Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues19-1Cross-species Harmony: Horses and...

Cross-species Harmony: Horses and Humans Co-Creating and Immersed in Shared Worlds

Sarah Allen


Despite efforts to democratize horse/human relations, conceptions of harmony between horses and humans continue to privilege the human’s will, even in more progressive models of horsemanship. Using the tenets of Object-Oriented Ontology, this paper explores the ways in which nonhuman animal autonomy might condition cross-species connections and make harmony possible. While Object-Oriented Ontology acknowledges that all things withdraw from all things, this paper shows how touch is an access mode that can allude to and create out of the withdrawnness of the beings engaged in negotiation. In these processes of allusion and creation, we humans might simultaneously co-create and be immersed in harmonious, multispecies worlds.

Top of page

Full text

1. Introduction

1For those of us—scholars, writers, and teachers in the humanities—who are interested in the democratization of relations among humans and other animals, we are faced with immense ethical problems. How do we, can we, cultivate relationships with other animals that are not overtly anthropocentric? How do we cultivate relationships that resist the normative power dynamics that tend to emerge between humans and other animals? As a “horse person,” I feel, sometimes, like I am haunted by these questions. How do I engage with my horse companion, Jack, in ways that do not insist on the privileging of my will, my preferences, my understanding of our roles inside the relationship (which can be, in that privileging, at the expense of his) in order to achieve some kind of harmony between us?

2Thinking about harmony in other contexts—e.g., musical harmonies or social harmonies—the autonomy of the parts remains important. Social harmony, for example, is not about erasing difference or imposing one group’s will or values onto another. Rather, the immense task in any effort to harmonize tends to center on processes of bringing autonomous elements into positive relations with each other. What counts as “positive” varies, of course—e.g., a positive relation among notes might be a beautiful melody, while a positive relation among humans might be about living together in good health (physically, mentally, materially, etc.) and with the potential for mutual happiness. Still, autonomy is important in any harmonious relation, which opens up a number of questions.

3In the horse-human relationship, for example, how do I do my part to cultivate a harmonious relationship in which both Jack and I can live in abiding connection with each other on mutually beneficial terms according to our relative needs and desires, especially as we both strive for a good life (whatever that might mean to each of us at any given moment)? How can I support Jack’s efforts to live a good life?

4For those of us who are interested in such questions, there are at least a few developments in philosophy that we might grab hold of to help us to do our work—to help us to democratize our relations with other animals in order to co-create harmonious worlds so that said animals might have more of a say both in our relationships with them and in the ways that they live their own lives. Of those options, Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) is compelling because it thoroughly—perhaps more thoroughly than any other—flattens the hierarchy of being by acknowledging the absolute autonomy of all things (as will be explained below). In fact, OOO is so thorough in its flattening of the hierarchy of being that, at the same time, it presents different ethical problems for cross-species relations.

5There is no single, unified version of OOO, but the various versions do share certain characteristics: e.g., the privileging of the autonomy of things above any relationality among things. Any inquiry into cross-species harmony, then, if it is going to take seriously the contributions of OOO, will face certain questions, including the question of how to think about harmony inside an ontology that is focused on exactly the opposite of relationality. Still, there is something very appealing about the implacable autonomy of things in OOO, especially if we, humans, care about the integrity of other beings.

6It is, in my personal (and anecdotal) experience, an indisputable fact that there are aspects of horses, for example, that are utterly unavailable, unknowable, to me as a human companion, and the limits of my knowing have been as important to [my part in] our relationship as anything I might say that I know about Jack. Recent animal studies scholarship reveals that, despite the advances in the rigorous scientific study of other animals, it is interest in the gap between humans and other animals that, in fact, drives much of the field’s work: what don’t we know? What can’t we know? Pick up any work on Theory of Mind in nonhuman animals, and the gap that drives such studies will become especially salient.

7I am not dissuaded, though, by said gap from trying to connect in more-than-human harmonious ways with nonhuman animals. If it is true that horses and other animals are autonomous, then what might that mean to humans’ ethical engagements, our best efforts to connect with horses and other animals? Put differently, while many fields acknowledge the importance of human autonomy (in rhetoric, psychology, and philosophy, for example), it is equally important to explore the ways in which nonhuman animal autonomy might condition cross-species connections. My question in this paper, in part, is about how cross-species harmony might be made possible if we take the autonomy of other animals seriously.

8To begin to answer this question, this paper will establish how human/nonhuman animal harmony is talked about in horse-human relations, particularly in the more recent shift (at least in generally white, North American horse culture) toward modes of horse-training that are believed to be more harmonious, but that still privilege the will of the human who must bring the horse into alignment with that will. As an alternative, the tenets of OOO will be introduced and used to explain the autonomy of other animals, as well as how connection happens across autonomous creatures. Finally, building on this work, I will suggest one way of thinking about the co-creation of harmonious, interspecies worlds where more than the human species might find their way to flourishing. Undoubtedly, in the face of ecological crises and another mass extinction event, figuring out how to support more-than-human multispecies flourishing is an important project.

1. Horse-Human Flourishing

9In rhetoric, autonomy is one of our field’s most essential values, concepts, and quagmires. Thanks to more recent scholarship in the field, rhetoric scholars have made serious headway in attending to the immense complexities of, including the more-than-human relations in, any persuasive event (e.g., see Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric and Marilyn Cooper’s The Animal Who Writes), thus subverting the field’s long emphasis on the human rhetor’s agency and, simultaneously, beginning to transform the field into a posthuman rhetoric. In particular regard for nonhuman rhetorical animals, rhetoric scholars have been looking at how nonhuman animals figure in our field’s history (e.g., see Debra Hawhee’s Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw) and how they participate in rhetoric (e.g., see the work of Alex Parrish). Given that rhetoric is dedicated, in part, to the study of power relations inside the social and material systems/relations that shape how and why communication (or, more broadly, connection) happens, I know that for myself at least, I am most concerned with how the many creatures on this planet (who are already, inevitably connected) might live and die together—“flourishing,” as Donna Haraway calls it—in the wake of immense ecological disaster that has, in no small part, been caused by anthropogenic climate change.

