The ethologist Jordi Casamitjana explains why riding on the back of other sentient beings is something vegans do not do.

Imagine that you are kept captive in a cell.

It’s a small cell, just a few metres long, with very little in it. You were put there when you were young.  Your captors have kept you there against your will since you can remember, and you don’t know why. They bring you some food every day, and also water, but there is very little else to do other than waiting for her. 

Once a week or so, she comes to take you out of your cell, for a walk. She talks to you, she strokes you, she even gives you treats, and then she ties you up so you can be taken out and not escape. But for that to happen, for you to be able to feel the fresh air and the warmth of another living being for a few minutes, to straighten your legs, to break the monotony, you have to do something for her. You must let her put a rope around your mouth, jump on your back, and make you carry her wherever she wants to go. After years of doing it, you got relatively used to her weight, and the rope in your mouth pulling towards the direction she wants you to go. 

When all this bondage happened to you the first time, you hated it. You resisted; you were disturbed. You did not want to collaborate with your captors’ scary demands. But they tried and tried until they broke your spirit. You cave in eventually, as nobody came to rescue you. Your parents did not come; your friends did not come. You were left alone to face your captors.

At least, if you let them do it, if you comply with all their orders, they let you go for a walk — and even a run. When you have given up hope, when the more demeaning and uncomfortable tasks are the only thing that breaks the monotony of your captive existence, you may no longer care about it. You may even look forward to it.

How would you feel about her? About the captor who climbs on you and takes you for a walk? Would you hate her or look forward to her visits? Perhaps you are lucky, and your cell has an outdoor yard, a baren space outside where you can walk around a bit. Or perhaps you are even luckier and you may share your cell with other inmates like you — and you like them and are not afraid of any. Would you then feel differently about her when she climbs on you and takes you for a walk away from your enhanced prison?

Now imagine you are the captor. You are the person who wants to climb on the inmate in exchange for a walk. How do you think the inmate feels about that? Do you think the inmate likes you? Do you think the inmate loves to be “ridden” by you? Do you think that there is nothing wrong with what you are doing? Do you really think that you are not a captor, but a carer?  

If you are a vegan, you would try to avoid exploiting any sentient being for any purpose, because this is what the official definition of veganism says. If you follow the philosophy of veganism, you would not climb on other sentient beings, treat them as if they were vehicles, and order them to follow your directions telling them off if they dare to disobey you. You would not do it regardless of the race or species they belong to. You would not do it regardless of how used they are to be treated this way. You would not do it regardless of how traditional or common this practice is where you live.

If you are a full vegan (also known as an ethical vegan), you would not ride a horse under any circumstance. And yet, some people who use the word “vegan” to define who they are, not only still do it after they became vegan (as that may be something they were doing before), but criticise those vegans who campaign against horse riding. Some of these riders think they are not captors but carers. They even say “their” horses like to be ridden by them. 

I think this issue needs to be discussed on a vegan platform like this one. It seems that, although it should be blatantly obvious, we need to explain why vegans don’t ride horses.

Breaking a Horse

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At first impression, some horses may seem to “enjoy” being ridden by a human, but the key issue is why this surprising phenomenon happens. Part of it is just wishful thinking of the human, spiced with a dose of cognitive dissonance and anthropocentrism. People use all sorts of rationalisations to justify their morally dubious actions, and they confuse compliance with willingness.

Another part is what I described in the introduction of this article. Horses may want to have a walk and get a break from their monotonous uneventful captive existence, and they know their captor’s condition to get it is to give them a ride during the walk (remember that most times you see horses they are either tied up to something or somewhere, or kept in an enclosure, so most are indeed “captive animals”). Dogs who bring their human companion their lead, pleading to them to go for a walk, do not enjoy being tied up but they know that is the only way the walk will happen. Those dogs don’t love their lead and look forward to being kept on a leash — anyone knows what happens when, finally, they a freed from it in the middle of a secure park. Horses may feel the same about any of the riding gear, and their bond with their capturers may be more akin to Stockholm syndrome than love. 

Another reason for the tolerance — or even apparent enjoyment — of being ridden is because the horses have been broken-in, so they are no longer able to judge the situation in their best interest. I have not used the term “broken” for dramatic effect. This is the actual term used to describe the process of “taming” wild horses, or horses who do not want to be ridden and eventually give up all resistance (their fighting spirit has been broken, and now they are docile and obedient).

