‘A Theatre of Thrashing’: the whip in racing

Last night, popular ABC science program Catalyst did a segment on the use of the whip on racehorses (you can download Episode 8 here, or watch it on iview for the next week or so).

The padded whip, and new rules regarding its use, came into effect in Australia five years ago, in 2009. However, research indicates that it has not been the panacea against accusations of animal cruelty that the racing industry might have hoped.

The debate, put simply, comes down to this: whipping hurts the horse vs whipping doesn’t hurt the horse. The program made a point to give equal airtime to those representing both sides of the issue; those who shared their views included jockeys, trainers, and Chief Executive of the Australian Racing Board Peter McGauran on the pro-whip side, and animal welfare scientists Prof Paul McGreevy, Dr David Evans, and Dr Andrew McLean, among others, who presented more cautionary evidence about the effects of the whip.

This evidence includes a study done by McGreevy at the Gosford Races (an audio-visual of which also appeared in the Spirited exhibition at the National Museum of Australia), which found that 75% of whip strikes fell in the wrong position on the horse (according to the regulations), and 64% of which went beyond the padded section of the whip, with the hard shaft contacting the horse.

McGreevy and Evans also did another study, in which six practicing jockeys were asked to whip a dummy horse, fitted with a pressure sensor, to determine if there was any difference in force between forehand strikes (restricted) and backhand strikes (unrestricted). Their findings were that, when using their dominant hand, jockeys delivered backhanded strikes that were often more forceful than their forehanded strikes!

Countering this finding is the research of Dr Glenys Noble, Dr Peter Knight, and masters student Jessica Dodd, who also used a dummy horse mounted with a pressure sensor to measure strike force, and who concluded that backhanded strikes were less forceful than forehanded strikes. While there was no mention of the different methodologies employed by each of these studies, the video footage appeared to show a difference in the positioning of the pressure sensor. In the McGreevy experiment the sensor appeared to cover the entire section of the dummy horse behind the saddle, while in the Noble research it seemed that only a small sensor, taped to just one part of the ‘horse’, was used. The Catalyst producers also pointed out that McGreevy et al’s research has been published in peer-reviewed journals, while Noble et al’s research, which was partly funded by the racing industry, has not.

The question that inevitably emerges from all this is, is the whip really necessary?

It was pointed out that Black Caviar, perhaps Australia’s most famous racehorse ‘since Phar Lap’,* was rarely whipped in races. Sports commentator Patrick Smith once described Australian racing as ‘a theatre of thrashing’, comparing it unfavourably to the racing scene of Britain, where the use of the whip is much more tightly regulated. [1]

According to jockey Hugh Bowman, horses ‘need a whip … to help them focus.’ However, Bowman also acknowledges that ‘no matter how much you hit them, they can only go so fast.’ Fellow jockey Chris Symonds believes that the sound of the whip ‘persuades the horse to move forward’, while trainer Chris Weller sees it as a ‘guidance tool.’ Chief Executive of the ARB McGauran stressed that members of the racing industry ‘cared tenderly and lovingly for the horses’, and was keen to put across the idea that, if the whips did hurt the horses, there would be behavioral evidence of it, through what he called ‘shifting’. According to McGauran, ‘a horse will shift if it’s in pain,’ though he himself concluded that was ‘unless it’s conditioned not to.’

Dr Lydia Tong pointed out that, as prey animals, horses were among species who had an evolutionary tendency to mask pain. This means that they may well be feeling pain, while showing no outward signs of it at all. Further, Tong demonstrated that human epidermis was actually thicker than horse epidermis – not only that, but there was a higher density of nerve fibres in the horse sample. Both skin samples were taken from the flank, that is, the sensitive skin that occurs between the lower ribs and the top of the hip. This research must surely overturn the oft-cited view that horses have tougher skin than humans, once and for all!

Inevitably, presenter Dr Jonica Newby allowed herself to be subjected to a strike with the whip, and a thermal imaging camera was used to record the resulting trauma below the skin surface (echoing a similar undertaking by McGreevy, who published an article on The Conversation detailing his own experiment with whipping late last year). Newby’s thigh at the strike point was inflamed, and a bruise developed the next day. Newby herself was led to conclude that ‘the padded whip can inflict pain.’

While McGauran was quick to reassure viewers that, if conclusive evidence emerged proving that the whip caused pain, then it would ‘definitely, definitely’ be restricted, or even abolished altogether, however it’s unlikely to be as simple as that. Elsewhere, a number of critics of the whip have pointed out the role that gambling plays in perpetuating whip use – the idea being that use of the whip demonstrates the horse is being ridden to its full capacity. [2] With gambling big business in Australia, and a major supporter of the racing industry, it’s unlikely that anything as radical as whip-free racing will be implemented any time soon, even if equine pain can conclusively be proven.

As for the adrenalin coursing through a horse’s body at the time they are whipped, which many people believe means the horse doesn’t feel it, let me tell you that as someone who plays roller derby – a full-contact and highly physical sport – you might not feel those hits so much when they’re delivered on the track mid-bout, but you sure as hell feel them the next day!

* Wasn’t Makybe Diva a recent bearer of that title? How quickly we forget…


[1] Patrick Smith, ‘Luke Nolen’s finest hour was sparing Black Caviar the whip,’ The Australian 26 June 2012, accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/opinion/luke-nolens-finest-hour-was-sparing-black-caviar-the-whip/story-e6frg7uo-1226408287087

[2] Phil McManus, ‘2014 Melbourne Cup can become “the race that stops the whip”,’ smh.com.au 30 October 2014, accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.smh.com.au/comment/2014-melbourne-cup-can-become-the-race-that-stops-the-whip-20141029-11dhua.html; Cessar Albarran Toures and Peter John Chen, ‘There are no winners horse racing is unethical,’ the drum 22 June 2012, accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-06-22/torres-and-chen-horse-racing/4086304; ‘Stop floggig tired horses: it’s time for whip-free racing,’ RSPCA Australia website, accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.rspcawa.asn.au/about/news/item/1731-stop-flogging-tired-horses-it-s-time-for-whip-free-racing/1731-stop-flogging-tired-horses-it-s-time-for-whip-free-racing.html


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