  • 1 As I have shared in my own work, those dynamics shift in more balanced, collaborative cross-species (...)

10This task is immense, not only for the reasons noted above, but because, as Haraway has noted, in any multispecies community, violence and unequal power dynamics are often involved.1 Wedding the thought of Haraway and Bruno Latour in “Flourishing with Awkward Creatures: Togetherness, Vulnerability, Killing,” Franklin Ginn et al. go so far as to claim that...

Flourishing always involves a constitutive violence; flourishing does not imply an ‘anything goes’ free-for-all, but requires that some collectives prosper at the expense of others... [F]lourishing involves many species knotted together, often imbricated in human landscapes or economy, working with and against other multispecies assemblies. This makes some assemblies ‘the enemy’ and some not. (115, emphasis added)

11In an effort to navigate the thorny ethics of cross-species flourishing, one question that emerges is about whether humans can mitigate their own part in the polarization (i.e., making “the enemy”) and violence that can occur among those of us who are “knotted together” in any multispecies community.

12That’s not to suggest that violence cannot also be productive (e.g., see Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World), but what if polarization and/or violence is a problem, e.g., in the destruction of other animals’ habitats for the expansion of humans’ or in trapping other animals in tiny spaces so that they might be safely used for human pleasure or “processed” for human consumption? What if polarization and/or violence serves the human in the relationship at the expense, even the life, of the other creatures on the scene? Perhaps one way to address these potential problems is in discovering more-than-human ways to buoy and build on the other part of flourishing—at least as the concept was given to us by Aristotle: that flourishing is not simply about the survival of species, but about thriving. Specifically, happiness is essential to flourishing. As Aristotle explains, “Living well and doing well are the same thing as being happy” (3; B1, ch. 3, sec. 10).

13I would suggest that in discovering more-than-human harmony, multispecies communities might make possible, together, multispecies flourishing, including the possibility of mutual, multispecies happiness. This effort requires serious revision of the concept of harmony first, though, because even though what counts as harmony in nonhuman-human animal relations has been reframed in many different discourses in recent years and in ways that seem to align with notions of equality and of honoring difference, the privileging of the human persists. For example, in today’s reframing, the relationship of horse and human is often talked about in terms of a partnership, yet it remains absolutely essential that the human rider be the leader in the relationship. The strangely synonymous use of “leadership” and “partnership” suggests that the very different power dynamics integral to the two different concepts have been largely ignored—or, at least, treated as unproblematic.

14For example, according to a webpage titled “Unpacking the Art of Horsemanship,”

[F]or the vast majority of their domesticated history, horses were seen as mere possessions[,] as instruments of [human]kind and vehicles with which to advance their cause. Fortunately, recent years have seen a paradigm shift where horse lovers, competitors, and agricultural members alike have started to view the role of horses and our relationship with them as being more of a partnership.

15This quote and the longer explanation of horsemanship are part of the pages of the Wehorse website, which is an elearning platform where equestrians can connect with expert trainers across disciplines (e.g., dressage and show jumping) to take courses or view videos that are intended to help them to become stronger riders—in an effort, always, to become stronger competitive riders. So, while the website marks a shift in attitudes, where the horse-human relationship is purported to be “more of a partnership,” in those very same relationships, horses are still being used for human sport. They are still treated as “possessions[,] as instruments of [human]kind and vehicles with which to advance their cause.” This is not, then, a partnership, not even leadership in the sense that a leader might guide members of a group toward their own, shared goals.

16Give a horse options between a life of eventing—held in a stall, though he is a creature hardwired for connection and movement; forced to eat just twice a day, though he must graze all day to maintain a healthy digestive system; subjected to standing in a confined spot for long hours in a hot, cramped metal trailer that is traveling on loud and dangerous highways or on rugged and bumpy dirt roads; made to stay (sometimes overnight) in strange places with strange creatures; forced to run at breakneck speeds inside an arena with loud noises, bright lights, and unfamiliar humans who are often yelling and cheering and moving; forced to jump fences that he struggles to see clearly (because of the way his vision works) and that will eventually cause his knees to swell in perpetual pain; forced to stop so quickly that his legs fold under him and to turn so hard and so often that he develops foot pain, osteoarthritis, or ligament injuries—set all of that against a life with a herd of other horses in an open field where he can graze all day and make his own choices about how and where he will move, and we all know what the horse would choose. Knowing he has the option to live according to his own will and his own goals is important to any creature’s ability to negotiate inside asymmetrical power dynamics, as well as to his happiness.

  • 2 Hunt was revolutionary for being one of the first US trainers to adopt and develop techniques in “n (...)

17This issue of the agency of the horse is a quagmire for anyone invested in understanding the principles and practices central to horsemanship, even and especially in “natural horsemanship.” Natural horsemanship is supposed to be about humans working in harmony with the horse by training for “the choice.” For example, in Think Harmony with Horses: An In-depth Study of the Horse/Man Relationship, much-admired and revolutionary trainer Ray Hunt states, “When we’re not on [the horse’s] back he can run out there and stop, turn around, or whatever. When it’s his idea [i.e., his choice] it’s simple for him and there is no drag. But his problem is to figure out what in the world we want at this particular instant” (12).2 Once the horse figures that out, he can choose to do the thing the rider is asking for—or not. However, that does not mean that if the horse chooses not to do something, like jump a fence, the human honors that choice. Put bluntly, the horse will be worn down, if needed, for the human to receive consent. This is in part because, to be a “good” horse person, the human must be a “leader” in a distinct sense: as the entry on “Horsemanship” in Britannica explains, “Good horsemanship requires that a rider control the animal’s direction, gait, and speed with maximum effectiveness and minimum efforts” (Casolani, emphasis added).

