Does a Racehorse Know if He Wins or Loses?

And what difference would it make to the horse if he wins or loses? An equine behaviorist weighs in.
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American Pharoah won the 2015 Breeders' Cup Classic. | Photo: Courtesy Keeneland
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.—Via e-mail


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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Written by:

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

9 Responses

  1. I don’t think a horse knows if he runs 3 or 5th but they know they won because when they win the go to the winners circle and get their picture taken

  2. You people must be crazy if you think a horse knows if he wins a race. A horse dosent know where the finish line is or how long the race is and some tracks have 2 finish lines. A horse only knows if he has run good and has done what the jockey ask, and has passed horses or not. As evidenced by his next race. He will sometimes keep the same habit or form

  3. I have to disagree somewhat with Byron that horses don’t naturally race one another or gallop at maximum speed for more than a few strides. I base this on observing more than once in a thoroughbred race when a horse has thrown the jockey, the riderless horse continues to race. Why, just last was there was a bad accident in one race not far from the starting gate, throwing two jockeys off their mounts and fatally injuring one horse. The other horse was uninjured and continued, riderless, around the entire course coming in first at the finish line!

  4. I think the best way to see if horses want to race to win is to let them “race” without external factors influencing them by force like a jokey with a crop, and we will just see a bunch of panicked horses running around trying to get to their pasture buddies. for a horse winning can happen when SEEKING system is engaged or when play fighting and one “wins” the other. the horses just want it over with and want to be left alone with their other horse friends in a pasture with plenty of food.

  5. Having spent 40 yrs in the racing business as a groom, trainer, exercise rider, and jockey. I have no doubt a lot of them know when they win! Thats why when a horse gets on a winning streak. Its a good idea to do everything you can to keep them on it! They believe they are unbeatable. Good trainers teach young horses how to win!

  6. I think it may come down to two basic qualities that no matter how great an athlete the horse is, no matter what the breeding, some horses like to lead and some horses like to follow. There’s the alpha horse and there are the beta horse.

  7. Horses do not know if they win or lose a race, or any other event for that matter, in the same context that we humans do. For them to realize they “won” while playing out in the pasture thet would have to agree upon a start/finish line, which is preposterous. Also, rarely will you ever see a horse running at 100% maximum speed for more than just a few strides – by no means a race of the needed distance to be able to determine a winner. In terms of knowing if they won or lost in an organized, official race, I do believe the great ones don’t like another horse to get in front, not because of the concept of winning vs losing, but more due to dominance of personality. I also believe that the great ones truly love their job – thats one of the factors that make them great. But horses don’t keep a tab on theit win-loss record.

  8. Good morning Sue,
    Of course, horses know when they have won a race. Even horses free racing in a field know they won. The horses free race because they want to win over the other horses. Watch young TBs in a field racing each other. The timid ones never win and often just quit racing and watch instead of participating in the racing for fun. The winner of races are often arrogant and egocentric. If that horses looses a race, they maybe inconsolable. You may need to spend more time observing herds of horses in open fields. We often have 30 to 40 horses in open fields and can watch their actions. These are rescued horses and often have OTTBs and Quarter horses off the track in the mix. Some horses will choose not to race and make up the gallery of observers.
    We had an Arabian that at 43 lost his first horse race against two off the track Quarter horses and a OTTB. it was nose to nose and if it had been a longer race Navajo would have won. He never raced again and he did not want to lead the horses on trail rides. He live to be 46 years old.
    Best wishes,
    Joanie Benson

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