Contrary to the long-held views of some in the racing industry, Australian researchers have found evidence that whipping racehorses hurts them—and doesn’t improve race safety, speed or integrity. Heather Vaile reports
Towards the end of 2020, two world-first research papers were published in the open-access journal Animals about the contentious practice of whipping racehorses.
One study was co-authored by a team led by prominent veterinary pathologist Dr Lydia Tong and Sydney University’s Sydney School of Veterinary Science’s Professor Paul McGreevy. Their aim was to not only improve understanding of horse skin with respect to pain sensitivity, and to see how it compares with humans, but also “to inform the debate surrounding the use of whip strikes in horse racing where there is increasing pressure on the global racing industry to justify whip use”.
Using quantitative research methods, the team examined microscopic samples of skin from 10 deceased humans and 20 euthanased horses to explore the differences between the two species, in terms of both skin structure and nerve supply.
In the case of the equine samples, the researchers focused on ‘gluteal skin’ (from the horse’s rump) because this is where the animals are most often struck by whips during races.
The key finding from the study was there are no significant differences between humans and horses when it comes to either the concentration of nerve endings in the epidermis, or in the relative thickness of this layer of skin.
According to the authors, “…the superficial pain-sensitive epidermal layer of horse skin is as richly innervated and is of equivalent thickness as human skin, demonstrating that humans and horses have the equivalent key anatomical structures to detect cutaneous pain”.
They also found that although horse skin was found to be thicker than the human equivalent in the dermis (the next layer of skin between the epidermis and subcutaneous tissues), this middle layer does not contain nerve endings and so does not respond to pain stimulus in the same way.
This essentially means that horses are not insulated from the pain generated during a whip strike, despite what many in the racing industry choose to believe.
Commenting on the findings Professor McGreevy said: “From this, we can deduce that horses are likely to feel as much pain as humans would when being whipped.”
The researchers also point out that flight animals such as horses have evolved to run away from painful stimulation of their hindquarters, and in the natural world, this kind of pain is most likely to occur during an encounter with a predator—clearly a terrifying experience for any animal.
“Repeated strikes of the whip in horses that are fatigued as they end a race are likely to be distressing and cause suffering,” Professor McGreevy added. “A horse’s loss of agency as it undergoes this kind of repeated treatment is thought to lead to learned helplessness.”
The second study, published in the same scientific journal two weeks earlier, also involved Professor McGreevy, but this time with Dr Kirrilly Thompson from the University of South Australia and other colleagues from the University of Sydney and Animal Aid in the UK.
Dr Thompson is an adjunct senior researcher who has spent 10 years researching human-horse interactions. For this study, she and her colleagues compared ‘whip-free’ races in the UK (called ‘hands and heels’) where whips are held but not used, with the ‘whipping-permitted’ races we are more familiar with in Australia.
In the ‘hands and heels’ racing series used for apprentice jockeys in the UK since 1999, riders are allowed to carry whips, but they are only permitted to use them in exceptional circumstances, e.g. such as when trying to avoid a collision.
The Australian researchers painstakingly analysed reports for 126 horse races (67 races with whips to 59 without) involving 1178 starters over a three-year period but found no statistically significant differences between race stewards’ reports in terms of interference or movement on course, incidents concerning jockey behaviour or even race finishing times. The analysis was controlled for variables including the number of horses, the racetrack surface characteristics on the day, and race distance.
According to Dr Thompson, “…we found that whipping doesn’t work. And in particular, whipping doesn’t make horses run any faster. When we looked at the finishing times of the races, there was no statistically significant difference between the two types of races there either.
“So really, we can’t find anything to recommend the use of whips. Their use is not associated with speed, steering or safety so there is no reason to expect any negative outcome of going whip free across the board. Plus, given welfare concerns and increasing public distaste for the whipping of animals in a public spectacle, we can only see positive outcomes for horses, jockeys and the racing industry.”
Although Racing Australia has yet to comment on the two research studies, a Racing Victoria (RV) proposal to phase out whip use in races was tabled at a Racing Australia board meeting in September 2020, and again in November 2020, but no decision was reached either way.
Following the November 2020 meeting, Racing Victoria said in a statement that considerations around whip use will continue to be “a key priority for the organisation in the weeks and months ahead”.
It continued: “Racing Victoria (RV) outlined in September 2020 its belief that the current national whip rules are no longer appropriate, and that whip reform is vital for the future of our sport.
“RV yesterday formally tabled its position at the Racing Australia Board meeting. The details of the discussions are a matter for Racing Australia. RV reaffirms that it is a willing and active participant in the review of the national whip rules being undertaken by Racing Australia’s Riding Advisory Protocols Committee.
“RV will continue to advocate for whip reform, which we believe is essential if racing is to retain its existing audiences and to ensure that it’s attractive for the fans and employees of tomorrow.”
Dr Tong, Professor McGreevy and Dr Thompson are hopeful that the combined weight of their research will add further weight to RV’s push for reform within the horse racing industry.
“It can only be good for the sport … we’d like to think that our data is providing the evidence to expedite a direction that the industry already looks to be taking and we are excited about the benefits for horse welfare,” Dr Thompson said.