18This strange incongruity—between partnership and leadership—is integral to natural horsemanship, even in the training offered by one of the most esteemed (and one of my favorite) natural horsemen working today, Pat Parelli. While working on this article, for example, I received a newsletter from Parelli Natural Horsemanship which included a Q&A section on the topic of separation anxiety among horses. Here is a piece of the exchange:

I have a wonderful relationship with my 2 mares and they both see me as their herd leader. I can play with both of them together on the ground or riding and they have awesome responses and connection with me. I can take them out individually and have the same great connection to me. But the one left back at the barn goes crazy. Calling for us and running around....
Is there any way to calm or relax a herd member that gets left behind?

The biggest, most important thing we need to understand is that horses have to be confident in themselves and in their environment. My horses have a routine, they come in every day and they stand tied for sometimes up to 4-6 hours. I tie them to something up high, and a lot of times you’ll take two horses, tie them 20 feet apart, get them used to that, then tie them 40 feet apart, then a hundred feet, and work your way up. This builds first the positive pattern and habit of standing tied but also [that] increases the distance and separation from the other horses. (“How Horses Show Fear”)

19Note the questioner’s effort to explain that she is a “herd leader,” emphasizing again the importance of the human standing as the leader in the relationship. Also, note the horses’ own desires which run counter to her will (to be close to each other). Clearly the Q&A centers on the assumption that the human’s will should win out; that is never called into question. And, sadly, the respondent (if not Pat Parelli himself, then at least a representative of Pat Parelli’s organization) says that he ties his horses for up to four-six hours every day—knowing full well that these are creatures who must move all day to stay healthy (not only physically, but mentally, socially, etc.).

  • 3 Even Native American horsemanship is complicit in the submission of the horse to human enterprises. (...)

20Therefore, while Hunt, Parelli, and other natural horse people have undeniably helped to transform the way that riders think about the horse—explaining that horses have minds, that they choose, that they learn (which also means that they make mistakes), and that each is different in personality and preferences and abilities—the horse’s being should still and always be brought into alignment with the human’s will.3 Consequently, even in more progressive conceptions of harmony between humans and horses, the concept is still human-privileging; it is still complicit in the submission of the horse to the human. The question we, humans, are confronted with, then, is about what a different conception of cross-species harmony might look like so that nonhuman animals might have the chance to live out their lives happily, too.

3. Object-Oriented Ontology

21To begin, we might level the hierarchy of being. OOO does so by taking seriously the idea that no access mode (reason, sight, touch, etc.) enables direct access to the being of other creatures and things, nor indeed to the world around us. Everything withdraws from us. As Graham Harman, a key thinker in OOO, explains, though, that withdrawing is not unique to human perception; in fact, he states, “Whereas Kant’s distinction [between phenomena and noumena] is something endured by humans alone, ... one billiard ball hides from another no less than the ball-in-itself hides from humans” (“Vicarious” 172). In other words, everything withdraws from everything else. Consequently, every creature and thing (every “object,” to use Harman’s terminology) reads the world through their own access modes and is limited in their perception of it. The dog cannot know the whole bone through the access mode of licking, and the human cannot know the whole bone through the access mode of analysis.

22Indeed, if withdrawnness is a condition of all of existence, then we, humans, are at least naïve, if not vain, for thinking that we are somehow moral enough to outsmart that condition—somehow making ourselves less susceptible to it through rational awareness of it, for example. Thus, Harman “rejects any privilege of human access to the world,” including the privileging of what has been deemed the more trustworthy mode of perception that humans are presumed to have via our capacities for reason and language, and instead “puts the affairs of human consciousness on the same footing as the duel between canaries, microbes, earthquakes, atoms, and tar” (“Vicarious” 173).

23To explain, Harman recuperates reality. That is, he insists that “real objects do exist beyond human sensual access to them” (“Vicarious” 172), beyond human perception. “Real objects” have been called by other philosophers things in themselves, i.e., “the thing-in-itself” (the object as it really is, irrespective of human observation, for example). Harman uses the term “real objects” instead of the thing-in-itself in an effort to move away from its associations with an “essence” and with the anthropocentrism of Kant. His term, the “sensual object,” on the other hand, includes the aspects of an object that can be perceived. I cannot perceive, for example, a cup in its totality; instead, I encounter its cylindrical shape, its color, its texture, etc. Nor can the bird perceive the totality of the worm, nor the plant, the sun.

  • 4 In changing his term, “real object,” to “inaccessible depth,” I hope to emphasize that this depth i (...)

24The “real object” is not quite a totality, though, nor an “essence” in terms of substance or soul, but it is an inaccessible depth,4 which withdraws from us, deeper and deeper. The sensual object, on the other hand, is right here, as Harman says, “brush[ing] me directly with greater or lesser intensity” (“Vicarious” 193). As Harman beautifully describes, in trying to access the depth of another, we are “like moles tunneling through wind, water, and ideas no less than through speech-acts, texts, anxiety, wonder, and dirt. We do not transcend the world, but only descend or burrow towards its numberless underground cavities—each a sort of kaleidoscope where sensual objects spread their colours and their wings” (“Vicarious” 193). Thus, the difficulty is that, at least according to Western thought since Kant, as we descend or burrow, we are always working at the level of perception, always removed from the withdrawn real.

