Does a racehorse know if he wins or loses?

 Dr. S McDonnell, equine behaviourist, responds to a reader’s interesting question :

Q.Talk about running American Pharoah in the Breeders Cup went like this- . “It’s for the horse” and “so he can retire a winner” seem to imply that the horse understands winning and losing races. … What difference would it make to the horse, if he wins or loses?

A.In natural social contexts, running and jumping in what looks like playful racing is an aspect of play among juveniles, especially colts. Among adults, both males and females run to escape threats…or when being chased by another horse…But outside of the natural social context, and especially within the context of all that goes with being trained and ridden, it is not so clear that a horse could tell the difference of whether it won or lost.

You asked, “How would you know if the horse understands?” One place to start would be to look at behavior of race winners and losers during and immediately after a winning or losing race, carefully evaluating their subtle postures. If you detect a pattern of some subtle postures reminiscent of winning or losing in a natural social context, such that without knowing the outcome you could reliably predict from the horse’s behavior whether it had won or lost, you might be able to argue for some appreciation by the contestants of winning or losing the race.

Your question brings to mind the risks and benefits of these anthropomorphic mistakes that seem ever more common with changing attitudes toward animals. Relating to an animal as if it is a person in many circumstances tends to go along with trying to provide better care. Handlers may be less likely to knowingly mistreat an animal that they view as more cognitively aware. On the other hand, animals are not people, and what people think as a better-quality life is often not the case.

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Her answer makes me appreciate horses even more – cooperating with our goals even if they don’t share them!