of women and horses. This research also often takes an ethical approach to human-animal relationships and argues that to understand human society one must also come to understand animals, and in doing so emphases animals as subjective, agential, and equal beings with whom humans share the planet. Knowing this is, in turn, essential to equine and human equity in an essential unequal world.
For example, scholars like Jeannette Vaught are at the forefront of decentering normative welfare standards in horse-human relationships. Arguing for the celebration of equine agency and desire over human economics and anthropocentric approaches to breeding practice, Vaught points out current management of horses, especially mares, reflects wider, multi-species discriminatory systems. These systems construct mare identity, and their treatment as critters capable of reproduction, using often sexist and misogynistic ideas. These constructions and problematic treatment (including many breeding practices), of course, are worryingly reflective of human gendered relations; thus, to effect positive change in one species’ society, the other also needs increased awareness of, and attention to, individual agency, bodily autonomy, and choice past and present.
I know this question is a bit removed from your subject matter, but I’m curious to know if you have any insights into it: What is it about pure breeds and verifiable lineages that seems to drive a great deal of fascination, and justify premium prices, in the pet market, given that, compared to for example horses, utilitarian considerations do not seem to have much of role to play in the choice of companion animals?
Kristen Guest: I think that the focus on status and lineage in domestic animals—especially companion animals like horses and dogs—emerged in the nineteenth century as western society was shifting to a more individualistic, merit-based ideal for people. Transferring the associations of “blood” as a signifier of nobility or superiority to pedigreed animals meant one’s pets could symbolically transfer this status to their owners.
Monica Mattfeld: As Kristen points out, animal ownership, and often breeding, is very much a question of status. Throughout much of the modern (Western) world, this meant pedigree and the celebration of ‘purity.’ Today, however, (again, at least in many Western societies) this is changing with new emphases, and social/cultural status enmeshed in performative morality, placed on the ‘impure’ or ‘unideal’ animal. Valuing the rescue animal, the mongrel, the regular over the pedigreed purebred has even become the hegemonic ideal in some places. This shift in desirable animal, and the morality at its core, in turn generates its own systems of status based on ethics, morality, and animal as embodied symbol of equitable and charitable ways of living – gesturing to larger lifestyle and ethical choices that champion diversity, ecological thinking, and anti-ableism.
What might be missing that could enrich our understanding of equestrian cultures?
Kristen Guest: Our research on breed has very much focused on western history and culture; what needs to be done—and what we’d love to see happen—is research focusing on constructs of breed that have developed in other parts of the world. The Middle East and Asia have ancient horse cultures and forms of equine pedigree that are distinct from those that developed in the Euro-colonial world. We’d love to see these histories told.
Monica Mattfeld: In addition to much more research on horses and horse cultures from all over the world, further research into the early modern and medieval periods, periods prior to many common taxonomies of kind in existence today, would be wonderful.
About the book:
Horse Breeds and Human Society
This book demonstrates how horse breeding is entwined with human societies and identities. It explores issues of lineage, purity, and status by exploring interconnections between animals and humans.
The quest for purity in equine breed reflects and evolves alongside human subjectivity shaped by categories of race, gender, class, region, and nation. Focusing on various horse breeds, from the Chincoteague Pony to Brazilian Crioulo and the Arabian horse, each chapter in this collection considers how human and animal identities are shaped by practices of breeding and categorizing domesticated animals.
Bringing together different historical, geographical, and disciplinary perspectives, this book will appeal to academics, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students, in the fields of human-animal studies, sociology, environmental studies, cultural studies, history, and literature.
About the book:
As much as dogs, cats, or any domestic animal, horses exemplify the vast range of human-animal interactions. Horses have long been deployed to help with a variety of human activities – from racing and riding to police work, farming, warfare, and therapy – and have figured heavily in the history of natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Most accounts of the equine-human relationship, however, fail to address the last few centuries of Western history, focusing instead on pre-1700 interactions. ‘Equestrian Cultures’ fills in the gap, telling the story of how prominently horses continue to figure in our lives, up to the present day.
Kristen Guest and Monica Mattfeld place the modern period front and center in this collection, illuminating the largely untold story of how the horse has responded to the accelerated pace of modernity. The book’s contributors explore equine cultures across the globe, drawing from numerous interdisciplinary sources to show how horses have unexpectedly influenced such distinctively modern fields as photography, anthropology, and feminist theory. ‘Equestrian Cultures’ boldly steps forward to redefine our view of the most recent developments in our long history of equine partnership and sets the course for future examinations of this still-strong bond.