Trans-Horse: Horse & Performance for TeaK 2020

We were fortunate to organize the fourth Horse & Performance course for the Theater Academy in the fall of 2020. Together with Pietari, we experienced challenges teaching art during a pandemic face but in the end things sorted out well. At the time COVID spread in Finland was at a decline and the University of Arts Helsinki deemed the course possible. The horse-hobby and equestrian industry here seems well equipped for dealing with the pandemic. Riding group sizes seldom exceed 10 members (and horses) and activities are organized in sparsely spaced sites, which deems it a safe activity. In fact horseback riding is a booming hobby, it offers a much needed outdoor experience and companionship. We were kindly welcomed to Malminkartano by Kaarelan ratsutalli Oy. Kaarela was a well suited site for organizing the course, it is easy to access with public transport and the area has an interesting history.

Horse & Performance had seven participants: Antonia Atarah, Anna Lehtonen, Daniela Pascual, Martta Jylhä, Gaspare Fransson, Mikael Karkkonen and Jouni Tapio. On previous courses most of the participants have been from the acting department but this time around attendees formed a balanced mixture of dramaturgist, actors, live-artists, pedagogist and sound/light designers. In 2017 we started to collect course notes to collective study journals which participants can access online. The journals present open ended questions which the course stirs up, links to texts people refer to and discussions on the exercise we partake in. This time around the document is semi-public and can be accessed  as a .pdf document. We didn’t offer the same volume of practical horse handling exercises as before. Instead we focused on working with the animals at their pasture and got to engage in an array of stable chores. Participants build a hay-shelter, erected fences and collect a lot of droppings from the pasture. I think the course was ultimately about maintenance art and laced with a crafty approach to non-human knowledge.

Taru Svahn who had established the stables twenty years ago gave a thorough introduction to the site. We learned that there has been horse related activity in the area at least since the 18th century and that the site had been a farm until the 60ties. She presented us documents from -62 which detailed farming experiments Helsinki University conducted on site and provided a history of the Malminkartano mansion from 1579 onward. Svahn told us that her motivation for establishing the riding school was set in motion by a dream which presented her a galloping horse. The dream led her to equestrian studies in Ypäjä and eventually to start a business in Malminkartano. Quite recently they have managed to expand the stable by building a manège which enables them to organize courses comfortably during the winter. When we started with horseback riding with Pietari in 2014 the manège was yet to be build and the outdoor classes in Malminkartano were really cold.

As expected working with city officials for permits to build a horse stable to a suburb was an enormous effort. Rights were eventually granted based on the site’s historical value and history with horses. In short: The horses of the past, paved way for the horses of the future. There are archaeological sites (röykkiöhauta) close by and the nearby forest is protected from development (Malminkartano was an island until 3000BCE). Svahn explained that ultimately the permission process was paved by personal relations she formed with individual city officials and a lucky coincidence where the right mix of city committee representatives happened to be in the same room at the same time. It is revealing that charisma and luck are central for city development. Svahn’s motivation for establishing the site was to grant access to horses to the youth of the district. The suburb was troubled in the 90ties. Still is.

Each day started with a morning meeting at a forest opening. Pietari heated water with a portable stove, we all sat on a branch and chatted while having coffee. The morning sessions worked well for establishing a casual relationship to the texts and theory which we structured the teaching on. There were lectures in the forest too. I fondly remember Pietari’s introduction to speciesism, with yellow rays of sunlight reflecting from the moss. When preparing for the course we were inspired by the Gustafsson&Haapoja: Museum of Becoming HAM exhibition and picked up texts by Cary Wolfe and Terike Haapoja from it. The main culprit for the theory of human-horse-relations was yet again Haraway and we turned to Soppelsa for developing insights to the role horses have had for the development of modern Europe.

At the end of the two week long course participants were invited to develop group exercise or artistic outputs, which reflected their evolving relationship to horses. This lead us to organized a miniature horse-art festival of sorts. It offered dance pieces (witnessing a horse-human dance led me to understand the relationship as a highly choreographed communication), audio-based-works (which presented arbitrary horse movements as dance), meditation and body awareness sessions (we could imagine ourselves as plants and experience ourselves as a self organizing assembly). Summaries and group reflections on the exercises are documented in the collective study journal. One of the most memorable experiences I had was a session titled “Horse’s Birthday” (Jylhä & Karkkonen). The session started with us setting a picnic table in the middle of the pasture. As we started to eat cake and to perform a birthday ceremony, our gathering and the sweet smells lured the horses in and soon our assembly was rearranged by a herd of animals. They revealed their ultimate power-move: Breaking crowds with their hulls and caused disarray in organization. Our picnic was efficiently disbanded and we were caught between rivaling horses.