As horses are herd animals (who evolved over the last 55 million years to live with many other horses in open spaces with sparse vegetation, not by themselves in stables), they are the natural prey of predators (such as wolves), and they have evolved a series of defence mechanisms to avoid capture. Some of these involve running as far as they can, kicking backwards to expel the incoming attacker, or jumping up and down to dislodge any predator already on them.

Sometime around 5,000 years ago, humans in central Asia began capturing wild horses and jumping on their backs. The natural instinctive reaction to having people on their backs would be to get rid of them as their life might be at stake. Even after all these years of domestication producing many breeds of horses of all shapes and sizes (the original wild horses have already become extinct), that defensive instinct is still there. All horses still need to be broken-in to tolerate humans on their backs, as otherwise, they would throw them out — which is what “bronco-style” rodeos exploit.  

The process of breaking-in horses is aimed at eliminating the natural response to predators by repeating “predatory simulations” until the horse realises these “predators” (the humans) only bite if you turn left when they want to go right, or stay still when they want you to move forward at the precise speed ordered. And the “bites” do physically occur with the use of all sorts of devices (including whips). Therefore, breaking-in horses is not only a bad thing because the final result is a horse who has lost some of its “integrity”, but it is also wrong as it causes distress to the horse while it is done. The whole concept is already telling that to get the informed “consent” of the horse, you have to use force or adverse coercion until the natural mental state of the horse has been changed “permanently”. Therefore, this is indeed animal exploitation and abuse, and ethical vegans should not support it.

Those who train horses today may not use the exact same methods used in the past and they may say what they do now is no longer breaking-in, but a gentler and subtle “training “— or even euphemistically calling it “schooling”. But this may simply be a matter of semantics. Monty Roberts is a horse trainer known to create a training environment where it becomes easy for the trainer to get the horse’s attention. But Roberts boasts of his ability to control his more easily broken horses by merely holding the whip in his hand in a neutral position, suggesting that the threat of violence is still an integral part of this modern breaking-in method.

No matter the method used, the result is the same. If part of the relationship with the horses is to physically and psychologically subjugate them to carry you around to precisely where you instructed them to go, whatever method is used to accomplish that still aims to “break” the horses’ will. This is what happens with the relationship riders have forced on their horses, who become conditioned to accept riders on their back to go for a walk.

Animal Welfare Issues of Riding Horses

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Having a human on their back, in addition to painful metal bars (the “bit”) in their mouth (a very sensitive area) and metal spurs poked into their flanks, not only directly distressing and painful to horses but can cause severe long-term health problems to them. 

Horses suffer specific diseases from having the weight of a person on their back — which their bodies have never evolved to accept. The weight of a person on a horse for a long time will compromise circulation by closing the blood flow in the back, which over time can cause tissue damage, often starting close to the bone. Kissing Spines Syndrome is also a problem caused by riding, where the spines of the horse’s vertebrae start to touch each other and sometimes fuse. An equine vet website has this to say about it: “Back pain in horses is fairly common. It can either be primary, associated with the bones in the spine, or secondary, i.e. muscular pain secondary to a poor fitting saddle, low grade lameness causing muscle tension and a restricted gait or lack of top line. Primary back pain is most commonly caused by over-riding/impinging dorsal spinous processes (or Kissing Spines). In this condition the normal spaces between the spinous processes of the horse’s vertebral column are reduced. In some horses pain can arise from the bone-to-bone contact and disruption to the ligament between the processes.”

Horses sometimes collapse from exhaustion if forced to run too much or under the wrong conditions, or they may fall and break their limbs, which often leads to their euthanasia. In natural situations, horses running without riders may be able to avoid accidents that could cause them injury as they will not be forced to go on difficult terrains or over dangerous obstacles. Breaking in the horses may also compromise their instincts for prudence and caution.

Naturally, horse riding (or horseback riding as the Americans call it) can provide vital exercise to a captive horse, but running without a rider on their back could also provide this, without adding any of the health problems associated with riding. Besides, if the captive life of a horse is so dangerously sedentary that a regime of exercise must be forced on the horse, this just tells you that the overall conditions provided by the riding captors are not good for the horse. 

Most sheeps are genetically modified by the wool industry to produce a dangerously unnatural amount of hair that requires shearing, and now the industry claims that they sheared them as an act of good animal welfare, when they created the problem in the first place. Equally, keeping a horse in a captive environment that requires a forced exercise regime at the human’s convenience (rather than the horse’s preference) to maintain good health, and then claiming that riding is the animal welfare solution to this problem, also ignores that breeding horses for riding caused the problem in the first place. 

