An end to 'encouragement'- it's time for horseracing to follow the science about whipping
A blog by Dr Mark Kennedy, our senior scientific manager for equines
People interested in equine welfare, particularly in horseracing, may be aware that the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is running a public consultation on the use of the whip in British racing. Anyone with an interest or opinion on the use of the whip in racing is free to submit a response through the consultation hub. The consultation closes on 6 September 2021.
Naturally, we'll be submitting a response. It's important to be clear that our focus is the welfare of the horse rather than punishment of the jockey, the trainer or the horse's connections. Therefore we won't be commenting on the appropriateness or otherwise of existing penalties, or, to be frank, tinkering with existing rules. We'll be putting forward a very clear decisive message - it's time to see the end of the use of the whip to make a horse go faster - 'encouragement' as BHA calls it - and the science to support this position is clear and convincing.
There are three main issues that stand out:
- Use of the whip in racing is likely to result in pain
- Use of the whip in racing increases risk of injury to horses and jockeys
- The use of the whip for safety
Use of the whip in racing is likely to result in pain
McGreevy et al. (2012), using high-speed videography of races, observed deformation of skin and muscle when horses were struck with the whip, and although the lower part of the whip is designed to be energy absorbing (an initiative we've contributed to), the unpadded part made contact with the horse in nearly two-thirds of strikes, making the padding irrelevant. Studies in other species including humans indicate that such skin deformation is likely to be sensed by pain receptor nerves within the skin.
Thick-skinned horses myth debunked
Defenders of hitting horses with the whip might claim that equine skin is thicker than human skin, or that somehow they feel the blows less, but the scientific facts don't support this at all. The epidermal layer of horse skin where pain receptors are located is of similar thickness to that in the human, and is just as richly populated with pain-sensing nerves. The concept of the thick-skinned horse not feeling whip blows is a myth. In any case, simple logic tells us that the horse must feel whip strikes. If the horse were not able to feel them, why use the whip at all?
Arguments that horses react to the sound not pain
The BHA's rules state that 'after using the racing whip, the horse must be given a chance to respond'. What is the horse responding to? Some have argued the horse is responding to the sound of the whip in the air or even the sound of its impact on their skin (but not pain).
It's a fundamental principle of animal behaviour that animals decrease their response or even stop responding to repeated stimuli that have no consequence, good or bad. If the whip were not associated with pain, surely the horse would cease to react to the sounds it makes - they are of no consequence if it doesn't hurt. It's probably this sort of mental gymnastics used to justify a belief that the whip doesn't hurt that have led to the apparently serious suggestion in the online consultation that respondents consider whether 'renaming the racing whip would aid public understanding of its use'. Let's dispense with the mental gymnastics and accept what science and simple logic tells us - in the manner in which it's currently used, the racing whip causes pain and suffering to horses.
Use of the whip in racing increases risk of injury to horses and jockeys
It's not just the case that hitting a horse with the whip causes pain at that moment; there's scientific evidence that the use of the whip during races can result in falls and injury and consequent further suffering and death in horses and potentially humans.
A study by Parkin and colleagues observed video footage of one hundred and nine cases of equine fatal limb fracture occurring in races at all 59 UK racecourses over a two year period. When fracture and uninjured control horses were compared, horses which received 'encouragement' (were whipped) within the last 10 seconds were more likely to sustain a fatal fracture.
A Japanese study reported a relatively high association of recent whip use with catastrophic injuries such as bone fractures or joint dislocations. Of 34 horses observed sustaining such injuries in video captured at racetracks, 38% of these were observed to be whipped immediately prior to the injury, second only to 47% which changed the leading leg of the gallop immediately prior to injury (a change of locomotion pattern which can unbalance the horse and suddenly change the distribution of weight over the legs).
Whips could increase the risk of horses falling
Finally, Pinchbeck and colleagues observed video recordings of UK hurdle and steeplechase races, and found that horses that were being whipped and which were gaining position were at more than seven times the risk of falling than horses which were not being whipped and which had no change or lost position through the field.
They concluded that whip use and the position of the horse with respect to others in the field were potential risk factors for horse falls, and suggested that interventions such as the introduction of whip-free or restricted whip use races might confirm these results, supporting changes to reduce the risk of falls and improve equine welfare.
The use of the whip for safety
The idea that the whip should be carried in racing so it's available for use for reasons of safety of horse, jockey and other horses and riders on the course seems ingrained in racing, and is particularly expressed by jockeys. Suggested uses for safety reasons include course correction if the horse veers off course and places themselves and others at risk, if the horse demonstrates hesitancy on the approach to a jump, which may result in poor jumping technique potentially resulting in injury to horse and jockey, and the somewhat undefined term 'rebalancing'.
