ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

Entwined worlds: equine ethnography and ethologies
Location Room 8
Date and Start Time 15 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 3


  • Rhys Evans (Hogskulen for landbruk og bygdeutvikling) email
  • Nicole Baur (University of Exeter) email

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Short Abstract

Human-horse relations transgress the boundaries between rider and horse, researcher and researched, certainty and uncertainty. This presents profound ethnographic challenges. Presenters will explore their responses to these challenges.

Long Abstract

The human horse relationship is much more than a palimpsest for the study of communities, societies, social theories, articulations of identity or encounters with a non-human other. Yet it often perceived as exactly that. Rather, it is a focus of research which, by its nature, subverts certainties, crosses the boundaries between subject and object, and makes us critically question both difference and similarity. It transgress the boundaries between rider and horse, researcher and researched, certainty and uncertainty. This presents profound ethnographic challenges.

Out of the intersection of human and horse comes a myriad of insights into the rich, messy, often contradictory multiplicity of meanings each relationship inspires and embodies. Attempts at ethnographic endeavour must wrestle with everything from non-representational theory to necessarily experimental representational strategies dealing with embodiment, emotion and contingent failure. Further, most who research the human-horse relation are themselves biased - they are driven by their own relationships with horses. This session welcomes those who practice these multiple and mixed ethnographies to reflect on their practices -- their challenges, opportunities and in particular, the necessity of allowing the contingency of transgressive embodied practices to muddy the waters -- and to share them, both with each other, and with the wider anthropological community.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Facebook: friend or foe of equestrian ethnography?

Author: Valerie Will (University of the West of Scotland)  email

Short Abstract

Using an ethnographic case study of an equestrian livery yard, this paper explores how Facebook became a symbiotic partner in the ethnographic endeavour by both facilitating and augmenting the real world ethnography.

Long Abstract

The equestrian livery yard as an industry sector is abundant and growing. However, there is a lack of understanding with regard to the complexity of elements combining to create a healthy experience for both horses and humans. One aspect which appears to impact on the lives of those inhabiting a livery yard is that of the relationships between the individuals themselves (such relationships may be characterised as symbiotic, commensal and/or parasitic) and indeed their equine counterparts.

Information facilitating an understanding of the lived experience and culture of the livery yard was gathered via four 'real world' ethnographies. In one of these, Facebook became a symbiotic partner in the ethnographic endeavour. Consequently, we explore in this paper how the social network impacted on the development and operation of the ethnography. In particular, we examine how the judicious use of Facebook allowed the ethnographer to gain entry and acceptance in the world of a particular livery yard by building relationships with the clients, workers and owners of the yard. We also consider how observing people's lives 'at a distance' via the computer-mediated environment as they are played out on Facebook may actually generate deeper insights than are sometimes available in real life. Although there may be ethical issues which should be acknowledged, viewing the virtual world of the livery yard clients and staff on Facebook unquestionably augmented the 'real world' ethnography - thus traditional ethnography can clearly co-exist in conjunction with a digital approach, to the benefit of both.

'Holding Intent' in British Horsemanship; Discussing the 'Withness' of Becoming With.

Author: Rosie Jones McVey (Cambridge University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the embodied skill of 'holding intent' within British horsemanship. It shows that 'becoming with' (Haraway 2008) is not only a way of describing co-constitutive relatedness, it is also a particular locally held ideal, and one that may be shared by insider equine ethnographers.

Long Abstract

This paper calls for care in the way 'becoming-with' (Haraway 2008) is used within multi-species literature and particularly within equine ethnography. While most authors explicitly describe the term as the inherent co-shaping of beings through entangled relationships, the language of 'becoming with' lends itself readily to representing the achievement of particular closeness between human and non-human animals. Through ethnographic explorations of a particular embodied horsemanship skill within British horsemanship called 'holding intent', I demonstrate an example of interspecies intra-action which is transformative for both humans and equines involved. However, I also advise care to be taken in analysing this relatedness as horse and human becoming closer, and show that the concept of 'withness' features as part of political, social, emotional discourse for the horse-people I studied. Since many equine ethnographers may share with their interlocuters a desire to be closer to the horse, we must be careful not to conflate 'becoming with' - the process of co-constitution, with becoming 'with' - a human, subjective interpretation of relationship.

Feeling 'happy' again: the embodied pleasures of interspecies sport

Author: Deborah Butler (University Of Hull)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on empirical sociological phenomenology this auto-ethnographic paper explores the embodied practices and knowledges involved in interspecies sport. This creates an inter-subjectivity and inter-corporeality through interaction with non-human species.