  • 5 In fact, according to Harman, when I perceive the marble, my perception of it, too, becomes its own (...)

25This is a perplexing problem for human knowledge, and it becomes more perplexing (though not necessarily a problem) in OOO, where the question of access extends not only to humans and other animals who perceive the world in part through the mind, but also extends to inorganic matter. Using the example of a marble, Harman explains, “It is clear that the marbles must stand somewhere in reality, in contact with certain other entities that stabilize them briefly in one state or another. The entities they confront cannot be real objects, since these withdraw from contact.... [Yet] these marbles are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the table and contiguous relational environment, even if not in the panpsychist sense of a primitive judging of ability” (“Vicarious” 190).5 That is, they do not fuse with or disintegrate into the table, nor do they evaporate into the air. They somehow, at a molecular level, distinguish between each surface, each entity. Their ability to distinguish is not conscious, but that distinguishing is happening nonetheless.

  • 6 See Bassler.

26Ask a molecular biologist to explain this phenomenon, and they will tell you that molecules talk to each other and that, in that talking, they can distinguish between “I” and “you.”6 While this ability to distinguish is clearly disruptive to the idea that there is just one creature on the planet that “intends” toward anything and that possesses self-awareness, more than that, the relationship among table, marble, and air suggests something like negotiation is in play. The three are not negotiating through reason or an oral or written language; rather, they seem to be negotiating, relating, through touch.

4. Touch

27Touch, too, happens at the level of the “sensual object,” as Harman calls it, or at what might be called “appearances.” It happens, for animal and inorganic material alike, at the level of perception. In fact, as Karen Barad explains in “On Touching—The Inhuman Therefore I Am,”

  • 7 This is not Barad’s argument. Rather, her point in the article is to destabilize the idea of a unif (...)

A common explanation for the physics of touching is that one thing it does not involve is... well, touching. That is, there is no actual contact involved. You may think you are touching a coffee mug when you are about to raise it to your mouth, but your hand is not actually touching the mug. Sure, you can feel the smooth surface of the mug’s exterior right where your fingers come into contact with it (or seem to), but what you are actually sensing is the electromagnetic repulsion between the electrons of the atoms that make up your fingers and those that make up the mug. Electrons are tiny negatively charged particles that surround the nuclei of atoms, and having the same charges they repel one another, much like powerful little magnets. As you decrease the distance between them the repulsive force increases. Try as you might, you cannot bring two electrons into direct contact with each other. (209)7

28So, even at the subatomic level, we cannot really make contact with other objects. We cannot access them. At best, we are negotiating at the surface of things.

29While we cannot actually make contact with another’s inaccessible depth, it is also touch that might make awareness of the inaccessible depth of another being possible. That is, touch is an access mode that never violates the inaccessible depth of the other being or thing, e.g., the horse or human, yet touch can allude to the inaccessible depths of the beings or inanimate materials engaged in negotiation, and in an awareness of this allusion to depth, we humans might negotiate and co-create our way to the possibility of harmonious, multispecies worlds.

4.1 Allusion: From Appearance to Inaccessible Depth

30In vicarious relation, according to Harman, the inaccessible depth of one object reaches out to another object. Mutual vicarious relation, I would suggest, on the other hand, happens through touch. That is, unlike the access mode of thinking, which can happen without the perceived object having any awareness of it being perceived by another, in touch, the perceived object, too, becomes a perceiving object. When I reach out to Jack, my horse companion, I touch him, and in that touch, he both becomes aware of me and touches back (he feels me). Again, what is different about my thinking about Jack versus my touching Jack is that the latter is necessarily mutually constitutive, even in the case of inorganic things like the marble and table touching. Put differently, touch is not only a subject-object phenomenological process. Touch, rather, is more akin to negotiation between actants.

31This difference between the two access modes—thought and touch—is not difficult to understand. The bridge that they create from one perceiving object to another perceiving object is not difficult to understand, either. However, the question is how that reciprocal perceiving or awareness can allude to the depths of the object—to get beyond the limits of perception (including anthropocentrism) in our negotiation with other creatures and things.

32As Harman tries to explain in “On Vicarious Causation,” “The only way to bring real [inaccessible] objects into the sensual sphere [where they can touch and be touched] is to reconfigure sensual objects in such a way that they... become animated by allusion to a deeper power lying beyond: [that is,] a real object” (204). In other works, e.g., Art + Object, he explains that we can experience this allusion to an object’s inaccessible depth in metaphor, for example, in the Homeric metaphor of the “wine-dark sea”: “The Homeric sea, when described as ‘wine-dark,’ is so out of joint with wine that it is no longer the sensual sea of everyday experience and literal language. The sea is now withdrawn and mysterious, orbited by sensuous wine-qualities” (Art + Object 68). In short, the pairing in metaphor makes us suddenly aware of—it alludes to—the withdrawnness of the sea. In another example, he explains, “When the poet writes ‘my heart is a furnace,’ the sensual object known as a heart captures vaguely defined furnace-qualities and draws them haltingly into its orbit. The inability of the heart to fuse easily with furnace-traits achieves allusion to a ghostly heart-object lying beneath the overly familiar sensual heart of everyday acquaintance” (“Vicarious” 200). As such, metaphor points to, makes us aware of, the withdrawn real that is not readily available to us.

33However, for our purposes here, metaphor will not fully explain a different, harmonious way of negotiating across species through touch, in part because I am also thinking about physical touch, about the tactile sense, and not only its theoretical or figurative iterations. Too, as noted above, touch is a mutual relation. It works both ways—not only from appearance to inaccessible depth (as in the case of Harman’s concept of allusion), but also from inaccessible depth to appearance. To explain the latter, I turn to one of Harman’s interlocutors, Timothy Morton, to explore how the chasm between the inaccessible depth of a thing and its appearance might be generative.

