Understanding Horse and Human Relations with Kari Weil
Kari Weil is University Professor of Letters, College of the Environment, Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies and a co-coordinator of Animal Studies at Wesleyan University. Her most recent publications include Precarious Partners: Horses and their Humans in Nineteenth-Century France (University of Chicago Press, 2020), Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now (Columbia UP, 2012) and numerous essays dealing with human-animal relations, feminist theory, literary representations of animal otherness, and gender. Her current research looks at the legacies of animal magnetism in nineteenth and twentieth century theories of affective influence, tactility, and physiological methods for sensing and healing traumatic memories in humans and non-humans alike. Check out our latest interview with Kari to learn more about her work!
Your recent publication, Precarious Partners: Horses and their Humans in Nineteenth-Century France, explores the significance of equine culture. What initially sparked your interest in this topic and specific context?
My first book which grew out of my dissertation had been about literary representations of androgyny and characters who were understood to change gender or sex, mostly in 19th century French literature, but also reaching back into 18th century Germany and forward to Virginia Woolf. While researching that book I came across female characters and authors in France who literally “cross-dressed” in order to be able to ride horses astride (meaning straddling rather than side-saddle) both of which were illegal for a woman. That drew me to question the ways that riding and working with horses was itself gendered as I also discovered how many women riders were brought to experience a certain freedom of movement on horseback that was not otherwise available to them. Of course, the fact that I have ridden most of my life was partly what drew me to these women. And my research was also contemporary with the emergence of animal studies or human-animal relations as a legitimate topic of research in the humanities, one that was necessarily interdisciplinary. Increasingly I was noticing the centrality of the horse to so many aspects of 19th century culture — from the horse carriages and smell of manure on the streets to debates about animal intelligence by natural historians, to the artistic and literary representations of the beauty of horses, and to the widespread visibility of horse beatings on the streets which, as in England, led to the first animal protection laws. And then I could not fathom how the horse who was often a privileged and pampered pet, if not partner, came also to be served for dinner.
You yourself are a longtime equestrian. How do you feel this research impacted or reframed your relationship with riding and horses, if at all?
It certainly made me rethink how and whether I could consider riding itself as an ethical practice. Early on during my research and after giving a paper at a conference on a chapter of the book, I was asked by a fellow animal scholar whether putting a bit in a horse’s mouth was not like putting shackles on a slave. At that point I put the book on hold and started to work on a different book — my book on Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now, in which I attend to ethical questions as well as a number of theoretical questions that I grappled with regarding the training and domesticating of other animals and what our representations suggest about what constitutes human-animal difference.
Given that this book is focused on nineteenth-century France, how do you feel humans’ relationships with horses have shifted since?
Certainly, horses no longer have the centrality to daily life as they did then, but many are still taken by the beauty of their movement and of what they can learn and do with us. What is less visible now, are the injuries and misuse suffered by horses that occur behind the scenes of horse shows or racetracks, whether due to overwork or illicit drugs administered at the instruction of proprietors who will not ride the horses themselves.
Can you share a piece of information that surprised you throughout your research?
Oh gosh, there was so much that surprised me at every turn. Perhaps most persistent was the way that horses offered a lens into so many aspects of contemporary life — whether in terms of socio-economic relations, gender relations and even race relations… the latter in part because of the fact that “race” also means “breed” in French, and the breeding of horses often lent itself to a eugenic discourse. I was also taken with certain artists’ fascination with the rear of the horse, which I pushed theoretically to claim a new kind of “hindsight.”
Generally, how do you feel humans can benefit from studying animals?
Well, we are animals, of course, even though we humans often try to deny it. Studying other animals shows not only that we can no longer claim human exceptionalism when it comes to thinking or language, but also reveals the arrogance and faulty thinking of our attempts to prove our superiority. A horse may read signs from us that we don’t even know we are giving, and especially when we would prefer to remain silent.
Studying animals can also give us a sense of ourselves as a species among species and, as such, a species threatened by the very environmental changes which our “culture” has greatly produced.
How does this work relate to your other fields of study such as environmental, feminist, gender and sexuality studies?
I think some of my answers above should answer this question, but I will add that studying animals can help us understand how and why we might attend to difference without immediately jumping to hierarchy. And because our categorizations are so often themselves faulty, it is as important if not more important to attend to the differences within our classifications of species or genders (among many others) as to differences between them.
Precarious Partners Abstract:
From the recent spate of equine deaths on racetracks to protests demanding the removal of mounted Confederate soldier statues to the success and appeal of War Horse, there is no question that horses still play a role in our lives — though fewer and fewer of us actually interact with them. In Precarious Partners, Kari Weil takes readers back to a time in France when horses were an inescapable part of daily life. This was a time when horse ownership became an attainable dream not just for soldiers but also for middle-class children; when natural historians argued about animal intelligence; when the prevalence of horse beatings led to the first animal protection laws; and when the combined magnificence and abuse of these animals inspired artists, writers, and riders alike.
Weil traces the evolving partnerships established between French citizens and their horses through this era. She considers the newly designed “races” of workhorses who carried men from the battlefield to the hippodrome, lugged heavy loads through the boulevards, or paraded women riders, “amazons” in the parks or circus halls — as well as those unfortunate horses who found their fate on a dinner plate. Moving between literature, painting, natural philosophy, popular cartoons, sport manuals, and tracts of public hygiene, Precarious Partners traces the changing social, political, and emotional relations with these charismatic creatures who straddled conceptions of pet and livestock in nineteenth-century France.