Do Horses Understand Horse Racing?

Horse Racing

Have you ever watched a racehorse after winning a big race? With a crowd crushing in amid the flash of cameras, the horse seems just as jubilantly victorious as the jockey. But have you ever wondered, do horses understand horse racing? Keep reading for the answer and more details on the motivation and cognition of horses.

Horse Psychology

The simple answer to whether or not horses understand horse racing is that while racehorses want to win races and do subjectively enjoy winning them, they do not understand the greater significance of horse racing to the extent that humans do. This is because horses’ brains are very different from those of humans. 

Horses operate within a harem-based social structure and are chiefly concerned with survival and reproduction. Thus the motivations of horses and their understanding of concepts like dominance and defeat are unlikely to include the desire to win a race chiefly for the glory of victory.

Natural Competitiveness

Although horses do not understand concepts like winning and dominance in the abstract manner that humans do, there are times when both wild and domesticated horses naturally display competitiveness and achieve advantages over other horses. For wild horses, these times can include running from a predator or a charging dominant male. Another example is sparring between a harem male and a bachelor male for mating rights over a female. After a sparring match, the victorious male will proudly march off with his rightful mate, while the loser will slink away alone. 

Domesticated horses also engage in competition during their daily lives. Certain horses push others aside to gain a prime position at the feeding trough. And when a group of horses is first released into a pasture together, they will all naturally run as fast as possible, attempting to reach the front of the pack. 

Overall, horses naturally compete with each other in a variety of situations. However, their motivations are usually driven by the desire to gain an advantage regarding obtaining food or procreating. Therefore, though a racehorse will likely enjoy winning, it will not understand the horse race in the manner humans do. Further, it will certainly not derive pleasure from the pure joy of winning a race. Instead, the horse will probably view it as simply another occasion to achieve an advantage over its fellow horses, gaining better access to food or mates.

After the Race

Horses are highly attuned to the moods and attitudes expressed by humans around them. If a horse’s owners and a crowd of fans are surrounding it and cheering, the horse will perceive their joy and excitement. To a degree, that horse will internalize and experience for itself those positive feelings displayed by the humans around it.

As a result of their natural sense of competition, a racehorse can feel a sense of pride arising from within itself when it wins or a sense of disappointment after a loss. In this way, horses’ emotional reaction to competition is similar to that of humans. However, horses lack a human’s ability to form emotional narratives, so they will quickly move on. While a human athlete may lie awake at night remembering a bad loss, all a racehorse is thinking about after a race is their feed trough.