Do horses have human emotions?

California Chrome

By: Steven Marcus

California Chrome

California Chrome

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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AUTHOR: Amber Barnes
  • If what he says is true , how does he accountto this???? There have been many Thoroughbreds that had to dragged from the Winners circle after racing they thought they had Won ?????? One of my thoroughbreds did that ALL THE TIME !!! w IN OR lose HE ALWAYS THOUGHT HE wON !!!!!!!!

    May 31, 2014
  • Margaret

    Penny Chenery said that Secretariat knew when he had lost cause he’d go way back in his stall and just be be “mad”. I think one way a horse knows the difference is when he goes to the winners circle and gets all that lavish praise but when he loses he goes straight back to the barn.

    John Sheriffs never said if Zenyatta knew is she lost that race against Blame. I’m sure she was confused that Mikey didn’t allow her to stop and take in the moment as he always had. And she didn’t go to the winners circle as she always had. I’m certain that she knew on some level that something was very different and it was confusing. But her people were there so that part wasn’t.

    Many years ago my horse accidentally clunked me in the head as I was trimming one foreleg. He picked up the other foot to get at flies that wouldn’t leave us alone. Only he caught my the corner of my forehead. He turned tail on me and wouldn’t let me touch him for a good ten mins. Finally he I was able to convince him to let me near.

    It was a beautiful thing. Sure it started off least desirable but he got petted, and told that I knew it was an accident. No he didn’t understand human. But he understood the tone and knew that it was okay. I told him how humans shake hands when making up, so we shook hand to hoof. That started our last year together. We became absolute best friends.

    May 31, 2014
    • What a beautiful Story of Love and understanding of a woman and her horse !!!! There are many ways of communication it doesnt matter which is used , there is a wonderful magical bond that surely was present here……

      June 1, 2014
  • Amy

    I read about Secretariat too and he did pout when he lost a race. His groom said he would put his nose in a corner and stay that way for hours. My horses get jealous of one another if I give one too much attention. Horses have emotions just not to the same degree as we do. We need to understand their emotions.

    May 31, 2014
  • There is another Bond that is pure Magic it is the one that is felt right through to the very soul and i am sure that everyone here has felt it , it is the one that when riding your horse , your horse , you and the land become one….There is nothing quite like it It sends chills of wonderment up my Spine … I do not ride any more and I truly miss this feeling !!!! I have arthritis in my neck

    June 1, 2014