When racing season arrives, everyone becomes an expert on the horses that are the stars of the show.
TV personalities, professional experts and fitness guides speak confidently about the favorite “Will to win“. In close races, equine competitors “to fight”, showing “heart”, “courage” and “determination”.
But do horses know they are participating in a race, and even less do they want to win it? Do they understand what it means when their nose is the first to pass the post?
Based on decades of experience and everything we know about horse behavior, I think the most plausible answer is “no.”
From the horse’s point of view
From a horse’s perspective, there are few intrinsic rewards in winning a race.
Getting to the end may mean relief from the pressure of high-speed galloping and jockey whipping, but so does every horse once they pass the finishing post. If the race is close, the horse that ends up winning might even be whipped more often in the final stages than the horses further back in the peloton.
So, although being first to reach the victory post may be critically important to the horse’s human relationships, there is very little direct, intrinsic benefit to the horse that would motivate it to voluntarily gallop faster to achieve this result.
So, does a horse know it’s taking part in a race? Again, the answer is probably “no”.
Running (cantering or galloping) is quintessential horse behavior and horses will willingly run together in groups when given the opportunity, even during races. without jockeys. However, there are a number of reasons to believe that horses have not developed a desire to “win” when galloping in a group.
Horses are social animals. In the wild, to minimize their individual exposure to predators, they synchronize your movement with other horses in their group.
This synchronization involves maintaining speeds similar to those of other group members (to keep the group together), being attentive to the position of their own body and that of their neighbors to avoid collisions, and adapting their speed to terrain and environmental signals that indicate danger or imminent danger. obstacles. In nature, “winning” – that is, arriving first, well before other group members – could even have a negative effect, exposing the “winner” to increased risk of predation.
This collective behavior is the opposite of what owners, trainers and bettors expect from horses during a race.
Horse Preferences (And How Riders Ignore Them)
Horse racing depends on two horse-related factors: the horse’s innate tendency to synchronize with other horses and its ability to be trained to ignore these tendencies in response to the jockey’s signals during a race.
Trainers and jockeys also exploit each horse’s preferences. Some horses are reluctant to group with others during the race, so jockeys let them move to the front of the pack (these are “front runners“). The other horses seek the safety of the group, so the jockeys let them stay in the pack until they get closer to the winning post (they are “come from behind” winners).
Jockeys use several different interventions to counteract the horse’s innate tendency to synchronize. These could include:
ask horses to move much closer to other horses (risking the sometimes fatal injuries that are sometimes seen on the track)
traveling at speeds not of the horse’s choosing (usually at much higher speeds and for longer durations, and often maintained by use of the whip)
prevent the horse from changing course to adapt its position in relation to the other horses in the field (direct its trajectory by pressure on the mouth of the bit or whiplashes).
During the early stages of a race, jockeys rely on horses’ innate desire to stay in the group to ensure they maintain the physical effort necessary to stay in contact with the front runners. This tendency can then be reversed and the horse will act independently of the group, leave it behind and come in front in the hope of winning.
No concept of being in a race
Horses therefore probably have no idea of participating in a “race”, where the goal of their gallop is to arrive at a certain place on the track before the other horses. However, they undoubtedly know what it means to participate in a race. That is, they learn through prior experience and training what is likely to happen and what to do during a race.
And with jockeys and trainers understanding their horses’ individual preferences to maximize their chances during the race, there will always be one horse that reaches that part of the track designated as the winning post before the other horses in the group.
But as for winning horses, understanding that they are there to “win”? It is much more likely that it is the combination of natural ability, fitness and jockeying skills that explains which horse wins, rather than any innate desire of that horse to get to the winning position before other horses.
Cathrynne Henshall is a lecturer in the School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences at Charles Sturt University. This piece first appeared on The conversation.