What do horses feel at the Kentucky Derby? Mostly fear and pain – The Guardian

US audiences will be sold a tale of horses battling for glory and adulation at Churchill Downs. But the actual story is far more disturbing
For a horse, winning means nothing – they don’t even understand the concept. Yet every May US horse racing sells a narrative to draw in the public. The story goes that a group of young horses are locked in gritty pursuit of Triple Crown glory. But trophies, money and adulation are all human-made abstractions. The main concern for a horse is survival.
To be clear, what people think horses feel is not the same as what the animals themselves experience. This is what Dr Stephen Peters, a neuroscientist known for his work with both humans and horses, calls anthropomorphism: attributing human characteristics to an animal.
“The idea that horses love the event they compete in is something we’ve created. It’s a myth more for us than the horse,” Peters says.
Peters says a horse’s brain is not designed for abstract thinking. The human frontal lobe executes planning, strategy and organization, which are crucial ingredients in competitive sports. But “a horse’s brain is much more a motor and sensory organ than it is a thinking one,” Peters says.
In other words, horses don’t think like us because they can’t think like us. “Emotion is more primitive and instinctual in a horse,” Peters writes in his book Evidence Based Horsemanship, which he co-authored with reputed trainer Martin Black. “They are constantly asking: ‘Am I safe?’”
Rich Strike “didn’t know he’d won,” the Kentucky Derby last year, says Black. He goes on to explain that what the colt did feel was the need to fight after the race, something we saw as an outrider struggled to control him.
“The horse was having a chemical reaction. And had he been given more freedom maybe that [fight response] doesn’t happen,” Black says.
That “chemical reaction” was a hurricane of adrenaline and cortisol. When a horse is overtaken by its sympathetic nervous system and cannot escape it will fight. Rich Strike reacted like a horse but was punished based on human logic: the outrider struck the colt repeatedly.
ProRodeo Hall of Famer Ty Murray was criticized by many in the racing crowd when he suggested Rich Strike deserved a legal team after being assaulted by the outrider. When horses are unable to escape restraint during stress the trapped feeling can exacerbate their panic. Bits and lip and nose chains give handlers control but are the ultimate forms of restraint. Horses are incredibly sensitive, and these instruments can, and do, inflict serious pain. It is pain that horses, who have excellent memories, don’t forget.
Photos of racehorses snapped in the moments they extend full stride across the finish line show expressions of animals in fright. The tendons in their faces are corded tightly, their ears are positioned in ways that indicate frustration and confusion, their eyes are wide in panic, and their mouths, dry from anxiety, are handled violently by the bit. This is the opposite of what horses want.
“You can fool the tourists, but the natives know different,” Black says. Rich Strike was not given an option that felt safe and had his autonomy revoked.
Unfortunately, racehorses experience pain and a lack of control much of the time, whether through overexertion, restraint, or prolonged isolation. It is a wonder they are willing to go along with what the demands of their handlers. Perhaps they’ve learned that refusing humans is the more dangerous path.
Peters and Black agree that horses want stability and calm. “They are highly motivated to seek freedom from confinement, pressure, or effort,” Black writes in Evidence Based Horsemanship.
Under natural circumstances horses run from situations that provoke fear. That is not an option in the paddock area or the starting gate before a race, or in a training setting where they are misunderstood. Racehorses on the backsides of racetracks are called every insult imaginable when they don’t cooperate. Everyone in racing knows this but you won’t hear it aired this weekend during NBC’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby.
Not that fear necessarily outwardly manifests itself in horses, as some of them disassociate when under stress, Peters says. They cannot reason with their fear or soothe themselves like a human athlete can when under stress. To make things worse, doping is not uncommon in racing, and some racehorses train and compete with synthetic chemicals increasing the stress caused by naturally occurring ones.
“From ages two to four [a horse’s] attention span is like a human teenager’s,” Peters writes in Evidence Based Horsemanship. Traumatic events have the potential to create super-charged survival mode memories, or PTSD. This is obvious in horses who have left racing and entered new disciplines. They all need some degree of rehab, and many need detox.
And when they are racing, they cannot say no in the same way a human athlete can. While 2022 horse of the year Flightline does what his trainer dictates, LeBron James can speak for himself. Horses are unable to negotiate contracts or walk away from a bad situation. If they are injured or struggling with their mental health, there is no option of refusing to compete. That aspect alone highlights the questionable ethics that haunt racing despite its efforts to portray itself as just another sport.
All this often occurs in extended periods of isolation. In the US, most racehorses live at the track and spend 23 hours a day locked in a stall eating heavy concentrate grains. They train once a day for a brief gallop and then return to their box stall until the next day. A privileged few may get a short afternoon walk in a dirt yard. But because physical preservation is a priority, racehorses must be restrained and controlled (conditions in Europe are generally better and horses are given more freedom). “Grinding tasks, drilling them, makes rigid neuronal pathways and a less versatile brain,” Peters says. “They have to have some mental stimulation.”
In essence keeping horses caged dumbs them down. Horses are intensely curious and learn through touch. They are not allowed the opportunity to explore their environment while living at the track. They are there to do a job and that job is to be a winning machine, not a horse.
The grooms and stablehands who look after racehorses often care immensely for their animals. But a horse’s brain is wired to be with other horses in a setting where they experience freedom together, foraging side by side. Nothing a human can offer, no matter how attentive or loving they are, can replace that. Peters emphasizes that without the opportunity to bond and socialize, a horse’s serotonin levels will drop significantly. They can become depressed, despondent, frustrated, neurotic, anxious, and physically ill. Up to 90% of racehorses are affected by gastric ulcers, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Horses’ performance-driven diets only exacerbate the problem.
What then can be done to improve the wellbeing of racehorses? And, even more importantly, is the industry willing to make meaningful change, even if it isn’t cost effective?
“It [horse racing] is not going to go away, so let’s do what we can to change it. There are barns that are in it for the horse and have a good balance on meeting the financial demands but are not sacrificing horses. They don’t run them until their wheels fall off,” says Black.
There are prudent horsewomen and men in racing, yet a system based on profit that asks so much of young horses and generally ignores them from a psychological standpoint inevitably harms them. Besides, treating horses better may produce improved results on the track.
“A more relaxed horse might be a faster horse because tight and tense means a shorter stride,” says Peters.
Science, not necessarily tradition, is the gold standard. The prevention of the deaths of hundreds of racehorses every year due to overexertion is one area where the industry seems to be investing in science. Our brains allow us to love, respect, and understand horses. Perhaps those qualities will help the racing world move a step closer to civilization.
Elizabeth Banicki worked for two decades as an exercise rider in the horse racing industry.

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