‘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


Racehorse deaths

Do a quick Google search today using the terms ‘Melbourne Cup racehorse death’, and you’ll be flooded with hits relating to the sudden post-race deaths of Admire Rakti, the favourite, and Araldo, who placed seventh.

Lateline last night aired footage they obtained showing Admire Rakti’s actual collapse. They warn that the footage may be distressing, however for me the most distressing part was the attendant who is seen trying to brutally jerk the horse back to his feet. I’m sure this action would be deplored by all horse lovers, regardless of their personal stance on horse racing.

Araldo had to be euthanased last night, after he was spooked by a child waving a flag on the way back to his stall. The horse apparently leapt at a fence, breaking either his cannon bone or pastern (news reports differ). Many are quick to point out that this is the second year in a row that a horse has died in relation to the Melbourne Cup, after Verema broke her leg in the middle of the 2013 race and had to be immediately put down.

Interestingly, Araldo’s trainer is quoted as saying, “They’ve run 150 Melbourne Cups and nothing like that has happened before”.[1] Perhaps he’s referring to the specific incident of a horse being spooked and injuring itself so catastrophically, in which case he may well be right, however in the very first Melbourne Cup three horses in the seventeen-strong field fell, and two of them suffered fatal injuries, so this sort of thing is not unheard-of. Injuries were suffered by both the horses and the jockeys involved in the fall, though the horses certainly came off the worst  – the mare Medora broke three of her legs, and Despatch broke her spine. The third mare involved, Twilight, was uninjured, though her rider broke his collarbone. [2]

Criticism of the racing industry is starting to go mainstream, which is an interesting development. Yesterday’s events do seem to vindicate the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses and the recent controversy over their ‘Is the party really worth it?’ billboard. It looks as though it will be more and more difficult for the industry to dismiss anti-racing sentiment as solely belonging to cranks and a small number of animal liberationists, and it will be interesting to see how it responds.

From the period 1 August 2013 until 31 July 2014, 125 racehorses died in Australia, as a direct result of their participation in a race. As this news.com.au article points out, both pro and anti-racing advocates share a fundamental love of horses, however there are many issues that both sides disagree on. One of these, I have to point out, is the stance taken by the article itself, which is that ‘these horses are here for a purpose and that purpose is to run.’ [3] Personally, I think this assumption is highly debatable, and I wrote a post questioning some of our fundamentally anthropocentric presumptions concerning horses back in April.

I do not think the conversation between those opposed to racing and those invested in the industry will be easy, however yesterday’s events seem to dictate that it is now a dialogue that must be had.


[1] Patrick Bartley and Rania Spooner, “Two horses, including favourite, die soon after Melbourne Cup”, smh.com.au, accessed 5 November 2014 http://www.smh.com.au/national/two-horses-including-favourite-die-soon-after-melbourne-cup-20141104-11gv58.html#ixzz3I9E5hdno
[2] “Victoria Turf Club Spring Meeting”, The Argus Friday 8 November 1861, p. 5.
[3] “Melbourne Cup 2014: Racing industry and animal welfare share love of horses’, news.com.au, accessed 5 November 2014 http://www.news.com.au/sport/superracing/melbourne-cup-2014-racing-industry-and-animal-welfare-share-love-of-horses/story-fndpqu3p-1227113216040

Minor injury

I am currently nursing a sporting injury, and my physio has suggested that I take a break from working at my (non-ergonomic!) desk. Subsequently, this will be a short, though somewhat more personal, post.

My current injury, in combination with an email from a reader noting the recent rise in injuries and deaths among female jockeys, has got me thinking about how dangerous equestrian sports can be.* As we have discussed previously on the blog, horse-related deaths account for more fatalities in Australia than sharks do, and horse-riding is deemed statistically more dangerous than riding a motorbike.** [1]

In my teenage years I worked at a riding school, taking trail rides around Centennial Park in Sydney. Some of the things I did on horseback were pretty stupid, including riding without wearing a helmet. Fortunately, the worst damage I sustained was a concussion, when the horse I was riding bucked me into a tree – head-first. I still have absolutely no recollection of the incident, or the hours that followed. The first thing I remember is being wheeled by my (very angry!) mother through the local hospital. I think everyone at the riding school copped a lecture from her, not least me, and from then on there was a much more conscientious approach to wearing helmets. It’s worth noting, however, that there is no law in Australia relating to the wearing of helmets when riding.

Given the number of hours I spent in the saddle as a teenager, and the natural disdain for consequences common to that age-group, I feel pretty lucky that I got through relatively unscathed! One time, I came off my pony and he galloped back to the stables, crossing a reasonably busy road as he went. Fortunately it was night-time, and the traffic was slow. The pony of a girl I knew was not so lucky; the exact same thing happened, only during the day, and her horse was hit by a car. The injuries he sustained were severe, and eventually he had to be put down.

So it seems that equestrian activity is not just dangerous for humans, but for horses too. I was lucky, as was my pony. Not everyone is.

*Though my current injury is NOT from horse riding!

** I also grew up with both parents riding motorbikes, and while it caused some cuts and scrapes, it too only put me in hospital once.


[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: National Injury Surveillance Unit, “Horse-related Injury in Australia,” Issue 24, May 2000, p.2.