4.2 The Creative: From Inaccessible Depth to Appearance

34In Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, Morton states,

Sexual selection is absurdly expensive from DNA’s point of view, and sexual selection is done fundamentally for no reason. Arguments that beautiful iridescent wing cases are evidence of a lifeform’s virility are circular and question-begging. If being alive was really about just getting on with it [reproducing] and damn the torpedoes of appearance, all lifeforms would be cloning ourselves. There are much more efficient ways of displaying power than having beautiful wing cases. Lifeforms themselves defy the logic that rips appearance away from being. (48)

  • 8 There’s new evidence to suggest that the wing case does not actually perform the function of attrac (...)

35Here, surprisingly, strangely, Morton is arguing with some force that if we look to lifeforms themselves, we will find that the idea of the chasm between being and appearance, between the inaccessible depth of an object and its sensual, perceivable qualities is somehow subverted. His example is the iridescent wing case—e.g., the wing case of a beetle, which protects the more delicate wings that the beetle needs for flying. If, according to Morton, the beautiful wing case functions like a peacock’s feathers in attracting a mate, then that is surely an inefficient way of getting on with the process of reproduction, for it requires a series of steps (performance, attraction, etc.) and negotiations, not least of which includes a leap—abstract or associative thinking (like the metaphor)—in the mind of a potential mate: shine equals the ability to produce strong offspring.8 To Morton’s point, if nonhuman animals were driven exclusively by the need to survive (including the reproduction of species), then they would do so without the abstraction that compels attraction that enables the possibility of negotiation. They would just “get on with it,” as Morton says.

  • 9 Darwin, himself, explains that there are many attributes—e.g., in the form of vocalizations, scents (...)

36In such ways, the peacock’s beauty, too, defies all logic. It has no scientifically proven correlation to the animal’s virility or to the potential strength of his offspring. It is a mystery in nature, confounding our preconceptions of the practicality that should drive the peahen’s choice of a mate.9 Instead, the peacock’s beauty is born from the rift between the animal’s inaccessible depth and his perceivable qualities. We can think about this relation (between depth and appearance) in terms of the peacock’s unique, attractive, and negotiation-creating beauty being generated out of its inaccessible depth. As Morton explains, in OOO,

  • 10 Clearly, this creative life is not reserved only for the human. If we look to iridescent wing cases (...)

If a thing is exactly what it is yet never as it appears to be, it is broken from within. To exist is to be disabled. Every limb is a prosthetic limb. Creativity can happen precisely because of this ontological disability, not in spite of it. Living on is a continual thread, very thin but continual. Creative life is a miracle that can only be achieved by the disabled. (44)10

37This, Morton’s concept of the creative life, extends, perhaps even fully realizes, Harman’s concept of allusion. Instead of focusing exclusively on the movement from human observer to the inaccessible depth of the sea or the heart, he points, also, to the movement from inaccessible depth to sensual object (to that which is perceivable).

38With this idea, it is suddenly possible that the chasm that creates problems for our various access modes (thinking, licking, touching, sniffing) also creates so many possibilities for who and what we (broadly conceived) are. It also, then, changes how touch works. If we take seriously this strange and wonderful process that Morton calls “creativity,” as well as the process that Harman calls “allusion,” then touch, too, does not simply work from me to Jack’s surface and from Jack to my surface. It’s not just a clunky, sputtering vehicle that will necessarily break down before we connect with the depths of each other. Instead, touch is the immersive production of a world—a shared world where two creatures have come into contact, not by accessing the inaccessible depths of each other but by mutually experiencing the physical (perceivable) and transmuting immersion-into-world out of those depths.

5. World Creation and Immersion

39To explain this, I turn to Elizabeth Grosz’s reading of the biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll’s idea of the umwelt (the world that is experienced or perceived by an organism). Grosz explains that, in his thought, “each organism is surrounded by its Umwelt, an ‘island of the senses,’ the schematized world in which it acts” (174). This world is limited, then, because of each species’ limited access modes; it “is the particular world, a subsection or partial framing of the more abstract material universe, ... a sliver or fragment of a world which is fully accessible to no living being” (175). This suggests that each species’ world is distinct and partial—its own world within the larger world.

40However, I would suggest that animals, including humans, actually co-create shared (and potentially harmonious) worlds through the processes of allusion and creativity, as Harman and Morton have explained each. For example, the male peacock’s bright plumage makes him capable of co-creating a world in aesthetic experience with the female of the species. In their case, a particular male bathes the peahen in a world of dazzling colors. In turn, she becomes attuned to that dazzling, and they negotiate with each other (him turning and calling and shaking his feathers, her moving closer and/or further away). Inside of this experience, ultimately, she makes her choice about whether to mate with him.

  • 11 It also points to the fact that there is no unchanging nature. Instead, if there is anything essent (...)

41Thus, worlding is simultaneously a creative and immersive process. Grosz explains this process in one way: that “one and the same object on entering different Umwelten [worlds] becomes different” (175) due to a kind of exchange between the possibilities and limits afforded by that environment, as well as the possibilities and limits afforded by the object’s (e.g., the animal’s) make up. This explanation points to the deep interconnectedness between objects (e.g., animals) and their environments.11 However, her term for world, “environment,” blankets over the immense diversity of the objects that might constitute a world (e.g., molecules and plants and animals and collisions and transformations). This is where OOO becomes most useful.

