The anthropologist exploring ethical questions about humans and horses

It started with a pony called Piglet and developed into a full-blown obsession. The more Rosie Jones McVey learnt about horses, the more fascinated she became in different training methods. Working with problem horses, she began pondering deep questions about how we relate to these beautiful creatures. Those whys and hows turned into a PhD in social anthropology.

There’s nothing quite like riding. With me it began when I was 11. I mucked out on a donkey sanctuary and in return got to ride some of the ponies. Then I moved on to help a woman who bought and sold ponies. I went with her to Reading livestock sales and bid for a Shetland pony with money I’d saved. I was 14.

I called the pony Piglet because I kept him on a scrap of land on a pig farm. I managed to buy a little trap and taught him to pull it. When I sold him, I used the profit to buy a bigger pony. I’d had my own horses for two years before my parents knew anything about it. They were just pleased I was being independent and outdoorsy — and not out partying.

As an anthropologist, I look back on this time as absolutely vital. It gave me the immersive experience that enables my ethnography to have a rich, reflective feel to it. As both an academic and someone who’s gained so much from involvement with horses, I’m able to communicate some of the complexities of a particular sphere of British culture.

At school I’d arrive with straw in my hair. I have a twin brother and we’re intensely competitive. We both loved school and I got 13 As and A*s at GCSE. I did less well at A level because I was busy planning to go to the US to work with rescued mustangs. I’d discovered a talent for riding and training horses, especially the ones other people didn’t want to ride.

In the 1990s, the horse whisperer Monty Roberts took the equestrian world by storm. His demonstrations of ‘Natural Horsemanship’ left audiences enthralled. Monty’s protégé Kelly Marks set up ‘Intelligent Horsemanship’ to promote his methods and other approaches.

The pros and cons of these alternative methods of training are hotly debated. They’re widely discussed by riders and owners — but under-researched by academics. People have such a huge range of choice of how to train and care for their horse. How they choose what to do is really interesting to me.

At age 18 I was running my own training yard. I became one of Kelly Marks’ recommended trainers and a rider in her demonstrations — I owe her a lot. I was always craving more knowledge, devouring books, new and old, on horsemanship to root out good ideas. This trajectory was took me back to academia.

I did a degree in Social Anthropology at Sussex University. After that, my partner (now wife) Hannah and I set off on a year of travelling. On our return, I went back to working as a full-time trainer. Helping people understand their horses, and manage their fears and anxieties, is really satisfying. But it became repetitive.

There were so many unresolved questions in my mind. I wanted to know how people think when they are interpreting their horses. What ethical frameworks do they employ, for example, when they decide why a horse behaves like it does? Hannah encouraged me to think about doing a PhD.

There’s been a flurry of research into human-animal relationships. Much of it has centred on pets we have in the home, or farm animals. But horse riding is a particularly interesting area because we relate to horses in a unique way, not quite as pets, not quite as permanent family members, not quite as working animals either.

Horses are strong, mindful, and instinctive creatures. In Britain we’ve found ways to get along with them and train them to do complex things — such as dressage and jumping. I felt that there was a gap in the research for a study that looked at the way people makes sense of animals’ minds — and how this is changing in the light of newer more ‘natural’ training techniques.

Ethnographic research involves living and working among the people you’re studying. Getting to know the trials and tribulations of their daily lives, you’re able to obtain very different data than would be available from a survey or interview-based approach.

Cambridge anthropologist Matei Candea has done a lot of work on human-animal relationships. I sent him an email. He suggested that I put in a PhD proposal and I was accepted. I got partial rather than full funding — but there was no way I could turn the opportunity down.

We spent my first term as a PhD student living in a tree house. Now we live in a cosy narrow boat. Our baby daughter sleeps to the sound of lapping water and birdsong. The boat is moored close to the livery yard where I did my PhD fieldwork and keep my own horse.

The other horse owners generously agreed to be my research participants. As they worked out how to forge a ‘real’ connection with their horses, I learnt more about the way ethics, empathy and knowledge evaluation intertwine. I thought they might be reluctant to talk to me. The opposite is true.

I hope to keep feet in two worlds. Once I’ve got my PhD I plan to combine academic work with continuing to work with people and horses. I really enjoy running clinics — for example for owners whose horses are frightened of being clipped, something many working horses need to have done in winter.

I love writing. During our year travelling, I wrote a book called Globetrotting. It’s partly a travelogue and partly an exploration of contrasting training methods across the world — from India to Argentina. Friends in the horse world keep asking when they can read my PhD. I’m not sure whether they’ll enjoy the academic style and philosophical approach — we’ll see!

Rosie Jones McVey is a PhD student at Girton College.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life interview series.