Anthropomorphized Horses and What They Think About the Rest of Us

As horse-lovers will tell you, horses have character. While animals certainly have characteristics—likes and dislikes that can be called “traits”—the word character is a human word. Anthropomorphizing animals illustrates our enduring need to project our humanness onto our animal friends. While the scientists among us may always strive to separate their own thoughts and feelings from their observations of animals, the horse owner may enjoy having an emotional human connection with her horse, no matter how unlikely it is that the horse reciprocates. For the writer, this anthropomorphizing is a powerful literary device for exploring, through the horse, truths about human nature.

We see in horses a majesty and honor that supersedes our own, and imagine them as somehow truer or better than ourselves. Take Black Beauty, the title character in Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel. The book is one of the bestselling books of all time, and it is told entirely from the perspective of the horse. Through Black Beauty’s eyes, we observe and judge his caretakers, from the good kind Farmer Grey, to Mr. Nicholas Skinner, the ruthless cab owner who runs Beauty ragged. The book is also full of other anthropomorphic horse characters who meet Beauty along his journey. The moral of the story is that horses have feelings—inner lives that deserve respect. While these horses serve a metaphorical narrative purpose, it is strange that generations of readers are left with the not-so-subtle sense that horses have human-like characters.

On the upside, thinking of animals as capable of human-like thoughts and feelings instills a sense of respect that has undoubtedly led many humans to take better care of their horses. On the downside, magical thinking of this kind is, in a sense, the enemy of critical thinking. Children who are taught to imagine that horses have opinions about what people say and do, may think this way about other aspects of their lives.

While this might not seem immediately sinister, the more unscientific our thinking, the less likely we are to spot a fraudulent claim on a homeopathic medicine, or an outrageous religious dogma. This subtle anthropomorphizing may be one of the many ways in which we fail to train our children to be rational adults.

Then again, many children enjoy stories like Black Beauty and grow up to be skilled free-thinkers. Perhaps the harm this type of thinking could theoretically cause is minuscule compared with the lessons of compassion and love these stories relate. Take My Friend Flicka, the 1941 novel by Mary O’Hara about a young boy and his horse. Flicka, the horse, is a wild young mare and Ken, the boy, is determined to train her. Over the course of the novel he builds a deeply touching relationship with the horse, overcoming her wild nature. While this is a story of a human taming a wild animal, it is also a story of compassion, patience, persistence and care. In this story, Flicka is anthropomorphic only through the eyes of the child, and in his shadow, as his own wild nature is tamed alongside hers. As Ken cares for Flicka, he learns valuable lessons about himself.

References and Resources:

Literature Project: Black Beauty

Novel Guide