42Morton states, “For Einstein, space and time are also emergent properties of objects: objects don’t float in a neutral void but emanate waves and ripples of spacetime” (Realist Magic 30). OOO’s conception of space extends from this idea. As Morton explains,

There are objects: cinnamon, microwaves, interstellar particles and scarecrows. There is nothing underneath objects. Or, better, there is not even nothing underneath them. There is no such thing as space independent of objects (happily contemporary physics agrees). What is called Universe is a large object that contains objects such as black holes and racing pigeons. Likewise there is no such thing as an environment: wherever we look for it, we find all kinds of objects—biomes, ecosystems, hedges, gutters and human flesh. (Realist Magic 42)

43What this means for worlding is that there is no world in the traditional sense. “There is no world, if by world we mean a kind of ‘rope’ that connects things together,” as Morton says (Realist Magic 48). Rather, worlds are objects, created out of other objects, and each world, too, has its inaccessible depth.

44That creation of a world out of another object or objects happens, as best any creature or thing can tell, at the level of appearances, yet a new world (another object which is both real and sensual) is created. Take, for example, the world created by the peacock and peahen’s aesthetic experience: it is happening at the level of appearance, at the level of sensual qualities. But, the aesthetic, too, is generative—creating a world shared by peahen and peacock. As Morton brilliantly notes, “Plato saw shadows as dangerous precisely because they do have a causal influence” (Realist Magic 35).

45Morton further explains this idea of the causality of the aesthetic by engaging with the concept of touch. He confirms much of what has been explained above regarding touch: e.g., that “if objects truly touched one another at the quantum level... they would become one another” (Realist Magic 72). He continues, “Touching, no matter how intimate, involves a necessary aesthetic distance... I am touched, for instance, at this very moment, by gravity waves emanating from the beginning of this Universe. A chemical solution can be touched by a catalyst. Soft tissue is touched by high energy photons such as gamma rays, giving rise to mutagenic effects” (73). If I might explain his examples within the context of this project, then they suggest that touch cannot touch the inaccessible depth of another creature or object (I do not merge with gravity waves when they touch me); however, touch can create effects on the things that are touched (I am affected by said gravity waves). And, I am suggesting, to extend these ideas, that when the thing it touches touches back, then new worlds are created in which the things engaged in touching are simultaneously immersed.

46Yesterday, I was visiting Jack, and a duck who lives with a herd of animals (human and nonhuman) on the ranch approached me. He stopped just inches from my feet, his curved chest almost brushing against my pants leg. He did not move, did not strike, did not speak, so I reached down tentatively (with no small amount of fear) to touch his neck. He stood still, closing his eyes, so I stroked his neck, eventually running my fingers down his body through the feathers of his wings, tucked against his back and sides. The world shifted suddenly and significantly in his approach and in the touch that followed (I became all but totally unaware, even, of Jack, just ten feet from me). I was awash in the strange softness and alternating stiffness of white feathers; the orange and pink of a curved beak; blue, round eyes; the fear of not knowing what he would do next; the wonder at how strange, how different, how marvelous he was. I was startled out of this world when I felt a cat rub against my leg. A kind of panic rushed through me, and I stepped back, away from the duck. He stepped towards me, tucked his head between my legs, and a different world emerged again as I stroked his feathers, while the cat circled us both. This, I think, is closer to what might be co-creation of and mutual immersion in a harmonious world in which all creatures on the scene have a chance at happiness.

47The awesome beauty and the potential for harmony in such experiences is that they are not one-way, at least not according to Object Oriented Ontologists; it is not my reality, including my will and desires, that I am simply imposing on the duck. The duck and I are co-creating and immersed in a harmonious world through touch—a world of feathers and skin and softness and movement, a world in which heartbeats slow down, where the escape into thought-out-there collapses on itself, and I find myself here with this creature, entangled. I wonder what would happen if humans sought out the same kinds of experiences with horses and, at the same time, what would happen if we gave up pursuing the more typical kinds of experiences with horses that are sanctioned by the enterprise of riding horses. I know that it is a lot to ask riders to give up riding, and I hear a lot of arguments about how this or that horse seemed on this or that occasion to enjoy being ridden. Perhaps there are ways of riding that are all about the co-creation and immersion in a harmonious shared world that is being explored here, but I have not witnessed it yet, myself.

48The only time you will see one horse mount another in the wild (or in pasture) is when two individuals seek to mate. Given what I have seen of the courting behaviors of horses, I think that this experience is far different (in terms of its negotiations) from that of the human rider to horse. And, certainly, other animals will ride horses—e.g., the egret—but they are not telling the horse how to move and how to feel about that movement.

49I rode for twenty years, so I am familiar with the invigorating feeling of riding a horse. However, I am convinced that as soon as we (humans) let ourselves think of horses as equals—not in some cliché, populist way but in terms of their inaccessible depth, as well as their ability to connect and to create because of that depth—then riding seems totally unimaginable. I am proposing, instead, that if we want to connect with horses—and/or if we feel a responsibility to them (because they are domesticated and often dependent on our care)—then we should invest in exploring ways of co-creating and immersion in shared, harmonious worlds. That might entail the “feel” of working in a round pen with a horse, haltering a horse, walking with him/her. Perhaps, one day we will move away from even these habits, but in the meantime, the feel might be a starting point.

50When I visit Jack in his herd’s pasture, for example, I ask him, by opening the gate, to exit the pasture so that he can eat his supplements and pill (he has Cushing’s disease), and then, I leave it up to him to decide if he wants to hang out near me, go back to his herd, or take a walk. This is always a negotiation, in part because I cannot know every part of him in any moment. I cannot know all that he feels, thinks, experiences, and is. Eventually, he will make his choice, though, by either walking towards me and tucking his head against my stomach, walking back to the gate to his pasture, or walking past me, stopping to look back and waiting for me to grab the halter from the car and to walk beside him (I do not use the halter unless another horse and rider enter our space).

