Does a Racehorse Know if He Wins or Loses?

Q. While I watching the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic prerace coverage, there was a lot of talk about running American Pharoah for the horse’s sake, not only so that he can win the “Grand Slam” (the Triple Crown races plus the Breeders’ Cup Classic) but so that he can retire after a win rather than after his Travers Stakes loss. “It’s for the horse” and “so he can go out a winner” seem to be implying that the horse understands winning and losing races. On the surface it seems like a nice thing to say—that the horse deserves to go out as a winner. But how does that fit with what is known about animal cognition? Does it make any sense? I think it is up for debate whether a horse even understands when he has won or lost a race. And, what difference would it make to the horse, really? It seems like it is more about what people want. Any comments or discussion appreciated.

A. These are really good questions on a topic that may be tough to answer without getting down into deep discussion about human-animal relationships, animal welfare, and the ethics of animal use. Certainly philosophers and animal ethicists have devoted much more intellectual thought to these questions, so I’ll just comment best I can from my perspective in equine behavior, and will try not to get too philosophical.

First of all, with my current understanding of horse cognition, my opinion would be that it is really doubtful that a racehorse understands winning or losing a race on the track. It’s not that horses cannot understand winning or losing a chase in natural circumstances, just that so much about racing is not at all natural.

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