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Do horses have human emotions?

Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome stands

Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome stands outside his barn after arriving at Belmont Park on May 20, 2014 in Elmont, New York. Credit: Getty Images / Al Bello

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 racehorses, 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 racehorses 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."

Losing can be frustrating

Thoroughbred trainer and former Smithtown resident Charlie LoPresti, who has attended numerous clinics given by Brannaman and generally agrees with his philosophy, does believe horses know they are in a race. The Lexington, Kentucky-based LoPresti trains two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who suffered his only loss last year to Silver Max amid heavy rain in the Shadwell Turf Mile.

"He was mad, as if to say, 'You know I could have beaten that horse,' " LoPresti said. " 'I just couldn't get a hold of this racetrack. The racetrack beat me, the horse didn't beat me.' He just looked mad. You just know the difference when they're mad. And he was mad.

"He wasn't depressed. You could just tell he was frustrated. He was trying to run and he couldn't get there. I don't think it ruined his day. I don't think that horse stood in that stall all day long and was totally depressed and thought, 'Oh, I'm a loser.' I don't think horses rationalize like that. If you play golf and you have a bad day, you go home and throw your golf clubs. I think horses get frustrated sometimes. I don't think it ruins their day."

No human emotion

Julie Goodnight, a Certified Horsemanship Association master instructor and clinician in Colorado, said: "If you look purely from a scientific view in terms of neuroscience and what we think we understand about brains and how they work, a lot of human attributes are attributed to a higher-leveled portion of the brain that horses don't possess. People are just thinking with their human brain.

"Horses cannot process information in the same way. Horses live very much in the moment. They don't think about the past or the future. Humans are almost the complete opposite. At that moment those three horses are running for the finish line, is there a competitive drive? Yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, but as soon as the race is over, he's going into the next moment. He doesn't go back to the barn thinking how he could have run better, what he is going to do next time. It's over.

"It's anthropomorphic to say he goes back to the barn and pouts over it. Horses live very much in the moment; they don't think about the past or the future. Humans are almost the complete opposite."

Horse behaviorist Jennifer Williams, based near Waco, Texas, said: "Racing has got to be far more about us and our egos and our needs than theirs. The horse, he ran, maybe he enjoyed running and maybe he enjoyed being in front. That's where, to him, it ends."

Horses certainly are not devoid of emotion, Brannaman said: "Horses will get confident, unsure, worried, become bold, timid, hot, hungry, relaxed, tense. They don't have greed, envy, spite and hatred, all of the things that you could probably attribute to a human. Those traits a horse doesn't have. God didn't give the horse those traits, and maybe that's why the human is so attracted to him."

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