51Some might say that this kind of conversation can only happen after many years in a relationship with a horse, but I have only known Jack for five years and only really spent time with him for four. Moreover, we did not come to the relationship with easy, confident temperaments or attitudes; rather, we were both coming from traumatic horse-human experiences. When we met, he was violent toward all humans and, because he could not be handled, kept in a stall. He clearly had training before I met him (he knew how to give his feet so that I could pick them, for example), but because of the trauma of his past, he had to relearn everything—or, rather, overcome his fears of everything—from being haltered to walking with a human to being groomed to moving on a lunge line, all without biting or charging or rearing. And, I should note that I am not a trainer; I consider myself to be a mostly fumbling horse person. However, I did track down a number of trainers and spent a lot of time observing them, trying to figure out what forms of communication might translate for Jack in ways that he could trust instead of fear.

52This experience, I think, taught me the strange and awesome processes of co-creating and immersion in a shared, harmonious world, where Jack has a say. If he does not want to walk on a particular day, then we don’t. There are days, of course, where some specific caretaking needs to occur—e.g., the farrier trimming his feet or me giving him a bath. He often has something to say about these experiences, and I listen deeply. But, his feet and skin have to be cared for despite his protests, so long as he is confined to this ranch with this herd. Even and especially in these experiences, however, listening is key. I am often teased by other humans at the ranch because when I am bathing Jack, we speak a strange, shared language of movement and gesture and touch, and I am so absorbed in our world of dancing feet and tracing hands and silky, soapy fur and wet clothes and sludging boots and the spray of water and the glinting sun that I do not notice when another human wanders near us—not until Jack points them out.

53This is a connection that I struggle to describe. It is as though the world becomes nothing but sensation and the quiet exchange of feeling and preference, often negotiated through physical touch. I run my hands over the curve of his back, across his muscled shoulders and backside, down his feathered legs. He feels the coolness of the water running along his back and sides, the pressure of my hand, the soapy friction of the sponge, the trickle of water from his belly. That is not to say that our feelings are always positive or light. Sometimes one of us will get frustrated with the other (or with the hose, for example), but that feeling does not fracture the intimate co-creation and immersion in a shared world. In fact, in some ways it seals us into that world, but perhaps that is a topic for another paper. Indeed, there are many papers that need to be written if we, “horse people,” want to explore this other way of being with horses.

6. Conclusion

54Object-Oriented Ontologists, among other writers working in other schools of thought, have, I think, opened our minds to the fact that thinking is not the only—nor even the best—access mode. I cannot imagine such an overwhelming connection with the duck or with Jack through thought alone, for example. Still, all access modes are imperfect, and touching Jack or the duck is like the beetle’s wing case: there is nothing efficient in it if we (broadly conceived) are purely invested in survival. Yet, it might make harmony—and perhaps even happiness—possible because of touch’s ability to allude to and create from the inaccessible depths of a being or thing. A kind of contact happens in the absence of true contact (which would be two “real objects” or inaccessible depths touching). As Harman succinctly states, we are “unable to make contact, yet somehow [manage] to do so anyway” (“Vicarious” 177). And, in that very particular, if not total, contact, touch allows us to co-create and to be immersed, from and toward the depths of our beings, in the experience that is a more-than-human world.

55What this means is that harmony is never about united wills or bodies. Rather, it is the temper of a creative and immersive process that honors the inaccessible depths of each of us (“us” conceived as broadly as possible). Another way of saying this would be to say that in cross-species harmony, no individual, whatever the species, forgets the other’s fundamental unknowability, for that strange pairing—that contradiction between inaccessibility and connection—is a good thing if we are really invested in the possibility for entangled creatures to flourish happily together.

56Our worry about anthropomorphizing or imposing anthropocentric knowledge onto other nonhuman animals is valid, useful even. It suggests that we know that nonhuman animals are special—that there is something about their “living well” that should not be crushed by others. OOO acknowledges this gap between us and other animals, as well as things, and it tells us that, for all of our worry, we can’t access—much less destroy—the inaccessible depth of another. That is a good thing. However, we cannot avoid living together, being entangled, so it is important that we—broadly conceived—find a way to live well together in more-than-human harmony. Perhaps then, in the co-creation of harmonious, interspecies worlds, more than the human species might find their way to flourishing.

Top of page


Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Translated by Joe Sachs, Focus, 2002.

Barad, Karen. “On Touching—The Inhuman that Therefore I Am.” A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 25, no. 3, 2015, pp. 206-23.

Bassler, Bonnie. “How Bacteria Talk.” TED, February 2009, Accessed 24 Jan. 2024.

Belfiore, Elizabeth. “Dancing with the Gods: The Myth of the Chariot in Plato’s ‘Phaedrus.’” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 127, no. 2, Summer 2006, pp. 185-217.

Bennett, Jane. “Thing-Power and an Ecological Sublime.” The Sublime Now, edited by Luke White and Claire Pajaczkowska, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, pp. 24-35.

Casolani, Charles Edward. “Horsemanship.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Aug. 2022, Accessed 24 Jan. 2024.

Cooper, Marilyn M. The Animal Who Writes: A Posthumanist Composition. U of Pittsburgh P, 2019.

Gawani Pony Boy. Horse, Follow Closely: Native American Horsemanship. CompanionHouse Books, 1998.

Ginn, Franklin, Uli Beisel, and Maan Barua. “Flourishing with Awkward Creatures: Togetherness, Vulnerability, Killing.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 4, 2014, pp. 113-123.

