What Does it Mean to be Domesticated?

If you have been reading along for the last 1300 or so weekly essays of mine, you know sometimes I get testy about words. I decry those insensitive people who “desensitize” horses. I have no respect for those who hijacked the word “respect” to justify disrespecting horses. Both of those word abductions have sent me where I am currently, deep in a rabbit hole about whether horses are truly domesticated. Rabbits, by the way, are categorized as both wild and domestic. I notice when rabbits get out, most turn feral pretty quickly. The drama is short-lived because rabbits are prey animals with fragile necks and usually get eaten before they can raise a flag and claim independence. But were rabbits really tame in the first place? It’s pretty easy to catch wild baby rabbits because they play dead when they’re afraid. Is playing dead the same as being domesticated?

Most dictionaries say a domestic animal is defined as “an animal, as the horse or cat, that has been tamed and kept by humans as a work animal, food source, or pet…” And I have a problem. Are cats domesticated? Mine still hunt moths and mice, splatter-splat. It seems a pretty shallow definition to call a cat who lets you live in her house domesticated. Doesn’t that make the human the domesticated one if we’re talking cats? They train us to be their work animal. We feed them at the crap of dawn, to clean up after them, and the dogs will be the first to tell you cats are wild and unpredictable alien creatures who cannot be trusted, no, not even a minute. “Bark. Barkity-bark.”

Wait! Then the dictionary definition of domestication continues, “…especially a member of those species that have, through selective breeding, become notably different from their wild ancestors.”

Okay then, are dogs domesticated? The chart says yes, but I have one that looks like a short hoagie-shaped fox who’s never been reliably housebroken, leaving his signature like a respectable indoor wild dog. Wolves and Pomeranians have good hair in common, but every time I watch a sled dog team, I think no way, they’re not lapdogs. I got the chance to go into an acre-sized natural kennel with a large pack of husky sled dogs. I sat with my hands in my lap, watching their calming signals while they crept closer and checked me out. Surrounded as they carefully sniffed me, I was definitely the blushing awestruck domestic one that day. Sure, lots of dogs have been sitting on our laps eating cheese for hundreds of years but I’m not sure if we domesticated them or our furniture did. I confess, at a certain age, a dog can get me to drive him to a fast-food drive-thru for a burger. It’s usually on the last trip to the vet. Generations of dogs have taught me how to behave and made me their pet. Surviving them is my greatest human accomplishment.

I found this diagram online. What I like is that it allows for a gray area between wild and domestic.

From the bottom of my rabbit hole, I ask in a loud, somewhat sarcastic voice, how are monkeys wild? They wear suits and smoke cigarettes; they look like your uncle Fred, down to the nose-picking. Who thinks sheep are domestic. Okay, I still hold a grudge against a Suffolk ram who broke my nose when I was five but my friend’s herd has a better recall than your dog. Maybe sheep are domesticated, but the snakes I see inside don’t look wild, so much as long lanky Zen masters who tie themselves in yoga knots and fast between feast days. Do they meditate on mice?

They are easier to catch, but does domesticating an animal improve them? What is lost? Yorkshire terriers were half-wild farm dogs who chased rodents all day before we turned them into purse dogs.

That pesky definition again: A domestic animal is defined as “an animal, as the horse or cat, that has been tamed and kept by humans as a work animal, food source, or pet, especially a member of those species that have, through selective breeding, become notably different from their wild ancestors.”

Of course, it’s horses that I care about; that I make no bad jokes about. Most definitions leave no gray area, horses are domestic animals. That humans changed them centuries ago from instinct-driven prey animals to beasts of burden. And we’ve selectively bred them, some to pull heavy loads and some small enough to fit into coal mines.

I’ve worked with wild horses: Mustangs, Kaimanawas, Brumbies, and even met a herd of Przewalski’s horses who spent much more time trying to get along than get away. Technically they are feral horses, but if feral horses are not domesticated, why do they look so similar to our horses? Why do they settle into captivity so quickly, and many times, are as easy to train? Why do our domestic horses are need fences to hold them? We like to think horses volunteer by coming to the gate for a carrot. Even if the pen is acres large, a horse knows he’s captive.

We want to think that draft horses are “gentle giants” when their flight response is no less sensitive than a hot-blooded plain-speaking Arabian. We want to think ponies are children’s horses when they have no special skill and a golden-retriever-of-a-quarter-horse would be a kinder, safer option for kids.

Why do so-called domestic horses still spook, listening to the environment for fear of predators instead of our voices? Why do our horses show anxiety when we stand too close? If we’re honest, we value “tame” horses, so shut down that their eyes look dead as a baby rabbit.

It matters because we make up untrue stories. We imagine horses into stuffed toys to cool our anxiety. We talk loud to dim their intelligence. We micromanage them to sublimate their strength. We overlook uncomfortable emotions to ignore their physical pain.  It’s as if the more we believe horses are domesticated, the less we have to understand their true nature. It matters because horses are not all thriving under our care. Sometimes our drive for excellence in training turns into an effort to change who horses fundamentally are.

