Do horses know when they are competing against each other?

Though we might like to think so, horses aren’t interested in winning blue ribbons or trophies. Neuroscientist Janet Jones, PhD, explains why.

Question: Do racehorses and other equine athletes have competitive instincts? It seems like some racehorses love to run, but do they have any concept that they are supposed to run faster than the other horses and cross the finish line first? And along those same lines, can a show horse possibly know which rounds really matter? Does an Olympic show jumper know when it’s a medal round? We hear about horses who “bring their A game” to competition, but how do they know to do that?

Neuroscientist and horse trainer Janet L Jones, PhD, responds:

It would be the rare racehorse who “loves to run.” Most would prefer to stay near their buddies in quiet, safe places and munch on high-quality hay. What looks like “love” to us may signify something quite different in animals with prey brains. In the wild, horses run when they are afraid. 

Racehorses run because that’s what they have been trained to do. (Adobe Stock)

People assume that horses “love to run” in races or that they “bring their ‘A game’” to important events for several reasons. First, there is anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to animals. Anthropomorphism is very common and causes a lot of problems in the horse world. We tend to assume that horse brains are simply smaller versions of our own, but in fact equine brains differ significantly from human brains. As a result, they produce dissimilar perceptions, actions and reactions.

Horse brains are different

One key difference: The equine brain does not have a prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that allows for executive function. Central to planning, organization and a host of mental qualities considered uniquely human, executive function includes the capacity to plan for an upcoming goal that will require extraordinary performance.

Lacking executive function, horses live in the current moment, and they are driven by events happening in their environment. They are extremely intelligent but do not conjure up goals, evaluate options, strategize future actions, consider consequences or judge outcomes. That’s why a lot of us like them so much!

Training is a factor

Training is also a factor. Racehorses run because that’s what’s they’ve been trained to do upon leaving the starting gate. Jumpers speed up, turn tighter corners, and jump a series of obstacles when they pass the timing camera, by virtue of extensive training.

Trainers differ widely in their methods—some train by reward, many by negative reinforcement, others by observation or testing, a few by punish- ment in the form of force or fear. The best trainers combine all methods and eschew the last one.

The role of emotional mirroring

Finally, horses are capable of emotional mirroring. They are exquisitely sensitive to their riders, picking up the slightest twinge of emotion and mirroring that emotion themselves. Beginning a medal round or a Grand Prix, even professional riders have strong emotions fueled by adrenaline: exhilaration, fear, pride, anxiety, hope. Their horses, then, will display the same emotions. 

Human emotional arousal sharpens every aspect of performance so that the horse will detect many unconscious behaviors of tension or excitement in their riders. This causes the horse to sharpen his own performance—not because he knows he’s in a medal class, but because he knows his rider is psyched up, on point and ready for serious action.

Our Expert:

Janet Jones, PhD, applies brain research to the training  of horses and riders. She earned her doctorate in cognitive  science from the University of California, Los Angeles and  taught the neuroscience of perception, language, memory and thought for 23 years. Her internationally bestselling book, Horse Brain, Human Brain, is available in seven languages formatted in print, electronic media, and audiobook.

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