Racehorses clearly understand that the idea is for them to run fast, and they also can see that there are other horses alongside them which are doing the same thing. But do they understand that there is any significance is what their position is vis a vis the other horses? Or do they think it’s just them and a bunch of other horses running along?
Some may, some may not.
Some race horses clearly strive to get ahead in a race. There are reasonable explanations for why without assuming they understand winning or losing a race. For one thing, they may have no idea horse races are a short term event with a finish line to strive for. And we don’t know how well any horse will do on any day without a jockey riding him. It seems clear horses like to lead when they run but it’s not clear how much further meaning can be derived from that.
Some do, some like to be in the middle of the herd. From what I can tell, horses have personalities that can differ considerably.
Dick Francis, long-time jockey and later a successful novelist, said that horses have an instinct to race each other, and that some seemed genuinely depressed when they lost.
For what that’s worth…
I meant to say “some horses” there, it’s obvious not all do. And yes, horses have their individual personalities, on any given day it’s not certain how a horse will behave, some horses always want to lead, some need to be in the mood. If you have a dog or a cat or a teenager you might recognize some common personality traits that horses have with them. I think horses have varying opinions of humans too, I spent most of my time with horses when I was a kid but I still remember how horses would size up strangers.
I think it comes down to their genes; do horses have an instinct to run ahead of the herd? I feel the answer to this would come from studying wild herds of horses and see if some of them try to outrace the rest of the herd. They may; this is the kind of display that’s often associating with mating behavior.
And in one of his novels, someone asked the jockey the same question as in the OP, and the jockey replied that some some horses know they are racing, some don’t, and the better horses usually know they are racing and like to win.
Don’t top racehorses get better times when they’re racing than when they’re running alone? That would seem to suggest that they know they’re competing against other horses.
While some horses undoubtedly do like being in the middle of the pack, I expect that they mostly don’t end up as racehorses.
That could be adrenaline from fear, perhaps – in practice, there’s not a ton of noise and chaos around them, but in a real race there’s all kinds of crazy noise and activity around them that may ramp up the fear and adrenaline.
Some will only put out the effort when they’re racing, like Exterminator, who had basically zero temper, could be ridden bareback by children and looked half asleep most of the time. He did poorly at solo workouts and only turned in good times when running against another horse. When he got to the track he’d stand quiet in the gate, still looking half asleep, until the gate opened, when he’d take off and kick everyone’s ass. I bet they were kicking themselves for having him gelded before he won the Derby at 30-1.
Secretariat took such huge leads in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes that he couldn’t have cared about the pack of horses so far behind him. He still may have understood he was in a race and charged ahead as fast as he could, but he wasn’t being driven by the other horses close at his heels.
I’ve heard trainers say that their horses ran faster times back on the farm, perhaps for those horses there was no place like home sweet home, or it’s maybe it’s just puffery from the trainers.