Even the blinkers some riders use on the side of the horse’s eyes to avoid being spooked can be a cause of distress and problems. These devices are designed to deprive an animal of their senses, which are needed for their survival. Not being able to see properly in all directions may cause accidents when the horse may be unable to avoid an obstacle or a coming object. The riders used them to force the horse to do the task the human wants, not to allow the horse to make decisions about what to do, which deprives the animals of the right response to the environment that evolution imprinted in their behavioural repertoire. For instance, if a horse is about to fall lots of instincts would kick in to allow a response that may prevent it, but when the animal’s senses have been artificially depleted, the response may be incorrect and injury may be more likely — many of us have experienced twisting our ankles when we were fooled by the nature of the terrain or had poor visibility.  

Rendering Horses Invisible

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Normalising riding horses has wider negative implications that explain why not only vegans don’t ride them but they oppose other people doing it. The breaking of the horses’ spirits has been happening for so many years that horses have become almost invisible to us. They are so commodified that have almost become part of the landscape and they are no longer seen as sentient beings. 

When they use to be the dominant form of transport years ago, they would disappear from people’s attention. They would simply be ignored as if they were not there anymore. Fortunately, we do not longer live in those times, and when we see relics of them, such as when seeing horse-drawn carriages in cities such as New York City or Prague, many people now react and join campaigns to stop this outdated practice. But both horses used to carry people on their backs for leisure or pulling a carriage for work have been broken-in by those who trained them, and are equally objectified to the point of becoming an organic version of a motorbike or a truck by those who exploit them afterwards — and yet, you don’t see the same high percentage of people against riding horses for leisure.

Riding is responsible for this invisibility of horses. When the human-horse combo becomes “a rider” — not a human and a horse anymore — and the rider is now in charge and completely in control, the horse has been erased from the picture. And when you don’t see the horse anymore, you don’t see the suffering. 

Normalising horseback riding erases the horse from existence as an independent sentient being. It is almost a worse de-personification than what the animals used in factory farming have to endure. The fact many of these are kept hidden shows that the exploiters are aware the public can still “see” them and see their suffering. But the horses’ erasure is so complete that many of those people who are outraged by the bondage of the pig in a farrowing cage do not seem to equally care about the bondage of the ridden horse. Riders don’t hide when they ride horses. They do it with pride in front of everyone. 

We can easily experience the invisible horse phenomenon of the past when we watch a film depicting those times (such as a Western or a period movie, for example). It would only take a few minutes for us to stop seeing the horses as sentient beings and assume they are just vehicles for the characters. Their spirits disappear in front of our eyes. And even vegans like myself fall for this. 

If the animals shown in a film were hurt and this is known (such as showing a real bullfight as part of the story), most ethical vegans would not watch the film if they knew beforehand that abuse will be featured. But if they are just films showing horses being used as “transport” (without performing dangerous “stunts” such as falling on cue, which are likely to have caused distress in the performance and training), many ethical vegans may not even have considered that perhaps they should stop watching them — these vegans may not attend any circus with performing animals, but yet, they may watch a film with them. 

I have indeed considered it — many times. I would no longer pay for a film that I know horses are shown being ridden (meaning not going to the cinema or ordering it on any streaming TV ) but I must confess that I may still watch it if I am not contributing economically — or by doing so supporting the film in any way. However, when I watch these films, I make it a point to stop following the plot when the horses appear and concentrate on them, not on the actors. I ask myself questions such as “is this horse female? How old is she? Was this her first film?” to reverse their de-personification, but if the filmmaker is very good, I can be absorbed by the story and forget this self-imposed exercise. Although I have been vegan for over 20 years, I still carry relics of carnism so my process of veganisation never ends — as with any other vegan. So, I hope that in the future I decide not to watch any of these films anymore, as I don’t like the fact that I am sometimes so entrenched in following the story that I no longer “see” the animals. I do not want to feel I am contributing to their exploitation by helping to normalise it when I “accept” how they have been used and for whom (for the spectator).  

Horses are not vehicles, style accessories, film probs, working machines, sports equipment, or playing toys. They are somebody, like you or me.

The ‘Vegan Way’ to Treat Horses

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Being opposed to humans riding anyone against their will does not mean vegans oppose the development of positive relationships between humans and horses. It does not mean either that vegans do not live with horses, or that they cannot look after horses in need of a home. There is, indeed, a vegan way to live with horses compatible with veganism — in the same way there is a vegan way to live with dogs and cats.

