Do horses have human emotions?
By: Steven Marcus
When California Chrome appears on the track at Belmont for the final leg of the Triple Crown, the mere presence of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will excite the human race of fans eager to lavish the same affection on this equine as they would any two-legged athlete on the verge of a historic achievement in sports.
So what does the horse think about all the pomp in this circumstance?
He’s really not thinking about it, according to Wyoming’s Dan “Buck” Brannaman. He’s the inspiration behind the 1998 film “The Horse Whisperer,” featuring Robert Redford playing Tom Booker, the Brannaman-like character with an uncanny knack for understanding horses and their behavior.
Brannaman, 52, is evocative of 20th century American cowboy and humorist Will Rogers. Brannaman was abused as a child and turned to horses for comfort. It became his life’s work. He has conducted clinics worldwide, with a clientele ranging from thoroughbred trainers to trail riders.
Champion race horses, he said, do not bask in the spotlight of adulation in the winner’s circle. All horses, he said, are genetically predisposed to being in the lead. It is their nature to “lead the pack. That’s what herd animals do. That’s what they would do if they were running across the desert in the middle of Nevada; it’s in their nature to sort of press on and go as fast as they can; the herd effect has a lot to do with that.
“As far as the contentment a horse gets — yeah, everybody’s going to love on him and pet him and be affectionate when it’s all over with, but when they put the wreath of flowers around his neck, as far as the horse thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve been waiting my whole life to have that beautiful rose wreath around my neck,’ he’s looking at it thinking, ‘Is that edible?’
“The human can romanticize it for their own satisfaction, but the horses are doing their job. People love to hear romantic stories, such as the horse is so preoccupied with his next race he is wondering what he has to do going down the backstretch. To me, that’s ridiculous. As far as race horses feeling like they want to win a race, rather than get second place, that’s sort of classic anthropomorphism and humans are always wanting to attribute human characteristics to horses. They are a different animal. It doesn’t make them less, but it certainly makes ‘em different.”
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