Horsepower (hp) represents performance, measured as work (W) divided by time (t). The measurement unit is not often used, as it is outdated. But the term tells us something about our society at large. In it, horses have always been at work, and they continue to be so even today. I’m ill-educated in physics, uninterested in automotive horsepower, and I know little about horses. But I know a great deal about camels, and my research focuses on Human-Animal studies. It is through this lens that I approach the concept of Horsepower and, in extension, the cosmos of human-animal relations.
Animal Work in Transition
At Gessnerallee, in the heart of Zurich, riding halls and horse stables stand as testaments to a long history of animal labor. Built during the 1860s as part of the military barracks, these buildings housed their last horses at the turn of the last century. Horses once performed heavy labor in passenger transport, freighting, and agriculture as well as transport for both the military and the police. As specialized workers, they provided people with energy and mobility, and they reproduced their own labor force via breeding. As the ‘Age of the Horse’ came to its end, the focus of the horse as animal labor shifted from physical to emotional activity in new fields of work: recreation, sports, and therapy (this too, incidentally, occurred to the camel). Today, the horse increasingly carries the emotions and ambitions and of her riders, in addition to their pure physical load.
Allowing Animals Time
What would it mean to recognize animal labor? A thought experiment: In the laws of physics, Horsepower is determined by the factor of time. In Swiss animal welfare laws, however, time is not protected. There are no regulations concerning animal work hours let alone on leisure time, parental leave, or time of retirement. As is too often the case, questions of working conditions expose us to the darker side of capitalism, to gray areas of exploitation. The idea of endowing animals with basic rights, as recently formulated in a popular initiative in Basel, seems remote to many. The recognition of animal labor, especially in a meritocratic society, should be accompanied by a critique of social conventions that highlight the importance of ‘working’. We know that excessive work harms the horse, the human, and even the environment. Animal ethics, growth critique, and the climate catastrophe all teach us this. Even acts of animal resistance, which often make non-human work visible in the first place, provide food for thought. Just recently, at the Tokyo Olympic Games, the horse Saint Boy achieved a tragic form of fame, by vehemently defying his rider when he refused to jump.
Those who see the horse as a work animal and a commodity may find its use and exploitation natural. But those who habitually deal with horses think differently. Horses are by no means solely anonymous members of a working class. As personalities with a will to live, intelligence, emotions, creativity, and preferences, they experience and reciprocate love, appreciation, and adoration. They invest their Horsepower in social relationships, become companions, and are as the feminist science historian Donna Haraway put it inseparable from their significant other(s). Horses contribute to society not only through their physical labor but also through their emotional and symbolic significance. We recognize this in many sayings: ‘Hold your horses’, ‘get off your high horse’, ‘a dark horse’ etc. Horses are embedded in culture, for instance as mythical hybrid beings such as centaurs, unicorns, and the Pegasus. Here in Zurich, they fulfill an eminent cultural role during the annual giddy riding of the Zurich guilds at Sechseläute which, in 1965, experienced a unique animal-ethical alternative. As historical actors, horses have written history: on the racetrack, at cinema halls, and during wars. Without the Mongolian horse, for example, the so-called ‘Storm of the Huns’ into Western Europe would have been impossible.
Throughout the ages, animals have been close to us humans and yet also far removed. We love them, but we keep them at a distance: emotionally, ethically, legally, and financially. Paradoxical, isn’t it? Our involvement with Horsepower sheds light on this latent contradiction. The Gessnerallee itself a main stage of our past practices in animal husbandry seems fated to dedicate a program cycle to this ambivalent relationship, and to inspect this societal ‘hobbyhorse’ from a critical viewpoint. During the cycle, artists address themes from new perspectives sometimes implicit, sometimes concrete. They (re-)negotiate zoomorphic identities, dive into animal-pharmaceutical dystopias, and play out visions of a future-oriented coexistence that is appropriate to our nature.
Dear audience, let the Gessnerallee inspire you to think wildly about your interspecies relationships, to pay homage to Animal Power, and to always remain mindful when dealing with your fellow animals.
– Raphael Schwere, Ethnologist/Human-Animal Studies