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.

In natural social contexts, horses do seem to “race” one another. Running and jumping in what looks like playful racing is a conspicuous aspect of play among juveniles, especially colts. Among adults, running occurs in a couple of contexts. Both males and females run to escape threats. Adult males also run when chasing or being chased by another male. In those natural social contexts, the behavior seems to indicate that at some level that they have “won” or “lost.” For example, one common scenario is one or more bachelor stallions challenging a harem stallion for access to females. Typically, the harem stallion attempts to chase them off. If the bachelor is run down and overtaken, the pair may interact in a ritualized posturing sequence, after which the loser of the chase retreats in a somewhat submissive posture while the winner “struts” back to his harem. 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.

I don’t think anyone really knows what the motivational state of a racehorse is at the time they are running. This is likely to become an area of increasing importance as our global society becomes more interested in the ethics and welfare of use of animals in sport. You asked, “How would you know if the horse understands?” Well, thinking about it, 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. Most people can do this by watching people. A good example is tennis. If you see a clip of the players after a point is scored without any audio, you can in many instances correctly judge from their posture and expression whether the player had just won or lost the point.

Of course, with racehorses, it would be challenging to control for the potential influence of the behavior of the winning or losing jockey on the horse. Also, a well-documented psychologically mediated effect of winning or losing of males is a rise or fall in male hormone levels. If the pre- to post-race change in levels of these hormones corresponded to winning or losing status that could be additional evidence that the horse has some appreciation of winning or losing.

And what difference does it make to American Pharoah that he goes out a winner? Even if he did understand, probably not much. And I have to agree with you that it is all for the people. 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.