The notion that whip use can improve safety does of course seem somewhat contradicted by the research cited above. Thompson and colleagues suggest that as horses tire they attract whip use, and this may lead them to make errors in sense of self-movement and body position which may result in falls and injuries.
The 'Hands and Heels' rules restrict certain whip use
Fortunately, the BHA has a series of both flat and jump races run under 'Hands and Heels' rules, whereby whips may be carried and used for safety reasons but whip use for correction and encouragement isn't allowed. This has permitted research comparing official BHA stewards' reports from 'Hands and Heels' races with case-matched races where whipping was permitted.
Reports showing no significant difference between whip-free and whip-permitted races
Case matching means that compared races took place between January 2017 and December 2019 at the same racecourse; were flat races over the same distance; included the same number of horses and were of similar race class and going. There were no significant differences between whip-free and whip-permitted races in stewards' reports for instances of anything to report, movement on course, interference, jockey-related incidents or race times; i.e. the study found no evidence that whip use improves steering, reduces interference, increases safety or improves finishing times. The authors suggested that the expansion of whipping-free races would provide a larger sample for further analysis.
We strongly agree; in fact, as the British Horseracing Authority are already running races under 'Hands and Heels' rules, our position is that the use of the whip for 'encouragement' should cease, and that British racing be the first major racing nation to lead the field in moving all racing to 'Hands and Heels', where the whip can be carried but only used for safety reasons which the jockey is required to justify at Stewards' enquiry, and that further research be conducted to identify whether the whip needs to be carried at all.
1. McGreevy, P.D., Corken, R.A., Salvin, H. & Black, C.M. (2012) Whip Use by Jockeys in a Sample of Australian Thoroughbred Races¿An Observational Study. PLOS ONE 7(3).
2. Lewin, G.R. & Moshourab, R. (2004). Mechanosensation and pain. J Neurobiol 61(1): 30¿44.
3. Tong, L., Stewart, M., Johnson, I., Appleyard, R., Wilson, B., James, O., Johnson, C. & McGreevy, P. (2020). A Comparative Neuro-Histological Assessment of Gluteal Skin Thickness and Cutaneous Nociceptor Distribution in Horses and Humans. Animals 10 (11): 2094.
4. British Horseracing Authority (2021). The Whip [online]. Available from: https://www.britishhorseracing.com/regulation/the-whip [Accessed 19th August 2021].
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6. British Horseracing Authority (2021). Use of the Racing Whip in British Horseracing [online]. Available from https://consultation.britishhorseracing.com/whip-review/use-of-the-whip-in-british-horseracing/ [Accessed 19th August 2021].
7. Parkin, T.D., Clegg. P.D., French, N.P., Proudman, C.J., Riggs, C.M., Singer, E.R., Webbon, P.M. & Morgan, K.L. (2006). Analysis of horse race videos to identify intra-race risk factors for fatal distal limb fracture. Preventative Veterinary Medicine 74(1): 44-55.
8. Ueda, Y., Yoshida, K. and Oikawa, M. (1993). Analyses of race accident conditions through use of patrol video. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 13 (12): 707-710.
9. Pinchbeck, G.L., Clegg, P.D., Proudman, C.J., Morgan, K.L. & French, N.P. (2004). Whip use and race progress are associated with horse falls in hurdle and steeplechase racing in the UK. Equine Veterinary Journal, 36: 384-389
10. British Horseracing Authority (2011). Responsible Regulation: A Review of the use of the whip in Horse Racing. [Online] Available from: https://www.britishhorseracing.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/WhipReview.pdf [Accessed 19 August 2021].
11. Thompson, K., McManus, P., Stansall, D., Wilson, B. J., & McGreevy, P. D. (2020). Is Whip Use Important to Thoroughbred Racing Integrity? What Stewards¿ Reports Reveal about Fairness to Punters, Jockeys and Horses. Animals, 10(11).
12. British Horseracing Authority (2021). Racing Excellence Series [online]. Available from https://www.britishhorseracing.com/regulation/racing-excellence-series/ [Accessed 19 August 2021].
13. Thompson, K., McManus, P., Stansall, D., Wilson, B. J., & McGreevy, P. D. (2020). Is Whip Use Important to Thoroughbred Racing Integrity? What Stewards¿ Reports Reveal about Fairness to Punters, Jockeys and Horses. Animals, 10(11).