Clinician Mark Lyon riding a horse who has the purpose of helping with ponying, with my mustang Leo, who’s been trying to understand his place in this life. This is from 2017.

Is it wrong to view our relationship with the horse through the lens of what they can do for us? Their ‘purpose?’

At first glance, it sounds pretty exploitive.

But like many controversial subjects, they remain controversial because their complexity doesn’t lend itself to easy answers.

While it is very noble to think that we should always value the individual, whether horse or human, by their intrinsic worth alone, this isn’t really how relationships work.

While we may enjoy many individuals for their innate selves and companionship, we also choose to yoke ourselves with those who can pull their weight, who can help us build a life.

Is this selfish? Or is it self-care?

We ourselves have many relationships based primarily on our extrinsic value, determined by how we can help others. Our jobs, our families, these are not maintained by innate value alone; we have to put in the work.

In fact, very few of us feel fulfilled by our innate worth alone. A lot of unhappiness stems from not finding our unique purpose where we can contribute our extrinsic gifts and skills to our communities and relationships.

Of course, I don’t think the horse thinks this way. I think they are perfectly happy standing out in the pasture 24-7 eating, as long as they have a place in a herd.
As well, the horse didn’t choose to bring themselves into the domestic world in order to serve people.
They have no innate drive to serve, and neither do they have the choice to serve.
Is it fair to expect them to have a place and serve a purpose?

It could be argued that we don’t have a choice, either. We all have to have jobs. We all have to have secure relationships where we pull our own weight. This is life.

What it comes down to, because as a society we’re not going to just turn horses into companions, and because we do have expectations of them, is that just like with people, can we expect them to serve a purpose, without exploiting them?

Absolutely. I think individuals, both horse and human, can find themselves in a place in the world where they are valued for their particular individual skillsets and what they can bring to the equation, while simultaneously being respected and honored for their innate value. I think that can be done in both an ethical as well as a pragmatic way.

I don’t think being of use and having extrinsic purpose, and having intrinsic value, are mutually exclusive.
I think we need to step away from that dualistic thinking and realize that the real world is a lot more complicated than that.

We talk about freedom, working at liberty, giving the horse choices, and while these things are great, it helps to broaden out our perspective to ideas that philosophers have already brought forward…

What is freedom?
Is there really such a thing as absolute freedom and absolute choice and free-will?
I think there are others who have done a better job of answering that than I can…

For instance, poet Robert Frost famously defined freedom not as the lack of all restraint, but as “being easy in your harness.”

We all find ourselves in a harness in this life; the question is, can we find happiness there?

Working alongside some of the most industrious people in this nation, who are born into lives filled with hard manual labor, who yet choose to continue it into retirement, I can say unequivocally the answer is yes.

I think that we can find a purpose that fulfills us and enriches our life, and I think the horse can experience a life enriched by purpose as well, even though they experience fulfillment in their herd, and don’t have the drive or choice to serve.

Coming back to choice – can we choose to yoke ourselves with those who can pull their weight?

I’ve seen many people shamed for giving up on a horse that didn’t suit them.

“Giving up on a horse who doesn’t serve a purpose to you is selfish.”

I don’t think I agree with that.
If we translated that to human relationships, we would find ourselves staying in some very unhealthy and toxic relationships, shamed into loving the person unconditionally instead of recognizing their lack of contribution to the relationship.

At the same time, it’s probably pretty unethical to trash every relationship we find ourselves in because we are being habitual users.

The key is, having the discernment to understand when we are being users, and when we have a right to expectations, boundaries, and the pursuit of our own happiness.

In closing, I do think when we have vulnerable individuals – the elderly, the disabled, whether horse or human, we have a moral responsibility to care for these individuals and serve them, and sometimes we don’t have the resources to do that on our own, and that’s OK, and that’s why it takes a community.

Teaching my horses to broaden their views experientially—that’s learning to do by doing—is not something for which I’m sorry. If I fail to lead my horses into twenty-first century living, I’ve failed to make them worth any more than thirty cents a pound. It’s a harsh outlook! But if you’re firmly against the wholesale slaughter of unwanted horses, educating them to be good, honest and useful citizens is the best way I know to ensure their safety.

Keystone Equine

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