Whips hurt horses – if my leg’s anything to go by

Today horses are still whipped in public, but only in the name of sport. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Whips hurt horses – if my leg’s anything to go by

Today horses are still whipped in public, but only in the name of sport. AAP Image/Julian Smith

It’s not just the horses that wear blinkers during the Melbourne Cup, the so-called “race that stops a nation”, which takes place next Tuesday. Perhaps it’s the excitement, the champagne or the extraordinary speed of the race, but most Melbourne Cup Day punters appear blithely unaware that they are actually watching horses being whipped … and hard.

Last year more than 100,000 people attended the Melbourne Cup, with more than 3 million watching the race on TV in Australia alone. This would have to make whipping in horse-racing the most public form of violence to animals in Australia today, but most people don’t seem to notice it.

Some 75% of whip strikes hit the horse’s flank (side of the abdomen), in contravention of the International Agreement on Breeding, Racing and Wagering. Liss Ralston

To be fair, it was only when I saw high-speed images of whip impact that showed visible indentation of the skin in 83% of impacts I appreciated how likely it was that routine whipping of horses in racing causes pain. As a veterinarian, riding instructor and horse behaviourist, I am ashamed to admit how late this revelation came to me.

That I had to see it to believe it made me consider the extraordinary impact of images in achieving positive change for animals over the centuries, and what modern-day imagery might achieve.

William Hogarth most graphically illustrates the whipping of tired horses in his 1751 engraving The Four Stages of Cruelty: Second Stage of Cruelty (pictured below).

In his Autobiographical Notes Hogarth says the images:

were done in the hopes of preventing in some degree that cruel treatment of poor Animals which makes the streets of London more disagreeable to the human mind …

William Hogarth’s Second Stage of Cruelty in which Tom Nero whips his horse in public. Wikimedia Commons

Hogarth’s First Stage of Cruelty shows youths already comfortable in their abuse of animals such as dogs, cats and birds. As his series progresses, it becomes apparent society as a whole is either indifferent to or encourages cruelty, and that this augurs very badly.

Hogarth’s images nail the nexus between animal cruelty and human crime and violence, and are as relevant today as they were 263 years ago. Images of horses being whipped on the streets of Victorian England are recognised as a major impetus to the birth of the animal protection movement as we know it today.

These were exhausted work and carriage horses and observers could see they were being thrashed to deliver more effort, where none was possible.

Today horses are still whipped in public, but only in the name of sport. And while there are restrictions on the number of times the whip can be used during a race, the Sport of Kings removes these safeguards in the last 100m, when the horses are tired and unlikely to be able to give any more. As if this isn’t futile enough, there is no peer-reviewed evidence that shows using the whip at any time increases performance.

Indeed, in 2011, my laboratory used cutting-edge imaging technologies to demonstrate the futility of whipping, and was awarded a Eureka Voiceless Prize for this work.

The racing industry assures us that every whip used in racing must be padded and that “when used properly, the whip stimulates a horse and should not cause pain”. However, my analysis of high-speed videography shows that the padding fails to protect horses in 64% of strikes. It also shows that 70% of whip strikes are delivered “backhand”, so are not counted under rules limiting the number of strikes.

While there are plenty of international agreements on whip use, they seem to achieve little. One ruling embraced by more than 40 countries, including Australia, is that horses should not be struck on the flank (the side of the abdomen). When we studied more than 100 strikes with frame-by-frame analysis, we discovered that more than 75% were flank strikes. And yet, to my knowledge, no Australian jockey has ever been penalised for flouting this rule.

Liss Ralston

The use of animals in research in Australia, including to investigate whether whipping a horse hurts, requires compliance with rules adopted under animal welfare legislation. These include the proviso:

Pain and distress may be difficult to evaluate in animals. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that procedures and conditions that would cause pain and distress in humans cause pain and distress in animals.

Given there is no evidence to show that whipping horses doesn’t hurt, I decided to find out whether having my leg struck with a racing whip, as hard as jockeys whip horses, would cause me pain and distress.

Well, the answer is a resounding “yes”, and the thermographic images I took clearly show heat at the site of impact. In the image below you can see white areas of inflammation in my upper leg 30 minutes after it was struck – only once. And a warning: this material is disturbing.

My view is that – because there is no evidence to the contrary – we must assume that, just as I felt pain and distress from the impact of the padded whip, similar whipping in a horse would also cause pain and distress.

Representatives from the racing industry will doubtless say horses have thick skin and are therefore immune to pain from whip impacts but there is actually no evidence of such pain resistance in horses. Indeed, horses can feel a fly on their skin such that it triggers a characteristic shake called the “panniculus reflex”.

As sports journalist Patrick Smith recently wrote:

if whips didn’t cause pain there would be no use to them.

Unfortunately, the Australian Racing Board has recently advised me that “it will not be participating” in a non-invasive study I proposed using the thermographic camera on horses before and after races to investigate exactly what changes whipping causes to horseflesh.

As a veterinarian and scientist, I believe that when such thermographic images become available, they will remove the public’s blinkers to reveal the unnecessary cruelty caused by whipping in horse racing, just as Hogarth’s engravings did for work and carriage horses.

Since 1888, the winning jockey at the Melbourne Cup has been presented with a golden whip. At the very least, isn’t it time to stop glorifying an instrument of, at best, discomfort and, at worst, pain? You bet it is.


The Conversation is currently running a series looking at the history and nature of violence.