Long Abstract

Traumatic life events produce unhappiness. Dealing with the unhappiness, the emotional 'deadness', the vulnerability, fear and anxiety is debilitating. This auto-ethnographic paper explores how the embodied practices and knowledge involved in interspecies work with racehorses brought about a gradual reconciliatory sense of perspective on emotional well being and 'happiness'. It contributes to a developing body of literature investigating sensuous embodiment. It uses empirical phenomenological sociology (Schwarz, 2002) to examine how a 'dys-appearing body', (Leder, 1990) brought to consciousness through emotional pain, remakes contact with practically embodied attitudes and dispositions, the catalyst of which is working with and riding racehorses. The paper will argue that the body's 'openness' of being suggests an intermundane space which intertwines with other embodied sentient beings, creating an inter-subjectivity and inter-corporeality through interacting with non-human species. My analysis will explore how this inter-corporeality contributes to the recreation of 'happiness'.


Leder, H. 1990. The Absent Body. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press

Schwarz, H. 2002. General features. Ethnographic Studies 7:33-52.

Equine gatekeepers: animal narratives and foxhunting landscapes

Author: Alison Acton (Open University)  email

Short Abstract

Multi-species ethnography has been heralded as a relatively new genre in academic research. This paper considers the role of ancient epistemologies in present understanding of co-species networks and analyses the active role of horses in fieldwork.

Long Abstract

Firstly, this paper analyses the dynamic between horse, rider, culture and landscape. Secondly it considers non-human animals as active elements within the research process.

My fieldwork involved seven years of ethnographic research into foxhunting culture, from the position of a rider within foxhound packs. The equine focus emerged unexpectedly as I originally participated as a rider/ethnographer in order to understand the nexus between foxhunting culture and the landscape. However, I became drawn into a collaboration with an unanticipated character in this network; the "made hunter," a horse seasoned for hunting. These animals acted as my equine gatekeepers literally incorporating me into this alien world.

I conclude that social science can incorporate epistemic and often ancient elements of cultures that draw upon animals as co-actors. Understanding traditional modes of social action, such as hunting, which are centred upon human-animal interaction, can enable us to recover more-than-human views of the world and can lead to an enhanced understanding of a super-human experience with space. Additionally, the unexpected contribution of these horses to my research leads me to suggest that there is scope to recognise animals, not as objects to study, but as co-participants in understanding our embodied relationship with space.

Parsing the past: equine depictions in paleolithic cave paintings

Author: Susan Moulton (Sonoma State University)  email

Short Abstract

Paleolithic human beings, sensitive to the natural world they shared with diverse species, learned much from animals, particularly horses, and from herd behavior. 38,000 years ago they paid homage to non-human communication, prominently depicting specific animals on cave walls.

Long Abstract

As a trained art historian/artist/archaeologist, I have been fascinated with the evolution of communication in visual vocabulary. But, my equine avocation has yielded more insights than my extensive academic education. I have worked/partnered with horses since I was 3. It was not until I rescued an American mustang and began to study herd behavior and wild horses that I truly began to experience an authentic human-horse connection and communication. I have spent time with 350 wild horses in a natural habitat allowing me to experience first hand, subtle herd behavior. Working with indigenous cultures and these wild mustangs required I set aside decades of academic assumptions.

We have lived in intimate relationship with animals for millennia. These animals have been much more than a food supply or source of sport. My experience with feral horses has shown that animals were sentient teachers and sacred relatives. It is not hard to imagine, therefore, that ancient Paleolithic humans may have mirrored their tribal behavior and collaboration for survival, by observing animal behavior. Human assimilation of animal behavior was woven into songs and stories, patterned in tribal dances, encoded in glyphs and marks and depicted on the walls of the most ancient sacred spaces. These were visited for ritual purposes, for remembrance and to pay homage to these remarkable creatures. I would appreciate discussing with others interested in primal horse/human communication this proposed decoding of visual expression from 38,000 BCE in French Paleolithic cave paintings.

Dalle stelle alle stalle: constructing the illusion of power in early modern Mantua

Author: Christine Contrada (University of Richmond)  email

Short Abstract

Horses were everywhere in early modernity, but the significance of those in Renaissance Mantua have not received sufficient attention. An ethnohistorical framework highlighting convergences and divergences between history and anthropology allows for the reconsideration of Gonzaga statecraft.

Long Abstract

Anthropologist Levi-Strauss laid the groundwork for modern interpretations of totemism when he argued that these selected animals are powerful sources and representations of identity. While historians have noted that horses were everywhere in early modernity, the significance of those in the Gonzaga stable in Renaissance Mantua have not received sufficient attention. An ethnohistorical framework makes it apparent that these horses were not beasts of burden; they represented an effective calculated, strategy to construct an illusion of virtú. The significance of Francesco Gonzaga's horses challenges scholarship's continued focus on Isabella d'Este as Mantua's noteworthy agent of culture. By focusing on correspondence in the ducal collection, centered on this totem, the convergences and divergences between history and anthropology become a lens through which to reconsider Gonzaga's statecraft. Faced with the decline of the small state, horses became vital symbols of power for a marquess playing the Machiavellian scoundrel. This episode's significance has been overlooked by both history and anthropology because the cultural biography does not connect easily to the voices of those in the distant past or to those of living people. Ethnohistory can be used as a tool to interpret this cultural phenomenon in a more informed context. Historians do not study animals under natural conditions so a mire of causal explanations often places these horses in the larger context of the customs of gifting in early modern statecraft. A reconsideration of the horse as subject under unnatural conditions allows for a nuanced reassessment of the cult of the horse.

