Has Covid-19 built compassion?

So lockdown in England is continuing for now, or it isn’t – it isn’t quite clear! What we do know is that, rightly or wrongly, we now have slightly fewer restrictions imposed on our daily exercise.

Now, without wanting to get into a political debate about Boris’s decision making, this whole situation has made me think about what it’s like to have someone else control what we do, who we see, when we can move around, where we can go and for how long. Being confined, isolated and having restrictions imposed on our movements and ability to socialise has been, at times, very testing and it has been difficult to avoid even just a subtle impact on our mental health.

Having choice and autonomy removed, being unable to make predictions about our environment, prevented from spending time with friends, locked within four walls, allowed out once a day, in a reduced home range, briefly, if we are lucky and not considered vulnerable, can induce feelings of panic, fear, boredom, depression and even rage. These are all emotions that we accept that horses can also experience¹, yet the majority of the equestrian world does this every day to horses.

Will having put ourselves in the shoes of our equine companions make us more compassionate towards them and encourage us to re-evaluate the choices we deny them? Could Covid-19 force us to think twice about the ethological needs of a free-ranging herd animal before we keep horses stabled 24/7 or in tiny single turnout paddocks? Could this global disaster create a better world for equids?

You might, somewhat cynically, answer no to the above, and I wouldn’t blame you for that conclusion. The equestrian world is notoriously resistant to change² and far too often we prioritise our own needs or convenience over what our horses really need. We are so far along the path of domestication it can feel scary to stop and reconsider.

However, one thing for certain is that none of us will ever forget this pandemic or the turmoil it has created in our lives. Perhaps reminding ourselves of how it has compromised our physical and psychological well-being will induce more sensitivity towards those who live a life devoid of choice. Perhaps it will inspire a subtle move towards loosening control, increased understanding and empathy for the emotions these situations can invoke, a perceptible alteration in the way in which we treat sentient beings who, after all, are not so dissimilar to us. Perhaps you and I can lead this change and gently encourage others to follow.

¹ Hötzel, M. J., Vieira, M.C., Leme, D.P. (2019), Exploring horse owners’ and caretakers’ perceptions of emotions and associated behaviors in horses. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 29, 18-24, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.10.002

² Thompson K., Adelman M. (2017) Afterword: Formalising Equestrian Social Science. In: Adelman M., Thompson K. (eds) Equestrian Cultures in Global and Local Contexts. Springer, Cham.

Published by Kate Fletcher

I have an MSc in Equine Behaviour, Performance & Training and over 10 year's experience working on the front line of animal welfare operations, helping people help animals. I currently work for an international equine welfare charity and am committed to promoting compassionate training and positive human-animal relationships using least invasive, minimally aversive methods and through encouraging human behaviour change.

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