Do racehorses know that they're in a race?

Presumably they know that the jockey wants them to run as fast as possible but do they know that the objective is to beat all the other horses?

Can an animal understand the concept of a “race”?

A tricky semantic question, whether they understand the concept of race. They certainly know the difference between trackwork and racing. It is common for racehorses to be lethargic workers but keen racehorses. Often in races when a horse dumps its jockey it will keep racing the other horses. I remember an old Australian horse Passion Moon lost its rider in a race then ran a brilliant tactical race to win, trotted back to the enclosure and enterred the winners stall.

Ruffian will be along in a moment to clear this up, but I believe she once said that horses have been known to “sulk” when they lose.

I used to own a horse who couldn’t stand to walk a few paces back. She had to be in front. With another horse of similar nature, they would each speed up in turn, walking a little faster, then trotting, and eventually running flat out unless the riders put a stop to it.

It may have been a walk in the park to us, but it was certainly a race for them.

PS - I didn’t realize before that Ruffian took her screen name from the filly. I thought she started bar fights or something. Silly me…

I would think most pack/herd animals understand the difference between leader and loser. Put two dominant ones together and they will compete to be leader.

Get two dogs and throw a frisbee. They will race to get it.

Back in my high school days, I used to go horseback riding with my friend after school.

We would bring out these hardened stable nags for a run through the suburbs of Orinda and Lafayette. Trust me, if one of the other horses got within a whisker of approaching the mount you were on, all Hell broke loose!

There is no better way to force an uncooperative equine to make tracks than to have another one get past it by a microscopic whisker of a lead.

They are also trained for it, in the sense that they know when they enter the gates that they have to run. Horseracing plays on their natural competitive instinct (which is, IIRC, stronger in males, hence the predominance of colts in the sport), but also on the training they receive. Many horses will clock slower in training than in races, unless they have another horse to train next to.

Can’t say anything about horses, but my cats sure know the concept of racing. My Siamese female loves to race me up the stairs all the time. If I’m halfway up when she gets to the bottom of the stairs and she doesn’t think she can win, she’ll wait until I make it to the top, and then come up later at a leisurely pace. But, if I intentionally walk back down a couple steps, she’ll run past me. My old cat would stop running one step from the top if I beat her, and sit there like she never intended to make it to the top in the first place.

I asked a race horse trainer a similar question once. His response was: “They understand the concept of racing. I just can’t get them to understand the concept of the finish line.”

Along in a moment I wasn’t, but here I am nonetheless.

Horses know that it’s a race and not a workout, certainly, but not all of them quite know they need to be first. Horses, like people, have varying levels of intelligence (granted, on a limited spectrum) in conjunction with varying levels of talent. Several horses figure out the goal is to be first, and I would wager (hah hah) most of them do.

What’s curious is how so many different horses take different interpretations of this need to win. A few studies in types:

**Ferdinand, ** the 1986 Derby winner, was notorious for quitting once he made the lead. Knowing that being first was the goal, he often relaxed, pricked up his ears, and subsequently lost to a late on-rusher. It was because of this habit that Shoemaker waited until the last possible moment to put him on the lead in his 1987 Breeder’s Cup Classic win.

Alysheba, the 1987 Derby winner, and 1997 Derby winner Silver Charm loved winning–and in particular, looking another horse in the eye and not allowing them to pass. As a result, they rarely won by much–but usually had much left in the tank. Knowing that Silver Charm liked seeing the horses he was defeating, the jockey on Touch Gold in the 1997 Belmont Stakes (where Charm was running for the Triple Crown) came up way on the outside, out of SC’s view, to defeat him. Alysheba, meanwhile, literally knocked his jockey on his butt with the sudden acceleration he unleashed in the 1988 BC Classic when Seeking the Gold started cutting into his lead. Horses like these with such fierce competitive natures are often difficult to gage talent-wise because they run just fast enough to be in front of another.

Secretariat, Ruffian, Whirlaway and several other of the equine legends had a different approach to winning: they blew the doors off of everyone else in the race, running hell-fire with several lengths of daylight inbetween them and the next horse. While astonishing to watch, most trainers discourage this kind of victory because it wastes the horse’s energy.

And yes, rastahomie, horses have been known to “sulk” when defeated. When passed in the stretch, some horses just throw in the towel and quit. It can truly be an ego crusher for them, believe it or not.

Others become furious in their frustration and lash out at the faster victor. “The Savage” is a photo of two horses locked in a duel–and the frustrated loser has his ears flat against his head, eyes rolled back, head turned sharply, and teeth firmly sunk into the neck of his rival. If I can find that photo online, I’ll link it here.

Some have also conjectured that Easy Goer was trying to lash out at Sunday Silence when unable to pass the eventual winner in their stretch-long duel in the 1989 Preakness.

Fascinating, eh?

Must not have been too easy going, eh?

Embarrassingly enough, it took me a moment to get that Juan. Having a duh moment, I suppose.

Here’s what I could find thus far of “The Savage.”

It’s a small image, but you get the idea. What’s interesting is the image is reversed–in the original, Great Prospector was on the inside, not outside.

About half correct, mneomosyn. Horses will indeed clock slower in training, but that is not because there isn’t a horse to work with. Trainers want them to keep fit, but not overexert; a race should be the only time the run at maximum speed. For example, a horse preparing for a 6 furlong (3/4 mile) race may work 5 furlongs in 1:02, whereas during the race it may be run in :57. (Also note that horses rarely work the entire distance of a race entered.)

Horses do sometimes work together to learn a certain competitiveness as well as simple maneuvering. However, trainers will just as often, if not more often, work a horse singly.

Some, like my friend’s champion Kona Gold, have to work when the track is virtually empty as he gets too motivated when there are other horses around. They’ve even had to resort to training him on the inside training track, because he’s learned the main track is where the action is at!