Previously, in teaching art I’ve emphasized the act of “stopping” and we often practice it as a part of physical exercises: I encourage students to be rude, to halt the charismatic flow for making notes, formulate opinions and set new plans in motion. During the pasture-birthday session I noticed that I have not developed artistic exit strategies which would afford sensible and secure retrievals from difficult situations. Most horse-human exercises I’ve participated in have been focused on becoming with the animal and after the exercises have peaked we look for an opening where we can depart peacefully. This works great for establishing a sense of security but requires that the horse-human session is carefully planned: I’ve witnessed numerously how facilitators work towards soft departures. Working in the pasture –which is the horse’s domain– requires that people would also be equipped with skills in distancing themselves from the horse at haste. I think I should develop artistic skills to escape a bad situation (like a rodeo clown). I was petrified during the performance. We got stuck between five horses, a table and the cake we brought with us. I didn’t know how to safely distance our group from the dominant maneuvers of the horse herd.

On the last day of the course we got a tour of the Ruskeasuo Police horse facilities. Senior Constable Jukka Aarnisalo took us in and offered a glimpse to the offices of the 130 year old police unit. We were invited to their very compact kitchen and debriefing room, which is located in a corner of the Ruskeasuo horse stables. Inside we were presented with old Russian era swords (brought from their old headquarters in Kasarminkatu), WWII memorabilia and trophies from past competitions. Their current stables were built for the Helsinki Olympics and manifest the functionalist architecture movement in its prime. Modernist traits can be identified in the facilities waste disposal arrangements and the usage of natural light, which early modernist architects associated with hygiene (as defined by Kirsi Saarikangas).

Our visit to the stables ended the course to a very conflicted setting. Participants had just spent two weeks (re)sensitizing themselves to the nuances of horse-human communication, after which we were confronted by a professional with over 30 years of experience in working with animals in urban settings and effectively teaching multiple generations of horses skills for desensitizing themselves. To add to the confusion the skills in question were taught in a respectful working relationship, in institutionally monitored and publicly scrutinized setting. All done just so that the police-horse and the police-human could enforce the law effectively. It safe to argue that mounted officers (and their horses) are the most visible public servants and most criticized law enforcers. I personally enjoyed the conflict because the sensitive and emotional sessions we shared with  horses in Malminkartano, were balanced by the reality and lived experience of people working with animals and animals working with people.

Horse-pedagogical efforts will continue in the spring as well organize a course called Horse & Build Environment for Aalto University. On this course we will explore horse stable designs and the relations they afford us.


The World the Horses Made: A South African Case Study of Writing Animals into Social History (2010) Sandra Swart. The article aims to develop social history by enriching it with inputs provided by animals. This is motivated by Lucien Fabvres call for “sensory history”. Horses are embedded in processes of “global ecological imperialism” and they have played a pivotal role for different settler societies. The role of horses is mixed, they were used as slaves (agriculture), as weapons and as status symbols. In short “[…] the horse has been the quintessential migrants laborer in southern Africa.” The starts with a strong emphasis on soundscapes.

Human understanding of sound is historical, with the ability to interpret noise (and experience it as melodious or jarring) changing over time. As [Peter A.] Coates points out, noise is to sound as stench is to smell – something dissonant and unwanted. It is tempting to assume that noise is noisier now. However, in much of the urbanized west this simple linear model of noise pollution growing worse over time is flawed, because while the ascendancy of the engine has meant a noisier world, it is worth remembering that the source of opposition to horses in urban centres and support for the horseless vehicles was the perceived need for a reduction of the racket. However, when in South Africa horses were increasingly kept out of towns in the mid-twentieth century, it was for reasons of disease and waste, rather than noise.

Swart argues that verbal communication with the horse (“horse-human patois”) was a language which white English, Sotho men and Afrikaans speakers could share. “They would have been able to understand that squeals and grunts indicated excitement; snorts signified interest or possible danger; a soft whicker was meant to reassure a foal or to express anticipation of food and a whinny meant the horse was all alone.” Horses were imported from 1652 onward and used to impress local communities and to facilitate travel. Their adaptation was hindered by diseases. Horses which came sick during lengths travels were treated with opium (this reminds me of the Soppelsa text on horse handling in Paris). Horses were kept in highlands to control their exposure to diseases.

