Do horses understand that they are running in a race and that there is a winner or loser? Dr Desmond Morris in his book Horsewatching is very firm and clear with his advice, which is that horse racing is an entirely human construct and horses simply do not understand it. Horses understand that they need to run faster when pushed to do so by their rider because they are sensitive to their rider’s encouragement through the touch of their hands, the grip of the legs and general movements. They want to please their owner and therefore they might strain every sinew for as long as they can but they will not recognise the fact that they have passed a white post before any other horse and be pleased as a result.
A side question is whether horses running in a field enjoy the human idea of racing to win. Horses do run together in a field but are they racing and do they recognise a winner or loser? My personal view is in alignment with those of Dr Desmond Morris, and after all he is an acknowledged expert in the field of animal behaviour. He’d say horses don’t race in a field. They may run with each other but they have no concept of informal racing. Other experts may disagree.
The fact of the matter is that at this time, perhaps surprisingly, people don’t know for sure whether horses are aware that they’ve won or lost a race upon which people have bet money. Of course horses are also unaware of the fact that people are winning or losing lots of money on a horse race. A horse has no concept of money and gambling either.
Although even the experts are unsure what goes through the mind of a horse while racing. It is suggested that a study could be conducted in which the hormones of a horse are measured before, during and after a race. If the hormone levels can be equated to elation or sadness then perhaps scientists may be able to figure out if a horse is happy or sad after a race and if so it may point to the possibility that a horse understands that they have won or lost a race.
All the human elation and horse slapping that takes place by horse racing aficionados at the track when their horse wins is probably bemusing and confusing to the magnificent horse who has just won a very important race upon which millions of pounds or dollars have been bet.
On the website “the Horse” there are some comments from visitors on this topic. One guy, Doug Gibbons, tells us that he has spent forty years in the racing business as a jockey and also as an exercise rider, trainer and groom. He says that he has no doubt that horses know when they win. He argues that you want to get a horse on a winning streak because they start to believe that they are unbeatable. He says that good trainers teach young horses how to win.
Another commenter, Joanie Benson, is adamant that horses know when they have won a race. Even when they are free running for fun in a field against each other they know that they have one. And she says that horses free race because they want to win. This implies that they enjoy the competition. Winning horses, she says, are often arrogant and egocentric. They hate losing. She watches 30 to 40 rescue horses in open fields. Some don’t want to race and some do. She said that an Arabian horse constantly won races in a field but lost his first race at the age of forty-three. It was a very close race and if it had been longer he would have won. After his loss, he never raced again. And he didn’t want to lead the horses on trail rides either. He died at the age of forty-six.