Equine-librium (or, The Undeniable Emotional Spectrum of All God’s Creatures)

On Sunday I witnessed both the saddest horse and the happiest horse that I’ve seen in a long time.

We live in the countryside, near a horse ranch and numerous farms. So when we take family walks, we get to show the kids an array of horses, cows, goats, sheep, chickens, dogs, and barnyard cats. It’s one of my favorite perks of the peaceful rural house we bought 5 years ago.

I love that our kids are growing up with a deep affection for peaceful farm animals, in addition to all the voraciously wild animals they voraciously read about. Greyson remembers the name of every animal we meet (like two local goats, Xenia and Cactus), while Violet points and waves at each one and cheerfully shouts out “Hiiii!” I know I’m hopelessly biased, but it’s quite charming.

As we walked past the horse ranch on Sunday, with six horses grazing in separate areas of the pasture, one horse greeted us in a way we’d never been greeted before. She trotted right up to the fence, clearly wanting to meet us. Maybe she was lonely or maybe she was just a giddy, gregarious girl. Either way, she was visibly pleased when I approached her. She sniffed my hand closely and briefly grazed it with her upper lip. Her breath was warm and earthy. The earth would be a warmer place if people made friends as easily as this horse did. She seemed disappointed when we continued down the road on our walk.

Then we headed to our favorite family walk endpoint, a farm run by an exceedingly charming large family whom we’ve gotten to know a bit over the last few years. They had told us recently that their horse, Cheyenne, was having physical difficulties due to weight gain and diabetes. But we hadn’t yet seen her up close since the onset of these struggles. And it was a jolt to see this beautiful horse, previously so radiant and energetic, now torpid and rickety and despondent.


It’s the last part that weighed on us the most. Seeing a once-happy creature reduced to a listless sadness, despite being well-loved and cared for, as a result of physical decay. Any animal can experience this emotional swing, but something about the gravitas of a horse makes it even more pronounced.

And it’s not the first time we’ve seen Cheyenne in a sad state. A year or two ago, a goat named Muddy that she was best friends with — truly, those 2 were inseparable — was sold to another farm because he was getting too aggressive with people. And Cheyenne was visibly depressed after that separation. When she seems reflective, I picture her thinking back fondly on the glory days with her Muddy buddy. Maybe that was what she was thinking about on Sunday when she gingerly started to approach us but then stopped in her tracks. She stood still, staring flatly at us from a respectful distance with her big, glazed eyes. I don’t know the exact contour of her thoughts, but I do one thing: She was sad.

On the way back home, we saw the happy horse again. She seemed thrilled to see us (twice in one day, what joy!) and even trotted along parallel to us, seeming to accompany us as we walked back up the road. Then she saw her owner get in a car and galloped over to see her. A few seconds later, she trotted back to see us once more before we receded in the distance toward the horizon.

There are people who think that animals have no emotional life. Or even, God forbid, that an animal’s experience of physical pain has no moral significance. I grew up in a religious environment that downplayed, or downright scoffed at, the sentience of God’s non-human creatures. “Dominion over the animals” was cited endlessly as a way to avoid grappling with, for instance, the grinding horrors of the meat and dairy industry. Or on a less systemic level, that dominion ideology was used (by people I knew) to justify keeping a dog or a rabbit in unthinkably tight quarters for its entire domestic life, despite those animals’ obvious displeasure when put in such a position.

Ever since I attained my own adult sentience, I’ve been mystified by this. If God designed all of us, wouldn’t that imply a meaningful divine imprint on not only humans but also on the 90% of living things that are not human? And wouldn’t it also then be self-evident that all creatures have some meaningful degree of sentience and sentiment? And that we thus have some degree of moral responsibility to thoughtfully coexist with and gently care for these creatures?

I’m no trained zoologist. But I’ve loved and lost a dog (Taz) and a cat (Dominic) in the last 3 years, holding them each in my arms as they breathed their last labored breath. And I’ll tell you this beyond any shadow of a doubt:

Taz and Dominic were sentient. Taz and Dominic had emotional lives. Taz and Dominic could achingly feel pain, and that pain could (and did) take a unmistakable toll on their emotions. Taz and Dominic were not “mere” animals to exercise dominion over.

Walking through the countryside and seeing up close the unmistakable chasm between the lived-in, love-influenced reality of a jovial horse and a despondent horse reminded me once again of the undeniable emotional spectrum of all God’s creatures.

We pompous, pampered, 2-legged beings so often assume that our particular brand of sentience is more impressive and more significant than all other brands of sentience. (This despite the noteworthy fact that we of all species are the ones who have done irreparable damage to the natural world.) So here’s my advice to all of us.

Let’s get off our high horse.

A good way to start? Say ‘hi’ to a horse.

You might be surprised how much she says in response.

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