From the seventeenth century, and gathering demographic impetus from the eighteenth century, the new settlers established themselves in places where their horses could survive. The desire to reach horse-sickness-free zones determined range of settlements.

Swart identifies this as an “unseen hand” affecting the patterns of human settlement. Animals can be useful for reading the history (finding parallels, tendencies) of many sub-altern groups but this should be done in a manner which does not trivialize suffering. She spots similar movements in animals studies and different waves of feminists thought.

Horses and women have much in common historically: both were socially integral but subordinated groups that were not always conveniently tractable. Some characteristics of a horse, especially a display of self-will, were described as particularly female, as in an Afrikaans narrative from the early twentieth century, which noted: “it is always very difficult to foresee what a chestnut horse or a woman will do.”

The history of horses looks at claimed individual (race) horses, in a similar manner as first wave feminism has focused on strong role models and horses have also been read as a silent oppressed group, whose societal importance if proofed by displaying the volume of horse who have been lost in wars etc. “Drawing on the gendered or women’s history paradigm, perhaps historians’ first step could be simply to demonstrate that animals have a history at all”.  Swart call for bringing the stories of individual horses to front. “The cordite-inured police horse, the dead-mouthed schoolmaster, the bolting ex-racehorse all reflect their individual past experiences through their reactions to current experience.” are offered as individual horse history trajectories. Hippos archives and would be great sources for this construction effort.

For example, static snapshots of the daily lives of horses in the past could be combined and run chronologically to create a picture of how an average day in the life of a horse changed over time, much as the first works on social history on women and the working class did. This underscores the point that horse’s lives can be discovered and that these lifestyles changed over time.

I think that proving that the lifestyles of horses has changed over time is difficult but very important. Change implies an intelligence, which we can witness in the performance. To proof that there has been change, is to proof there is possibility for change, is to proof that there is a future. Swart wants to bring focus to “agency” so that we may recognize that societies are made by individual actions which have been effect by the society. Typically animals are represented by humans because they’re cannot “speak”. “Marx’s formula regarding French peasants in The Eighteenth Brumaire is uncannily applicable to animals.” She underlines.

One way of addressing animal agency is to reassess the idea of agency itself. Indeed, some have argued that the failure to question agency in the telling of history actually reproduces familiar forms of power. Efforts to reassess the histories of labour, girls’, the subaltern, childhood, and so on attack prevailing hegemonic notions of agency predicated on the idea of an autonomous individual, following the imperatives of rational choice, and aware of how the world works. Instead they searched for more subversive tradition although they still tend to structure narratives around political rebellions in public spaces. Yet “agency” and resistance are not synonymous and a search for agency should not be indexed by the presence of heroic acts of conscious self-determination.

This has an interesting application to horses. As Swart details, horses are controlled with an arsenal of tools (reins etc.). When horses are used publicly we see riders and drivers yield these tools in “displays of public domination”. But we seldom read why these tools are used for horses: Their disobedience can have life threatening results. Horses protest all the time.

Asymmetric access to the technologies of power, of which horses were one, buttressed elites. Horsemen had to have some power to even possess horses and, once they did, they could seize more power and deploy it more effectively by using horses, in a military capacity or in utilizing trade networks more lucratively.

Swart argues that horses are possibly not the best companions for reaching out to the histories of the sub-altern. They were luxurious. Donkeys were more frequently used in agricultural settings. Donkeys have been blamed for erosion and killed en masse. Swart brings fort the “donkey massacre” of 1983 which she calls “a silent massacre, hidden from the official archival record.” I’m betting that accessing horses in the stable, learning how their maintenance and care has been organized might proof revealing.

The article claims that horses are not as “obsessed with territory” as humans but this is contradictory to my experiences in the pastures, in the stables and when witnessing policehorse training events. I believe that being situated is a way to communicate and negotiations on spatial positioning is an elite form of horse-human patois. It’s great for performance as minute actions such as turning ones focus impacts direction (e.g. when riding).


Someone called our Speaking Clock -service last evening. I stuttered and begun installing an atomic time clock app on my phone. While it was installing I whistled the Wind of Change, My Heart Will Go On and some improvised tunes. The posse on the other end of the phone kept giggling and a man explained my actions out loud for their group. It took a while but I did eventually announce the time correctly: 19:17:21.