Harman, Graham. Art + Objects. Polity Press, 2020.

---. “On Vicarious Causation.” Collapse, vol. II, March 2007, pp. 171-205.

Hawhee, Debra. Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw: Animals, Language, Sensation. U of Chicago P, 2017.

“How Horses Show Fear.” Savvy Series: The Official Newsletter of Parelli Natural Horsemanship. Email. 15 May 2023.

Hunt, Ray. Thinking Harmony with Horses: An In-depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship. Edited by Milly Hunt, Pioneer Publishing, 1991.

Kane SA, Wang Y, Fang R, Lu Y, Dakin R. “How Conspicuous Are Peacock Eyespots and Other Colorful Feathers in the Eyes of Mammalian Predators?” PLoS ONE, vol. 14, no. 4, 2019, p. e0210924.

Morton, Timothy. Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. Verso, 2017.

---. Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. Open Humanities Press, 2013.

“On the Injured List: Common Problems for Show Horses.” Practical Horseman, 1 July 2016, Accessed 24 Jan. 2024.

Plato. Phaedrus. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000, pp. 138-168.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being, U of Pittsburgh P, 2013. 

Rigby, Sara. “Jewel Beetles’ Shimmering Wings Are Actually a Form of Camouflage.” BBC Science Focus Magazine, 24 January, 2020, Accessed 24 Jan. 2024.

Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton UP, 2015

“Unpacking the Art of Horsemanship.” Wehorse Newsroom, Accessed 24 Jan. 2024.

Xenophanes. Early Greek Philosophy, vol. III. Edited and translated by André Laks and Glenn W. Most, Harvard UP, 2019.

Top of page


1 As I have shared in my own work, those dynamics shift in more balanced, collaborative cross-species relationships, where parties might be antagonistic in one moment and working in consensus in another, so long as negotiation is possible (see Kairotic Inspiration: Imagining the Future in the Sixth Extinction).

2 Hunt was revolutionary for being one of the first US trainers to adopt and develop techniques in “natural horsemanship”—an approach that seeks cooperation from the horse.

3 Even Native American horsemanship is complicit in the submission of the horse to human enterprises. As Gawani Pony Boy explains in Horse Follow Closely: Native American Horsemanship, “Horses were... used as a popular form of exchange among Native peoples. Horses were regularly traded and stolen, and they quickly became status symbols among the nations that utilized them” (14). Clearly, horses were treated as property and commodity even in Native American cultures where the deeply symbiotic relationship between horses and humans was honored.

4 In changing his term, “real object,” to “inaccessible depth,” I hope to emphasize that this depth is not an essence; it is that which cannot be perceived by another creature or inanimate material.

5 In fact, according to Harman, when I perceive the marble, my perception of it, too, becomes its own object—which I can examine (as phenomenology has taught us), but which I can never fully access.

6 See Bassler.

7 This is not Barad’s argument. Rather, her point in the article is to destabilize the idea of a unified, autonomous self at the atomic level.

8 There’s new evidence to suggest that the wing case does not actually perform the function of attracting a mate, like the peacock’s feathers. As Sara Rigby explains in “Jewel Beetles’ Shimmering Wings Are Actually a Form of Camouflage,” “While male peacocks display colourful feathers to attract mates, and monarch butterflies use their wings to signal predators they carry a toxin, researchers have found that the gleaming, metallic wings of jewel beetles have a different purpose: concealment. Instead of making them conspicuous, the researchers say the insect’s iridescent wings act as a form of camouflage, allowing them to ‘hide in plain sight’” (par. 2).

9 Darwin, himself, explains that there are many attributes—e.g., in the form of vocalizations, scents, and colorations—that do not support creatures’ survival. These attributes do not make the peacock, for example, stronger or more virile.

10 Clearly, this creative life is not reserved only for the human. If we look to iridescent wing cases and dazzling plumage, then we can find evidence of creative life in the beetle and the peacock, too—in anything, for that matter, for all beings become-with other beings, thanks not only to our “ontological disability” but also our mutual entanglements.

In another example of creative life, the desert locust transforms between two markedly distinct forms: a highly gregarious, black and orange locust and a solitary-living, pale green grasshopper. The transformative expression of their ontological disability can happen if nymphs are crowded together (apparently if their legs are touched a number of times in a short amount of time by other locusts) or if they are crowded together as eggs. In yet another example, as cuckoos plant their eggs into other birds’ nests to offload the burden of raising their offspring, those “host” birds produce increasingly unique eggs (in terms of color and marking) so that they can spot the outlier. Point being, a creature’s creative life is not only born from its ontological disability (the rift between its inaccessible depth and its perceivable qualities) but through its mutual entanglements with other beings and things.

11 It also points to the fact that there is no unchanging nature. Instead, if there is anything essential to existence, it is each object’s capacity to change and to be changed. These are vital insights, for even and especially in OOO, the unicity of the object is not an unchanging nature; again, it is utterly incomprehensible.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Sarah Allen, Cross-species Harmony: Horses and Humans Co-Creating and Immersed in Shared WorldsEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2024, Online since 07 February 2024, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Sarah Allen

Sarah Allen is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and the Director of Writing Programs at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. In her latest book project, she is re-rooting rhetoric in the pre-Socratics’ conceptions of logos (with special emphasis on that of Heraclitus) to “rewild” the field. Kairotic Inspiration: Imagining the Future in the Sixth Extinction (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021) brings together Nietzsche's work on the Dionysian and Donna Haraway's commentary on becoming-with and producing-with to offer a theory of inspiration that centers on transformative connectivity (especially across species). Her first book, Beyond Argument: Essaying as a Practice of (Ex)Change,was published in 2015 with WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press.

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search