Here is a solemn salute to the many horses, especially mares, who have refused to submit to domination, prey animals who refused to be slaves to our anger and force? They might say, “What if horses are not domesticated so much as more tolerant than other wild animals?”

Would we be more patient or respectful of horses if we saw them as “wild” animals? Domestication is a statement that we own their life. Is it worth it if we diminish their autonomy?

To understand that a horse is a horse is to respect their sensitivity, to celebrate their hyper-awareness of the environment, and to never get complacent about the simple tasks. That we never become complacent about what it means to surrender to a halter, to give a hoof to a predator. It isn’t our right. Be humbled by that.

We are the ones who must learn respect. Not with the dominant use of discipline or with aggressive neck-clinging love. We must learn old-fashioned respect. We must value their autonomy.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and also, barn visits. Information here.

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43 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to be Domesticated?”

  1. Another profound serving of food for thought. As a human who stumbled into a caldron of “hot-blooded, plain-speaking Arabians” I can say unequivocally that respecting them has become a survival instinct and I’m happy about that. Not because they’re dangerous by intention, but because taking care of themselves will always be more important to them than my human needs. This makes my time with them so exciting and gratifying! Plans change because of their needs, not just mine. They have caused me to become much more attuned to my body, the environment, the cute cat that jumped up in a tree and caused a major alert in the herd. But how quickly they go back to grazing! That’s a skill I’m trying to learn from them also.
    Oh, and my theory is that dogs domesticated themselves when they realized the opportunity that we presented to them. Dumb animals, indeed!

  2. I wonder how can we expect humans to respect (other) animals, when they clearly don’t respect each other?

    Signed –
    Wild + benevolent leader of a one-woman farmette, who has steadfastly refused to be domesticated.
    (is it any wonder so many women are drawn to horses?) ❤️

    P.S. The resident feline overlords applaud your insight

  3. Would we be more patient or respectful of horses if we saw them as “wild” animals? Apparently not – judging from the push for more & more roundups of our own Wild Horses right now. I think patience & respectfulness doesnt come into question at all.
    My cat is also applauding your insight – thankfully she allows me, the dog & now the formerly wild bird to exist in her house. How lucky are we?

  4. Love this article. As I’ve practiced things like “leading from behind” and showing my horse quietly that I’m listening, watching and I hear their subtle cues…all I can say is wow. My most sensitive horses want to be with me. They follow me around…stop when I stop, back up when I back up…no halter necessary. No words or baby talk necessary. The relationship has changed, they haven’t changed at all, but I have. Thank you❤️

  5. This post really resonates with me today – was thinking this week about the flack I’ve gotten over the years for things like: allowing a horse to pull a lead rope or reins down to get a biting fly off his leg, letting a horse decide if he wants to ride or not (honestly, I can count on both hands the times my horses have said no), expecting humans to be watchful and careful when interacting with the herd (“they should be trained to behave so you don’t have to be careful”), giving the herd the space to say no to something I’m trying to do to them, allowing them to move while I groom/bathe/tack up/feed/etc. them. I could go on and on. I have been accused of “letting them win battles,” letting them get away with misbehavior, letting them control me, and, my favorite, “not understanding that I need to be the dominant horse in the herd.” My response to all of the above is that I try to respect them the same as I personally want to be respected. I’m not a horse and they know I’m not a horse, so why would I want to pretend I’m the dominant one? My most dominant horse is the most benevolent leader I’ve ever met. If the pony drives him mad by cramming into his stall with him, Keil kicks the wall instead of the pony. He is a kind horse but none of them push him away from his hay or his food. He will clear the shelter if he needs to with just a little lunge forward. Then he’s back to normal. I’ve been in the middle of the herd when they did a group spook, I’ve been carried along by their massive momentum when they surge forward. I’m extremely careful when I’m with them. They are horses, and if something tells them to move, I don’t intend to get bowled over when they do it – because I need to be alert to the fact that however domesticated and trained they are, they also have instinctual behavior that kicks in hard sometimes. After all, when I’m grooming Keil Bay in the barn aisle, and Cody sneaks into the stall behind me and reaches over to nudge me with his nose, and I spook and scream, Keil Bay just looks at me and waits for me to collect myself. Cody seems to enjoy the wild startle and vocalizing of a poorly-trained human; he stands and waits for me to settle down. Why would I not offer the same to them in return? 🙂

    • Exactly. How arrogant of us to think horses will lay down their survival instinct because we scare them into it. I love this comment, Billie. Is it too much to hope we meet one day?

