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Australia’s harness racing leads the world in banning the whip on horses

Harness racing in Brisbane. Flickr/Andrew Sutherland, CC BY-SA

Australia’s harness racing leads the world in banning the whip on horses

Harness racing in Brisbane. Flickr/Andrew Sutherland, CC BY-SA

The decision to end the use of the whip on Australian trotters and pacers is the first time a racing authority anywhere has walked away from using a whip to steer or encourage horses to race.

It speaks of insight and leadership by the sport’s governing body, Harness Racing Australia (HRA), and follows the precedent set by Norway more than 30 years ago. The key difference here is that in Norway the change was forced upon the industry by animal welfare legislation, not by the industry itself.

The HRA announcement is a win for the sport and for horse welfare. It comes as industry figures show that, even though whip use has been increasingly limited, race times have been improving.

Community concern

Our research shows the community is becoming increasingly concerned about the welfare of all animals.

HRA’s announcement acknowledges the shift in social acceptance of whipping tired horses in the name of sport and must get the attention of the Thoroughbred racing industry.

Racing Australia, the administrator and regulator of racing for gallopers, is reviewing its whip rules that currently place no limit on whip strikes in the final 100 metres of a race.

In the UK, whip use on gallopers has undergone increased regulation and again race times have improved.

The pain debate

The justification for urging animals to perform at their physical limits is one thing, but whipping them to those limits is another. Allowing animals to be whipped in the name of entertainment runs to the core of this debate.

The Thoroughbred racing industry has steered well clear of acknowledging that whipping might involve pain, insisting instead that horses recognise it simply as encouragement.

Pain and distress in non-humans are difficult to evaluate, but there is general acceptance that all mammals share the capacity to experience pain. This is recognised by legislation that governs the use of animals in research so as to avoid or minimise harm, including pain and distress.

Ironically, if a racehorse was whipped in the carpark outside a racetrack, the perpetrator could face charges under animal cruelty legislation outlawing any unnecessary, unjustifiable or unreasonable action that causes harm or injury.

On-track whipping is not subject to animal protection laws, but is regulated by a lower set of legal standards called the Rules of Racing.

No pain?

The British Horseracing Authority’s director of equine science and welfare, Tim Morris, has said that in some cases such as “adrenaline-fueled race conditions” a whip would not cause pain in a horse. He said:

What we found was that under such conditions, when a horse is in a state of high physiological and mental excitement, the use of an energy-absorbing whip does not cause pain if used within strict limits.

But the BHA’s own review on the use of the whip didn’t show any evidence to support this claim. The review said there was only limited research in this area, none of which was on horses.

How a horse that cannot feel pain can be ridden at all is puzzling. This logic would dictate that adrenalinised horses do not feel the bit in their mouth and so cannot be either decelerated or steered. Clearly, this is not the case, nor would it be safe to expect jockeys to ride such horses.

We also know that the application of aversive stimuli, such as pressure from a rider’s cues, that are removed as soon as the animal responds is the very foundation of good technique in all forms of equestrian sport. Best practice revolves around minimising the aversiveness and replacing aversive cues with neutral ones.

Animal welfare

In making any decision to ban the whip, any racing industry has to consider the delicate balancing act of protecting the integrity of the sport (from the punter’s perspective) and assuring horse welfare.

It could also consider a cost-benefit analysis on whipping to see if the costs outweigh the benefits. Throughout Australia, cost-benefit analyses are governed by animal ethics committees that approve or deny researchers access to animals for experimental purposes.

As horse welfare comes under closer scrutiny, not least from social media, the merits of a similar entity for horse use, such as a horse sports welfare committee, seem clear.

This idea was proposed by Professor Rosanne Taylor, speaking from the floor at this year’s Robert Dixon Memorial Symposium on the issue of the ethical treatment of animals used in racing. (See time code 39:30 on a this video of the symposium)

Such a welfare committee could move away from decisions based on opinion towards decisions based on evidence, particularly science-based evidence.

It could include equitation scientists, veterinarians with welfare qualifications and research experience, ethicists, lay members, animal welfare members as well as representatives of human stakeholders such as stewards, trainers and jockeys.

But its chief stakeholder should be the horse, something the industry should enthusiastically embrace since it constantly reminds us that horse welfare is paramount.

Welfare and ethics

In such a committee’s terms of reference there should be a clear distinction between welfare and ethics. Welfare is evidence-based while ethical considerations generally focus on costs versus benefits.

Welfare alone is a less threatening concept for consideration by a committee because they are simply considering evidence.

A well-resourced committee could define best practice not just in racing but also in breeding, selection, management, training, medication, rehabilitation and dispersal of animals in various sporting contexts.

Its central purposes would be to question what defines best practice in the use of animals in sport and to monitor social license to race animals. Answering these questions raises the beguiling prospect of commodifying the application of best practice and rewarding those who do the right thing.

For example, it will be interesting to see if harness racing without whips attracts more sponsors and more crowds.

Critics may argue that a horse sports welfare committee is just another unwelcome form of regulation, as they once did with animal ethics committees in the research domain.

But this approach is now trumpeted as the foundation of ethical animal research in Australia. If the lessons from the animal research environment are anything to go by, industry-wide adoption of an ethos of continuous quality improvement and voluntary welfare accreditation will only benefit the horse-sports industry.

Meanwhile, given the announcement from HRA, Racing Australia must now consider whether there remains a social licence to whip gallopers but not trotters or pacers, and if so, why?