Spotted lives: Knabstrup social worlds and the question of ethnographic research involving horses

Author: Irina Wenk (University of Zurich)  email

Short Abstract

This paper deals with the question how and why humans makes horses in the double sense of breeding and of shaping horses (and human) bodies in training. And it wants to discuss the possibility and challenges of going to the field together with ones horses.

Long Abstract

In the presented research, I seek to understand how humans make horses. This is meant in a double sense: One is the making of horses in breeding, that is in shaping horses bodies and experimenting with color through selection. The second meaning is the making of horses in riding, which I understand as an embodied inter-species practice that is deeply cultured. I explore the question of breeding with regard to one very specific type of horse, namely the Knabstrupper horse originating in Denmark. And I explore the second theme, the shaping of horses' and riders' bodies in riding with regard to the reemergence of the baroque and classical art of riding in Europe, where the Knabstup horse also plays a central role. In the academic art of riding in particular, as it is currently becoming popular among leisure riders, the individual horse is shaped and educated for years in order for it to become a fully 'cultured horse', i.e. a so-called "school" horse.

Based on an exploratory study in Germany and Denmark and on my ongoing preparations for long-term fieldwork in these two countries among Knabstupper breeders and riders of the 'art', I reflect on the challenges of eth(n)ographic research that will not only include the various people and horses who together shape particular Knabstup social worlds but also myself and my two horses going to the field as a 'multi-species research team'.

Into the field: a multispecies examination of Connemara ponies in western Ireland

Author: Claire J Brown (Binghamton University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the changing social and cultural relationships between humans and Connemara ponies in Western Ireland, and explores the movement, morphology, and behavior of ponies as relative to human cultural processes.

Long Abstract

This paper appropriates the conceptual and methodological attributes of the emerging field of multispecies ethnography to explore the mutually constitutive livelihoods of humans and Connemara ponies in Western Ireland. Over the last forty years relations to the Connemara pony changed from primarily that of an agricultural tool to a riding and breeding animal. Increasing mechanization and decentralization of farming from the family unit altered agricultural practice in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, making the Connemara pony obsolete as a working animal. Humans now work to carefully construct bloodlines that will create animal morphologies which reflect the sturdy, "bone" heavy agricultural pony of the past, while simultaneously meeting the demand for breeding stock or riding ponies. Changes in human-pony relations have transformed the formerly hardy farming pony into overweight "beauty contest" show ponies or athletic performance jumpers. Based on five consecutive summers working on a breeding and riding farm, attending shows and sales, and interviewing local breeders, trainers and owners in Clifden, County Galway, this paper examines these biological changes in tandem with the social and cultural changes in pony use. My analysis appropriates this fieldwork experience into a physically and interactively mediated anthropological gaze, which examines the pony as a being in its own right, rather than as a lens through which to observe change in human social processes. This paper ultimately approaches human-animal relationships through visceral rather than verbal processes, reading the movement, morphology, and behavior of ponies as relative to cultural processes.

The intimate inedible and the exiled edible: the horse as companion and as food in Kazakh culture

Author: Gabriel McGuire (Nazarbayev University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper pairs an ethnographic study of horses in a Kazakh village with oral literary material in order to elucidate the representational dilemmas implicit in the horse’s simultaneous status as companion species and as food.

Long Abstract

The paradox of the horse in Kazakh culture is that horses appear, at first glance, to simultaneously hold the place of ideal food and ideal companion. It is the meat of horses above all other animals that holds the highest value in the village: its acquisition drives households to band together to collect the money necessary for its purchase; its presence at funerals, weddings, and seasonal celebrations mark these events as qualitatively different from everyday life. Yet in both legend and everyday life, the horse as companion can possess an individuality that blurs the boundary between the equine and the human. Horses can possess individual names, personal burial sites, exalted lineages, and even legendary biographies, as in the tales of horse herds whose descent is traced to a stallion that emerges from under the sea. The seeming intimacy of the horse and the human would appear to make the act of consuming horse-meat uncomfortably akin to cannibalism, creating challenges both for how horses are interacted with and how they are talked about. This paper pairs an ethnographic study of horse-meat consumption in a contemporary Kazakh village with oral literary texts—proverbs, folk speech, and legends—in order to elucidate the divergent ways in which the category 'horse' is conceptualized as horses transgress the boundaries between the edible and the inedible.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.