      • No, not too much to hope! I’m not set up well here to host a clinic for more than me + a couple of people, but even more than a clinic what I would dearly love to lure you into is a writing retreat kind of thing at our mountain house and land in western NC. I won’t have my horses there until such time as Keil Bay passes on, as the move would be far too stressful for him at this stage of his life, but I suspect writing and talking and communing about horses can happen even without them. I am also making a new friend up there who DOES have her horses and she might be on board for some horse time. 🙂 She seems a kindred spirit so far. Keep me posted on any travel that comes close to NC. :)))

  6. Mustangs can definitely change your perspective of horses, mine did. I learned to take anything I knew about horses and training and hold it very lightly as it concerned her. It might work and then again it might not and I was the one who had to be willing to change, not her. Although I haven’t been able to ride her, it was my fault for the “trainer” I had working with her and what I learned because of that, she deserves respect for who and what she is and what she has taught me.
    All my cats applaud the recognition of their dominance, especially Brookly my asshole cat.

  7. That eye.

    So many tasty word nuggets in this one. I mean “a short hoagie-shaped fox!” Yum! Plenty here to nourish those thought processes.

  8. Anna,

    Thank you for these words, which brought even more depth to my awareness and understanding.

    “To understand that a horse is a horse is to respect their sensitivity, to celebrate their hyper-awareness of the environment, and to never get complacent about the simple tasks. That we never become complacent about what it means to surrender to a halter, to give a hoof to a predator. It isn’t our right. Be humbled by that.”

  9. Beautifully said, as usual!
    Since I was very young, I somehow believed this was the definition of “domesticated” animals: species of animals that either liked interacting with us, or for whom there was benefit in doing so. I’m a little slow. I never thought about it in terms of ownership. Really. As disingenuous as that sounds. (This may be the fault of children’s author Margaret Wise Brown, who wrote Goodnight Moon, and the lesser known Mister Dog, in which…radical idea…the dog belongs to himself) Don’t all animals belong to themselves?

    In my head, the word “Ownership”, when it comes to animals, is kind of a placeholder word because there is no word for what we are. An odd mix of personal servant/guardianship/health monitor. It’s convenient, for billing purposes, to be listed as an owner. But in that animals head? Most of us would fall over laughing if our horse actually thought “oh look, there’s my owner”. It’s hilarious. “There’s the cookie delivery woman!” THAT one we’ve all heard. I own a lot of things. Things don’t breathe, think, steal phones out of pockets, make you laugh, make you long for them to be immortal. Things don’t share feelings, breath, fear, trust. What does, surely they belong to themselves, and choose, or not, to share it with us? But you’ve already said this. Wild hearts.

    • this makes me think… as a kid I didn’t think about it. It was a sheep farm but it didn’t occur to me that we owned them. Maybe I thought owner was someone in a suit? I listen to people who call themselves by flattering but awkward names like guardian… so stilted. I would aspire to have my horse to call me that sound of a big spitty blow. Can that be my name? Soemthing in his language, and yes, I’ll call him wild heart and know that he belongs to the sky and moon. Thanks Jane. Love your comments.

      • Big Spitty Blow. Perfect! I’m afraid guardian, steward, or even personal servant would all be names that would make the horses I know collapse into mud puddles and die laughing. It’s not that they’re incorrect words exactly… it’s that they kinda stick us one step above again, while being incomplete….and sound a bit stuffy. There definitely needs to be a word that encompasses the whole concept. Or BSB, for short!

        • Makes me think all those “titles” are just more of the teachings that we are the dominant species. Now THAT title does deserve a big spitty blow! Raises the question exactly WHO is the one doing the feeding, mucking etc etc? Another big spitty blow!

  10. Love this conversation. If I had to improve on the ‘dictionary’ definition, I think they mean species of animals who have been born into captivity for generations and selectively bred for the ability to tolerate (they’d probably say thrive in) captivity.

    Personally I prefer the concept of tameness that the fox describes to The Little Prince. It’s very much a choice on both sides.

  11. Love it. The venn diagram is not all correct. Pigs will revert right back to being wild if let loose and can be very mean. We just selectively changed how they look for safety, but that doesn’t change their brain.

    • I agree the diagram isn’t right in a couple of ways, just open-minded enough for middle ground. Thanks, Virginia. Great comment.

  12. To me NOTHING is as thrilling as witnessing horses acting like horses; running with a unified purpose, bucking, boxing, playing, courting. I admit that it gives me great pleasure to have a horse comply with my request, but it no longer is expected (thanks to your ongoing perspectives, Anna). I am currently blessed with a new equine resident who, though of tiny stature, has enormous opinions. She is my daily wake up call that horses are not necessarily prone to domestication. Her answer to most of my questions is “why should I?”, and I love her for it. Humans have a propensity for domination of animals and each other; it doesn’t seem to be working for us though……maybe we should try something else.

    • Amen. I’ve been thinking of autonomy lately. Mine and my horses. The things people do with good intentions that are painful. I wish we were all like you and your mare. Thanks Laurie

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