Interpreting animals in spaces of cohabitance (2019) Nora Schuurman and Alex Franklin. An inspiring article exploring manifestations of animal agency at horse stables (livery yards to be specific). The article builds a model for horse agency from an array of interviews in which yard managers explain or “narrate” the animals’ behaviour. The approach feels supportive to my own research plans. Yard managers are a convenient source for information because they are responsible for the daily well being of the animals and have to communicate the animals current state to their owners, who possibly only meet their beasts on weekends (as I’ve witnessed at Kylmälänkylä). In short they have to speak for and in behalf of the animals. I think it’s particularly interesting that their expertise is constantly open for questioning as the observed behaviour of the animal can challenge their narration. Also ownership in itself affords an authority in decision making processes.

Referencing Michael Polanyi (1983 [1966]) the authors emphasize tacit knowledge as a key element of the animal interpretation processes: “[T]acit knowledge refers to a personal knowledge or skill that is used in action, but is difficult to explain verbally.” I’m familiar with the claim that tacit it is “difficult to explain”. But I want to underline that there are many reasons for the struggle for verbalizing stuff: Trade secrets, efforts to maintain the aura of the trade, hangover and fatigue. My cynical view is that the struggle is a performance: A performance of professionalism, to be specific. I find this to be a big part of crafts culture. I believe that everything is “difficult to explain” and that every explanation is a crude approximation. From this angle all knowledge (Ikea furniture building guides, academic paper) depends on a tacit-sity (or tactic perhaps?). Also, some aspects of some trades are very easily communicated by sharing choreographies and this makes them more accessible then spoken or written accounts. This would portray academic knowledge as more tacit than craft knowledges. The authors also emphasize that tacit knowledge is an complicated framework, referencing Auli Toom (2006).

Citing Rebecca Cassidy (2002) they bring forths that “[t]acit knowledge is also highly contextual, often tied to working environments and social practices such as the care and training of horses and working with them.” to which I full heartedly agree with to and would like to emphasize on in my reseach. The arrangement and placement of tools (pitchforks, shovels, wheelbarrows) at a stable manifest an intellect (which we can discover by mapping items). The distances of tools and how they are in relation to each other, reveal the choreographies of labour and companionship. This design is informed by both human and animal desires. For example the directions and angles stable doors open to are choreographic apparatuses, they guide the movement of horse handlers and animals so that both will feel safe in manoeuvring in tight spaces (they afford safety). Gates, the complicated process of passing trough gates (which I think horse handling is borderline centred on) and trust issues are discussed relation to Vinciane Desprets writing (2004).

For me it feels like, that in this text tacit is used as a leeway for developing intuitive approaches to caregiving (opposed to a medical approaches etc.). Citing Schuurman (2017) they detail that “tacit knowledge about horses has adapted to the new environments and practices of contemporary horse keeping. Today, it carries information on horse management and care, including the task of communicating with horses and interpreting them as animals in different ways.” This approach works great for me and notes on care is something we could map-out during the upcoming Horse & Build Environment course for Aalto University. But I want to underline that an exploration of the tacit knowledge we develop through horse-human relations may reveal challenging to how care and compassion are currently understood. For example, what how should we approach physical violence from the horses point of view?

To be able to enroll all horses in the process of caring for and being cared for themselves, the yard manager has to specifically identify and manage different subgroups of horses. The size and mix of horses placed in any one field, for example, is significant in maintaining optimum conditions for selfcare. The less conflict there is in the relationships between the horses, the more they can be relied upon to take care of each other. In the case of the livery yards, field groups are commonly kept relatively small or single-sex for this very reason.

The article describes the complexity of social skills (“horse reading”) which maintaining a healthy herds depend on. It’s great that social skills animal management depend on are brought forwards. A regular performance where heard organizations and human activity interplay can be witnessed, is when a singular horse is pulled away from the pasture for work. I would like to add that not all intents for “horse reading“ are benign. For example mounted police officers use their heard and horse reading skills to drive the animal into violent situations and it can also be that the horses are partly driven by this opportunity. Also, horse handlers pick personal favourites and work to advance their position in the herd-organization. I also believe and have witnessed that horse handlers work against the perceived enemies of their favourites.

The type of “narrative analysis” they are developing feels linked to literary or discourse analysis but their approach feels more open for creative interpretations. It also has an archival quality:

The situations in which narration is invoked are multiple. It is used as a technique to communicate interpretations of animal agency within both mundane and eventful human–horse interactions as they take place. It is also drawn upon as a tool to communicate these interactions to others at a later occasion. […] Narrative analysis thus becomes an extremely malleable, flexible, and largely effective method for understanding embodied communication and tacit knowledge within human–animal interaction.