In my previous article (which you can read here), I highlighted three components of systemic oppression in our relationships with each other and our horses—labeling another, the power to define reality, and systemic violence. So what do we do once we understand that our relationships (with people and horses) are impacted by systemic oppression? I thought it might be helpful to highlight what I believe to be four essential things we can do to address systemic oppression at the barn.
Doing our work is probably the most difficult and important thing we can do to disrupt systemic oppression in and outside of the barn. But what does this mean? We pass through a trifecta of growth over and over again if we're willing to do this work- unlearning what we've been taught as true, learning new, often contradictory information, and healing.
It's not linear, neat, or easy.
When I facilitate groups around race and racism for example, one of the first things I ask participants to do is identify their social identities (race, sexual orientation, gender identity, for example) and consider which identities they think about most often and which they think about least often. The identities we think about the least are often the identities where we have more privilege because we don't have to think about them. The identities we think about most are likely the ones where we experience some form of oppression.
I encourage you to pick an identity you think about least often and commit to understanding that identity more. For example, let's say you're white and selected this identity to learn more about. You might choose to find books or articles related to whiteness, find groups to join to learn more about what it means to be white in community with others doing the same, or you might seek out a therapist to help support what comes up for you as you do this work. Do this with the identity you are targeted in as well. Most of us need to heal from both internalized oppression and internalized domination.
The incredible thing is that regardless of the identities you pick, I can guarantee that the learning, unlearning, and healing you engage in as you seek to understand your chosen identities will mirror the process of learning and unlearning about your practices with your horse. This is because social identities are about power and in order to honor our tendency to define reality for our horses we must understand that power.
We've all used labels to describe someone or our horses. I am using the word labeling here in a similar way I use the word stereotype. Labels, like stereotypes, can be positive or negative but are always based on misinformation or omissions. Unfortunately, stereotypes efficiently fuel prejudice. What happens when you combine prejudice + power? Well, that's part of the definition of oppression. The labels we use with our horses (e.g., lazy, dominant, disrespectful, crazy, drama queen or being a mare) often condone our violent behavior towards them or justify our lack of willingness to explore other reasons for what we are seeing. Labels take the responsibility off of us or a problematic system and blame whoever we're labeling. So notice the next time you label your horse and see if you can pause at that moment. Is there an alternative, more thorough and compassionate explanation for what's happening? If a friend or someone at the barn labels their horse, is there a way you might model curiosity about the situation?
One reason why we label is because that's what we've been taught to do. Ethology is the study of horses in the wild, apart from their relationship with people, and is essential for reducing labeling and understanding our horses' physical and emotional needs.
Here's a question to ponder: who taught you about horses and horse behavior? How did your mentor or teacher's life experience, salient social identities and cultural context at the time shape their knowledge and perception about horses? What happens when you ask the same question of their mentors and teachers and go back a few generations? If you're in a U.S context, most people can point to systemic racism and sexism as a social and cultural backdrop in addition to whatever other personal history was present.
Have you ever taken a class about equine behavior or ethology? What comes up for you when I ask that question? For most of us in the horse world, the answer to that question is no. I encourage you to put this on your list of things to do! There are a lot of excellent classes online now based in the latest science available that you can access from the comfort of your home.
The use of systemic violence as a tool of oppression is widely known. However it may be less obvious how this relates to our relationships with our horses because its use is so commonly normalized in the horse industry. I go more deeply into this in my 2021 article. You're not alone if you were taught that hitting, jerking, smacking, or moving their feet was necessary for control or safety. Moving away from traditionally violent (yes, I will use the word violence here because I think THAT needs to be normalized) can be difficult when:
The horse community is changing, and there are SO many ways to be with our horses and teach them how to move through our human world that don't include violence. Here are a few that I can think of off the top of my head:
Although the horse community has a long, LONG history of oppressive practices, I believe that you want something different if you're reading this. Know that I'm here supporting you, and if it would be helpful, reach out. I’d love to hear form you.
With tenderness and care,
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