All horses alive today are domesticated animals. Although horses are roaming free in several parts of the world, they are not wild horses anymore. Humans drove to extinction the original wild horse species from which all current horses were domesticated. The herds of horses who seem to be wild today (and people call them “wild horses”) are simply feral horses who returned to the wild after being domesticated, but genetically they are not like their wild ancestors anymore. However, if left undisturbed, they can live quite a happy existence pretty similar to the one their ancestors lived — so there are enough original genes intact in them to be able to produce stable populations. I said “if left undisturbed” because often these feral populations are still managed by people (as is the case of Colorado “wild” horses I recently wrote about). Therefore, one “vegan way” to treat horses is to let them live in stable feral populations undisturbed. 

The other way would be to rescue them from their current bondage and move them to horse sanctuaries, especially those run by vegans (which is the best guarantee they will not be ridden anymore). For instance, taking them to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary in the UK (run by the super-vegan activist Fiona Oakes) or to the Santuario Equidad in Argentina (run by the amazing vegan activist Alejandra García). They will still be kept captive there because these horses may no longer be able to live in feral groups (because of age, health, background, or simply because they live in countries without any stable feral population — or possibility to create one), but they will be kept in much bigger outdoor enclosures, with the company of other horses, and never be ridden or forced to work again. 

But what if you live with a horse you normally ride and then you become vegan? Would giving the horse to a sanctuary be the only “vegan way”? No, you could simply change the way you behave with the horse, and try to give the best possible care (considering your circumstances). There may be things that could be difficult to change (such as the space available to the horse or the lack of other horses for company) but there is something you can always do. You can stop riding the horse. You may still go out with the horse for a walk, but now that you are vegan you should be much more respectful and walk alongside the horse, as equals. Or you can use a bike or other vehicles to run together with the horse. Or let the horses run in a secure field by themselves. 

Some vegans think that they can make other changes but continue to ride the horse, but I don’t agree this is enough. For instance, Michelle Whitham Jones is a horse rider who decided to become vegan and said this to VeganLife Magazine: “My husband and I had just decided to move from vegetarianism to veganism when we bought our horses. We believed we were very ethical horse owners because our horses were looked after very well and received a great deal of care and attention from us. Later, we acquired our rescued Mini-Shetland Ben and nursed his sweet itch scabs with plant-based remedies. Our horses do not have metal shoes. We ride without bits because of the harm that they could cause and because I don’t like the thought of metal bits in mouths. We have managed to find a source of vegan saddles and bridles so our horses don’t have to be dressed with leather either. Our horses live out in four acres all year although they can choose to use a field shelter if they need to. We still treat our horses with the upmost[sic] respect and care but we are also safe, our horses can’t choose to communicate with light kicks or bites like they do in the field with each other, we use humane training techniques which never involve whips or pain of any kind.” 

However, despite these changes, it seems that (at least when the article was written) she still rides the horses, even if she could easily have decided not to. Why? Probably for very similar reasons reducetarians say it is OK to eat meat if the animals are kept with the “utmost respect and care” and killed with “humane slaughter techniques. Because is more convenient to rationalise a bad habit than to change it. People are so indoctrinated into carnism that if they got a pony as a “present” when they were young, they may still see horses as toys to play with, even after becoming vegan. 

If you “own” horses and want to become vegan, you don’t need to buy vegan saddles and bridles, or find an alternative to the metal shoes or the mouth’s bits. You only need to stop riding them, and then you will not need any of these bondage instruments anymore. You only need to stop treating them as your “property” and begin treating them as equal companions who can walk side by side, like real friends. 

Ren Hurst, author of Riding on the “Power of Others: A Horsewoman’s Path to Unconditional Love,” called for an end to horseback riding, saying, “We have this fundamental responsibility to not take advantage of animals who have no control over whether or not they live with humans. It’s a new concept that’s evolving as our mindsets do, but the fundamental premise is a simple one: We can and must challenge our old patterns of thinking if we want to treat animals ethically — not as subservient to us but as our equals.”

You may be a “horse lover” — there are many out there — and if you are an ethical vegan who wants to help them, creating a horse sanctuary might be beyond your capabilities. But you can always treat any horse you meet with great respect and compassion. You can remove the metal from their mouths and hooves, and even remove the saddle altogether, and only take them out for a walk when they want to go — if they want to go with you. But you could do all that without climbing on their back, and in doing so exercising your dominion over them, wrongly reinforcing the psychological control which broke them in the first place.

Imagine that you are kept captive in a cell, and someone comes and sets you free. Free from your painful bondage, free from your demeaning subservience, free from your depressing abandonment. Someone kind and respectful who “mends you”, so you no longer feel broken.

That’s the vegan way to treat another sentient being.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.