On Saturday, my husband Ian and I caught a few minutes of the equestrian individual jumping event at the Olympics in Rio. This isn’t an individual event entirely, of course, because it involves a horse and a rider. That makes two.
For the longest time, Ian and I had the same questions as we listened to the coverage. The commentator kept making athletic statements, sometimes using the pronoun ‘he’ and sometimes using the pronoun ‘she.’
Who is considered to be the ‘he,’ and who is considered to be the ‘she’?
Who is considered to be the athlete? The horse, the rider, or both of them?
Eventually, Ian and I let out a laugh at the same time. Though we hadn’t talked about it yet, we had been wondering these questions simultaneously. We had clearer answers once the commentator said, “She went to Stanford,” and “He loves bananas.”
That definitely cleared some things up, but as I continued to watch and reflect, it raised larger issues too:
This commentator seemed to admire the athletic prowess of the horse and the rider. But I realized that only one of them has a choice about competing. What happens to the life of the horse if he makes a permanent decision to stop jumping?
The athleticism of horse and rider are simultaneously admired, but who benefits from a win? Is the horse treated differently if he wins? When the horse ages or can’t win anymore, is he permitted to live another chapter elsewhere, or is he sold and killed?
The horse didn’t go to Stanford, yet he was considered to be an intelligent animal with some autonomy. The commentator referred to him with language we might use for a human. I wondered, why do we respect the intelligence of some animals but relegate other highly intelligent animals (pigs come to mind) to a lifetime of living in cramped cages where they can’t even move?
We love our pets, and we admire the strength of powerful animals. We enjoy safaris, and we work to conserve the habitats of some creatures around this world.
But we also support an food industry which causes endless suffering for some animals from birth to slaughter. We assume these animals have no intrinsic worth, and we keep their suffering out of view.
So horse or other animals? Who’s valued?
Perhaps we need to remove the ‘or’ and ponder these inconsistencies.