The Instrumentalisation of Horses in Nineteenth-Century Paris (2011) Peter Soppelsa. The article recognizes horses as “urban infrastructure” (of nineteenth-century Europe) and acknowledges the animals importance for transportation of information and as a force for “driving urban economy”. Soppelsa explains that horse-activities saturated nineteenth-century Paris and formed the “primary site for negotiating human-animal relationships and the place of ‘nature’ in the city”. In 1900 the city was a home to 98,000 horses. The shift towards a mechanized urban landscape had started already in 1870 when campaigns on urban hygiene, mechanical power and animal welfare were actively re-evaluating the horses role.

… how were horses constructed as a technology? Horse use was supported by what I call ‘instrumentalisation’ the transformation of horses into tool. To ‘instrumentalise’ means to objectify and evaluate, to assign value and a normal or standard social use. Instrumentalisation constructs subjects and objects, calibrates means to ends, and scripts relationships between humans, technology and nature.

He links the theory of instrumentalisation to the Frankfurt School (leaning to Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt and others).

Driving this dialogue [of instrumentalisation] is the familiar humanist critique of instrumental rationality as a reversal and perversion of means and ends. Contrary to Kantian ethics, which value humans as ends in themselves, industrial, capitalist and bureaucratic modernity makes humans a means to uphold a fundamentally inhuman system, in which workers are enslaved, by their machines, bureaucrats by their offices, and humanity enslaved by tools, institutions and the environments of our own creation.

Soppelsa claims that “The line between nature and society is irrelevant for horses born in captivity and bread for work”. I understand but don’t agree. Jason Hribal identifies that animals are constantly protesting against their treatment and escaping captivity to establish striving communities. But Soppelsas intents are good, he is aiming to “green” the urban history of the city and to show how dependent our understanding of modern cities is on horses. Similar to Hribals article (mentioned earlier), Soppelsa goes into detail explain the thoroughness which horses were utilized: Every segment and feature of their existence was used. They were used as labor-power and their corpses would be used as material resources (gelatine etc.).

The text focuses on horse-drawn omnibuses which made the foul treatment of horses a common site on the streets of ~1900 Paris. The French Society of the Protection of Animals (est. 1845) was active in campaigning for their well-being. Working for their rights was problematic because of long standing Cartesian views which deemed animals as non-sentient machines. Soppelsa argues that the sole reason the treatment of horses was pulled to a focus was because well treated horses would perform better. Machines and harnesses which caused less stress were developed to keep them in good working condition: “Cartesian animal mechanism was not always incompatible with animal welfare”. Their docility was maintained by organizing the animals into teams.

Omnibus horses […] were stabled in pairs, hitched to the same vehicles and driven by the same coachmen each day. The omnibus liked drivers, horses and vehicle in a consistent unity of human, animal and machine: the team. The team was technologically necessary, because ‘A horse, however willing cannot be used to work without being attached to another device’.

The divers were the center of the “team” Soppelsa continues. The animals could also be drugged to perform as desired: “‘A drunken horse is never meager’, Parisian slang called these drunken horses bohémes […]”.

The principal reasons for treating horses properly were upholding one’s own humanity and extracting the greatest possible value and work.

Early modern Parisians were advocating the well-being of urban horses because they didn’t want to be seen as savages. Not because they cared for the animals! Soppelsa offers interesting quotes by contemporary activist (who referred to horses as our “inferior brothers”) who argued that good treatment of animals made their work more ‘profitable’. Visible animal cruelty made people look bad.

This process, combined with early bacteriology, which deemed close animal contacts “unhygienic”, lead to an new understanding that horses didn’t belong to the city. Interestingly horses were linked to the old European (fading) aristocracy, which lead the horse to be seen as a “chic novelty”. In short working with animals as machines was troublesome, their performance was difficult to manage. But working with actual machines, fitted Cartesian-worldviews (meaning a desire to see the world as a design) flawlessly and their performance could be optimized indefinitely. This process can be summarized by saying that the work of working animals was deemed inhumane, because working with actual machines was the endgame of modern humanity.

The horse’s incompatibility from the city shows how porous are the boundaries of the category of ‘urban’ […] horses were gradually constructed as non-urban after 1870. This narrative helps us historicise the relationships between humans, our tools and nature, thus greening urban history and the history of technology.

To preserve the city as a humanised space of artifice, and to soften the instrumentalisation of humans, Parisians estranged ‘nature’ and enlisted machines to replace animals.

Looking at the world as a design is an attempt to see the intent of a planner in a form. #ॐ