Do horses know they are racing

Do horses know they are racing – Know the Facts

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My friend owns some horses, we often visit them and recently I heard from her that She may take one of her Horses to a local racing event.

This got me wondering if horses know when they are racing. Is it feasible to tell whether a racehorse knows whether he wins or loses using what science knows about animal cognition? and  I wanted to be sure, so I decided to do my own research.

According to Dr Sue McDonnell, a licensed applied animal behaviourist at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, horses do not understand winning or losing a race run on a track since running on a track is unnatural. (Source)

McDonnell, on the other hand, says that horses comprehend winning or losing a pursuit in their natural habitat; horses run and “race” one another when they’re in a field together, especially colts. 

Adult horses flee for a variety of reasons, according to McDonnell: they run to avoid danger, and male horses run when pursued by other males. 

In each of these cases, the horses appear to be aware of whether they have “won” or “lost.”

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Do Racehorses Understand Winning And Losing?

Studies suggest that paying close attention to a racehorse’s conduct during and immediately after a race, whether he wins or loses, determines if horses understand winning and losing.

These postures can then be contrasted to a horse in a natural setting that “wins” or “loses.” 

Without knowing the outcome, if one could accurately anticipate whether a horse would win or lose a race based on its conduct, his appreciation of winning or losing could be argued.

Studies observe that it would be difficult to isolate the horse’s posturing from all other environmental circumstances (such as the jockey’s reaction).

In humans, a rise or fall in male hormones is a well-known, psychologically mediated result of winning or losing.

According to studies, if research proved that these hormones changed before and after a race, this may be considered as additional evidence that a horse enjoys winning or losing.

While no one can completely know a horse’s motivational condition during a race,  reports say  that it is likely to come under increased scrutiny as the world grows more invested in the ethics and welfare of animals employed in sport.

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Do horses even know that they’re racing?

When horses are in the middle of a race, they are most likely seeing themselves as part of a herd of horses in motion, and it is in their natural instinct to run, whether on a racetrack or simply when they are released out into the pasture. 

“Even in that at-liberty setting, they will frequently run (and go fast), and there are always a couple who strive just a little harder to get out front when they conduct group gallops,” Heleski explained.( Source)

While the horses may not understand the euphoria of winning the Triple Crown, or even just the Derby and Preakness, they do understand that the people around them are excited — or sad, as Nadeau put it. 

“Because they are sensitive, they take a lot from how the people around them react,” she explained. “The thing with horses is that they can read people’s body language.”

Do horses like horse racing?

Thoroughbred horses were bred to run and compete. 

As foals, you’ll witness them race against one other, and when they retire to stud, you’ll see them race on different sides of the fence in their individual paddocks. “They fall out of their mothers eager to beat you,” one trainer explained.

Horses racing will frequently battle against the jockeys who are attempting to contain them; some horses may draw up next to another, look them in the eyes, and the other horse will yield, as if beaten.

If Spectacular Bid did not work out on a certain day, he would become enraged. 

All of this is to indicate that horses like the adrenaline rush of racing.

Horses definitely like to run, and they like it more when other horses are running too. Some especially like to be in the lead.

Horses were designed and rared to run. 

Wild horses will run just to run. They aren’t always running away from something; sometimes they are running for something.

Sure, some horses don’t like putting much effort into things. But most horses love to run.

Racing is another thing…. Some horses don’t have any competitive urge to run against others.

Some horses just want to be a part of the “pack” when they run. But there are other horses that want to run, and they want to lead the group when they run. 

So, I’d say that yes, horses can definitely like racing.

Do horses compete to win?

Yeah, there’s something called the winner effect. Basically winning in a (usually) mating display/competition provides an increased probability of winning in future, and losing results in an increased probability of losing, due to hormonal changes associated with each.

Here’s one paper looking at both the effect, and the influence of location (whether in one animal’s territory) in voles. (Source)

Research in animal science indicates that horses (like many herd animals) compete to maintain their standing in what they perceive as their herd. 

So, in terms of racing horses (the bulk of the research has been done with thoroughbred racehorses), the goal is to “convince” the horse that being ahead of the pack is how it maintains its herd position.

This is complicated, since, it seems, horses include significant humans as herd-mates, and utilize social cues we humans rarely notice, much less understand.

The emotional connotations to the animals… well, researchers don’t much agree on these for most animals. 

Ethologists over the last decade or so have discovered that many social animals perform more consistently under experimental conditions if they are treated as if they used emotional constructs similar those used by humans, even if differently motivated.

As to the winner effect, I would presume that it would be more prominent in intact males, but it would really depend upon how much of a role adrenal testosterone plays versus testicular testosterone, and whether the long-term effects are mediated by the testicles or the adrenals.

For instance, we are quite aware that horse breeders focus mostly on the bloodline through the father, and disregarded the genetic contributions of the mare up until fairly recently when it was discovered that the large heart trait is passed on through the X chromosome.

For more about horses see our other articles below
Colin Parker loves Pets! Colin is an animal lover. She loves caring for and sharing her knowledge of all kinds of pets. Her Love for pets made her Join the pet paws hub Team, to share knowledge with the world.
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Horse Owners Perspective

Lansade, L., Nowak, R., Lainé, AL. et al. Facial expression and oxytocin as possible markers of positive emotions in horses. Sci Rep 8, 14680 (2018). Facial Expressions of Horses

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB The Horse

Do horses know they are racing

About the Author: Dog Behavioural Consultant

Jennifer W loves Pets! She is an animal lover. She loves caring for and sharing her knowledge of all kinds of pets.

Her Love for pets made her Join the pet paws hub Team, to share knowledge with the world.

Jennifer WDog Behavioural Consultant

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