Gone forever to the races
Pull your money out
Call your mother, tell her something
Never go without
Pause a moment, just a moment
Smoothing down your hair
Gone forever to forever
Feeling like despair
- The Races, by The Bird and The Bee
A horse knows that it's a horse. This might seem obvious from the fact that a horse generally behaves in the way a horse does - they eat, they muck around, occasionally trot along, and do the kinds of things one would reasonably accept a horse to do. There is, however, a more interesting dimension to the fact that a horse knows that it is a horse. A horse can recognise itself in its reflection. This too might seem obvious - all kinds of animals can recognise themselves in their reflections; cats, magpies, chimps, and elephants can all look at a reflection of themselves and understand that that reflection is not a different animal. But for horses, elephants, apes, and us, to be able to recognise the reflection in the mirror as not a different entity but as their self is the beginning of an understanding of self-awareness. This invites the idea that a horse can think in an aware way about their own bodies. This invites the idea that a horse knows it is, and what it knows it is may very well be a horse.
Horses are aware of their bodies, as demonstrated through mirror-testing research. Horses are not aware of other things. Horses aren't aware that there are different breeds and lineages of horse that do different things. Clydesdale horses are large, sturdy and used to pulling carts and heavy loads. Standardbred horses are used for harness racing in their youths and for pleasure riding in their retirement. Thoroughbred horses are bred for speed, and so they are most commonly used as racehorses. Horses are, broadly, unaware of these delineations. Horses are not aware that when they are born, they are generally born and raised to fulfil a role within a system. They are sturdy, companionable beasts of burden, even if they are unaware of their partly utilitarian relationship to their less hairy bipedal masters. Horses are not aware that because of that use-value based relationship, the fact that a horse IS at all may be the product of careful planning and pricing, all to bring about an end.
Before a race horse ever hits the track, the trajectory of its existence is carefully plotted. At the highest level of performance, horses aren't conceived from love, but from ledgers. Studs with an appropriately glittering history are paired with mares of prospectively complementary genetic profiles, and that mare is bred with the intent of giving birth to offspring with appropriate genetic and performance potential. Once born, the foal commences a training regime designed to maximise its performance potential. This regime is supported by diets, environments, and exercise prepared in a manner as actuarial as the circumstances of their conception. The racehorse is working material, even though the horse can look at itself and have an idea that it is a horse.
Once old enough, that material is worked even more thoroughly. Yearling horses are put through further regimes of preparation with the intention of winning races on behalf of the syndicate or owner. By the time the horse is two years old, the horse will have begun racing, and that tenure of performance typically lasts less than three years. At this point, the horse has spent half its life in curated preparation for the other half of its life, which is competitive performance. A horse doesn't know all of this. Simply, a horse knows it is a horse. A horse's worldview is innocent of the machine into which they are born. A horse cannot see, and cannot comprehend the nature of a performance industry that influences the precursor circumstances of its birth, the immediate circumstances of its life, and the trajectory of its retirement following its withdrawal from the competitive circuit. A horse cannot understand the nature of monetary investment, of biological curation, of banks, of punters, of the gala and the glamour of the race day, the government, the regulation, the subsidies that determine what kind of feed they get.
A horse knows it's a horse.
It's easy to look at this context and think that it's cruel. That's not the case. It's more accurate to say that the system is callous. Mechanical, even. The system isn't trying to be brutal, it just needs to be as a consequence of the outcome that it needs to produce, which is money for its stakeholders that satisfies their desire for return on investment. The horse does not know what is happening or why it is happening. The machine has goals beyond their comprehension. From the horse's perspective, it's not the machine that makes them run. A horse knows it's a horse, and it doesn't know what's going on.
If a horse had the intelligence of a human so that it could look at the system in which it exists, realising that its species was functionally enslaved by walking monkeys that planned them, trained them, competed them against each other and then discarded them at the end of their lives, what would that horse do? What would it do with the knowledge that the pain that it and its cohorts suffered was in service of an inscrutable motive based on drivers so far removed from its physical reality so as to be meaningless? The horse would view itself and its species in a new horrifying way, while understanding that it was powerless from before the moment of its birth until long after its death.
The cosmic horror just happens.
Today is Melbourne Cup Day. There's going to be a horse race, and the banks are going to put the rates up again. Nobody knows the extent to which they're going to rise, but we do know that there are some likelihoods. Like the winner of a horse race, all we can do is place our bets in the immediacy of the moment and speculate as to the long-term outcomes. That's all we can do, given our limited power. We're aware of the situation, aware of our tools, aware of our roles and our projection, but we can't really do anything. Maybe the horses are blessed in this situation because they aren't cursed with the awareness of the limits of their own power. Unlike horses, we as participants in a society that was developed in advance of our presence in it and which will persist long past our departure from it are aware of the way things may go, the things we might need to do, and the difficulties we need to face. As animal participants, we are a little more aware of the machines through which we move, the processes that refine and prepare us, and the races we run every day of our lives. In this way we're different from horses - we can look at the social, economic, professional and political systems in which we exist and be fully horrified of their callous, mechanical operation as they move human units through their processes for ends as inscrutable to us as a jet airliner would be to a horse.
The difference between horses and humans is that we can change the systems to make them more accessible, equitable, sustainable, and habitable. The world we live in was designed for our participation, not our pleasure, in the same way that a horse's life is curated for it to produce dividends for its owners and not to support the fundamental dignity inherent in the heart of the creature. How we live our lives is at the same time not up to us but in our power to change, because the truth is that if the world we live in was designed for our participation then it can be consciously and meaningfully designed in a better way. We know this because we've done this before.
A horse knows it's a horse. A human knows it's a human. We both have an awareness of our bodies, our sensations, and our lives. A horse runs in a race. A human runs for the bus so that it can make it to work. A horse's race is over in less than ten minutes. A human's race is run over a lifetime. A racehorse retires to the stud farm, the mountains, or the knackery. A human retires first to their home, then to a retirement village, then to a nursing home, and maybe to a hospital bed. Regardless if you walk on four legs or two, if you wear a harness or a tailored suit, or if you shod your feet in steel shoes or leather ones, the end is the same. Unless you buck the trend and push for change, you'll end up right where the machine wants you to be because that's the plan, and it's been there longer than you have been and longer than you will be.
Good luck at the races!