From the horse’s mouth

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In this post I want to touch on the idea of the animal voice. This is a big subject, and I’ll probably address it again down the track, but for now I want to talk about the issue of humans assuming an animal voice. I think most people would acknowledge that we cannot ever really know or communicate what an animal might be thinking. But perhaps the more interesting question is, whether or not we should try.

In her article Horse as Significant Other: Discourses of Affect and Therapy in Susan Richards’s Chosen by a Horse: How a Broken Horse Fixed a Broken Heart, Jopi Nyman cites Margo DeMello’s view that it is primarily women writers who adopt the animal perspective, seeing it is a (peculiarly female?) way of providing the voiceless with a voice.[1]  Nyman acknowledges the problematic nature of representation and language, though she doesn’t extend the discussion to the issue of anthropomorphism.

The anthropomorphising of animals is often criticised, though Australian eco-feminist Val Plumwood argued that to dismiss anthropomorphism out of hand is to deny that there are any overlapping characteristics between human and non-human animals. The difficulty comes with an anthropocentric anthropomorphism.[2] I think here it is useful to distinguish between anthropomorphism, and anthropocentrism. The former can be loosely defined as attributing human characteristics to an animal*, while the latter stems from an ideology in which the human is separate from, and superior to, the animal world. Plumwood states that:

The problems in representing another species’ speech or subjectivity in human terms are real, but they do not rule out such representation in any general way, and they pale before the difficulties of failing to represent them at all, or before the enormity of representing communicative and intentional beings as beings lacking all communicative and mental capacity. That is a much greater inaccuracy and injustice than any anthropomorphism.[3]

I couldn’t help but recall both Nyman and Plumwood when I came across ‘Interviews with The Other Three Quarters’ in the latest edition of Seizure magazine, in which writer Rosanna Beatrice Stevens** ‘interviews’ three fictional horses from different equestrian backgrounds.[4] The horses we meet are an Arabian hacking pony named Mirabelle Have You Met Miss Jones?, a barrel racer known as Hank, and an Olympic dressage champion who failed at racing under the name My Good Luck but made her dressage success with the moniker Sweetbones. These names are important, as Sweetbones herself points out. ‘You see, humans need names so they can call us things – distinguish between us in radio commentary or on a television screen.’ This notion of the horse as a human construct is both highlighted and subverted throughout the article.

The tone is light to begin with, with the snooty Valley Girl voice of purebred Miss Jones detailing her life of ‘looking pretty’ progressing to the earnest ockerish-ness of Hank and his defence of barrel racing as a genuine sport. But by the time we hear from ex-racehorse Sweetbones, we are beginning to understand two things – firstly, the pivotal and largely under-appreciated role of the horse in competitive equestrian pairings (the title itself references this), and second, that the life of the racehorse is not one that is envied in the equine world.

All three of the animals acknowledge that their situations could be worse – ‘I know I’m lucky because I’m not a racehorse or anything. Like, no offense, but I’m not going to end up at a meat factory or anything’, says Miss Jones, while Hank calls horse racing ‘a disgrace’. It is in recounting the biography of Sweetbones that Stevens introduces the facts and statistics that accompany racehorse ‘wastage’ – that only 30% of thoroughbred foals will ever actually race; that between 22,000-32,000 horses are slaughtered each year in Australia, around 40% of which are racehorses. 

These statistics are alarming to anyone who claims to love horses. But I think what Stevens has done so successfully here is to give these statistics a voice, albeit a fictional one. It is one thing to be confronted with numbers, but another entirely to hear a horse recounting the smell of fear associated with being sent to auction:

The truck reeked – you could smell it before it had arrived. I don’t know if your type can smell things like fear, um, but fear – it has many different scents. A stale shit smell is a big giveaway that something is wrong, but so’s the stink of thousands of exhausted athletes all coming from the gaping jaw of a rusty truck.

While Stevens has created distinctive voices for her characters, she has also incorporated vivid descriptions of distinctly equine behaviour as well. Not only does this emphasis on the non-verbal give a sense of authenticity and depth to the horses, but it also returns attention to their physical subjugation. This is perhaps most obvious in Sweetbones’ recollections of being artificially inseminated as a brood mare, though it is present in each of the horse’s accounts of their lives.

So, to my original question about whether we, as humans, should attempt to represent the perspectives of animals, I think the answer is yes. The Stevens article is an example of writing from a non-human perspective done well, which offers us insights into animal subjectivity, even when shaped around the concerns of the human author (in this case, her view of horse racing). The trick in attempting such representation is to avoid the pitfalls of anthropocentrism, a demanding task indeed when you consider the world we live in.


[1] Jopi Nyman, ‘Horse as Significant Other: Discourses of Affect and Therapy in Susan Richards’s Chosen by a Horse: How a Broken Horse Fixed a Broken Heart’, in Humanimalia vol. 5 no. 2, 2014

[2] Val Plumwood, The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon, 2012, http://press.anu.edu.au/titles/the-eye-of-the-crocodile/ accessed 17 February 2014

[3] ibid, p.68

[4] Rosanna Beatrice Stevens, ‘Interviews with the other three quarters’, Seizure no. 5, 2013. The first page of this piece can be read here

 

* Whether these characteristics are perceived as uniquely human is a distinction outside the scope of this blog post, though I’d suggest reading Val Plumwood’s The Eye of the Crocodile if you’re interested in a breakdown of this complex issue

**Yes, I do know her personally. That doesn’t discount anything I’ve written though!

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One thought on “From the horse’s mouth

  1. Pingback: Mister Id | horsesfordiscourses

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