An Expert Answers: Do Racehorses Understand Winning And Losing?

Applying what science knows about animal cognition, is it possible to determine if a racehorse know if he wins or loses? Dr. Sue McDonnell, a certified applied animal behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is doubtful that horses understand winning or losing a race run on a track as running on a track is unnatural, The Horse reports.

However, McDonnell believes that horses do understand winning or losing a chase in a natural environment; horses run and “race” one another when they’re in a field together, particularly colts. Adult horses run for a variety of reasons, McDonnell says: They run to escape threats and male horses run when chased by other males. In each of these instances, the horses seem to know they have “won” or “lost.”

To address if horses understand winning and losing, McDonnell suggests paying careful attention to a racehorse’s behavior during and immediately after a race, whether he wins or loses. These postures can then be compared to a horse that “wins” or “loses” in a natural context. Without knowing the outcome, if one could reliably predict from the horse’s behavior whether it won or lost a race, his appreciation of winning or losing could be argued. It would be difficult to remove all other outside influences (like the reaction of the jockey) to look solely at the horse’s posturing, she notes.

A rise or fall in male hormones is a well-known, psychologically mediated effect of winning and losing in humans McDonnell says; if a study was done that showed that these hormones changed before and after a race, this could be viewed as additional evidence that a horse appreciates winning or losing.

While no one truly knows a horse’s motivational state when he is racing, McDonnell reports that this is likely to come under increasing scrutiny as the world becomes more vested in the ethics and welfare of animals used in sport.

Read more at The Horse.

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