Whipping race horses ineffective, study says

By Daisy Dumas 7 February 2011
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It might be an ancient tradition, but whipping does not make horses run faster.

WHIPPING HORSES TO SPEED them up is an age-old tradition, but its effectiveness is in doubt, according to new research from the University of Sydney.

Condoned by racing bodies the world over, whipping is believed to spur acceleration in horses in the final stages of races. But a new report, authored by two veterinarians and funded by the RSPCA, shows that whipping “did not significantly affect velocity…enough to change the likelihood of being placed in the first three.”

In fact, the research showed that horses achieved the highest speeds when a whip wasn’t used. Tired horses were found to be whipped the most. The report concluded that “under an ethical framework that considers costs paid by horses against benefits accrued by humans, these data make whipping tired horses very difficult to justify.” 

Influence of whipping and its regulation

Although there are few studies that show what horses experience when whipped, it is widely believed that they are used precisely because they cause pain and discomfort, said the RSPCA’s chief scientist Dr Bidda Jones. In Australia, jockeys are allowed to strike at their own discretion in the last 100 m of a race.

The recent introduction of further rules which allow only the use of padded whips, the whipping only of horses ‘in contention’, and the whipping only of the hindquarters was hoped to address the concerns surrounding the welfare of racing horses. “The introduction of padded whips and other rules was a significant improvement, Bidda says. “Questions remain whether it is necessary to use a whip at all. This study shows that whipping to increase speed is not a valid reason.”

According to the report, published in the latest edition of the journal PLoS One, the critical factor for successful performance are the placings of the horses at the 400 m mark, before the horses are even whipped.

Though the authors of the report where assisted by the Australian Racing Board (ARB), the findings contradict the opinion of the ARB’s Andrew Harding who told Australian Geographic: “The study says that if no one used the whip in racing then there would still be a winner in each race. That is glib… The use of a riding crop within the tightly limited controls that the rules of racing prescribe is one of the influences on the results of each race.”

No sense whipping a tired horse

Report co-author Professor Paul McGreevy says that horses are very reactive to tactile stimulation. “All the evidence suggests hitting horses with any whip would cause pain,” he says. “What we need to do is celebrate great genetics, great horse preparation, great riding; and we can still have races and horses will still win them without the whip.

“I’m not saying stop racing; I’m saying let’s do it better. We’re talking about a sport that currently uses pain to accelerate animals,” he says. “The industry needs to give horses the benefit of the doubt and accept that it is possible to have horse racing and winners without whipping tired horses.”

As veteran jockey ‘master’ Eddie Arcuro once put it, “there’s no sense in whipping a tired horse.” Bidda would agree: “The RSPCA would like a continued tightening of whip rules and we’d like to see the eventual ban of whips used as a performance aid.”

The ARB has questioned the limitations of the report and is funding its own research on the use of whips in horse-racing. As it stands, Norway is the only country to have outlawed whipping in horse races.