The study, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, analysed both forehand and backhand whipstrikes of jockeys in Victoria.
Under the Australian Racing Board’s Rules of Racing, jockeys are limited in using forehand whip strikes. Forehand whipstrikes may not be delivered in consecutive strides nor on more than five occasions before the final 100 metres. However, backhand strikes are permitted without reservation – as long as the horse is in contention.
According to the paper, “this seems to imply that backhand whip use is less closely scrutinised, which may have profound implications for horse welfare.”
Lead investigatory Professor Paul McGreevy said that approximately 70 per cent of whip use is backhand – and thus immune to limitations under the 2009 ARB rules.
A previous study by the same team found that whip strikes caused a visible indentation in 83 per cent of impacts, and the unpadded section of the whip made contact with the horse in 64 per cent of cases.
In the current study, jockeys struck a pressure-detection pad on a static model-horse, using both left and right hands and forehand and backhand whip strikes to facilitate comparison of force.
When jockeys used their non-dominant hand, whipping technique did not influence the force of impact. However, when the dominant hand was used, the jockeys struck with more force when using the backhand technique.
Furthermore, it found that there was marked variation in force of the whipstrike between individual jockeys.
“This highlights the problems the industry has in trying to enforce equity in whip use to satisfy punters while at the same time giving reassurances about horse welfare,” McGreevy said. “It shows that whipping is extremely difficult to regulate. The industry can’t really assure punters or animal advocates that a whip strike is a whip strike is a whip strike.”
He hoped that the findings would inform a review around the rules of whip use to avoid unjustified focus on either forehand or backhand whip use.
“The take-home message is that this is another piece of peer-reviewed evidence that indicates how difficult it is to justify whipping tired horses in the name of sport,” he said.
Racing NSW Chief Steward Ray Murrihy said that since the 2009 rules were introduced many jockeys had undertaken to participate in an education program “to further reduce the amount of whip use.”
“At the last meeting the stewards around the country were happy with progress of the program,” he said. “The jury is still well and truly out about whether backhand [strikes] are more forceful, that seems to go against logic.”
The ARB had engaged in its own research program, in conjunction with Charles Sturt University, to evaluate the impact of whips. ARB secretary Peter McGauran was unavailable to comment, although it is understood that the results are expected in the near future.
According to the AVA’s policy on the Use of Horse Whips in Racing, “excessive or incorrect use of a whip on any horse, including the whipping of horses unable to improve their position in a race field, is not condoned.”
AVA President Ben Gardiner said that presentations by McGreevy and McGauran to the Policy Advisory Council (PAC) had “certainly raised a lot of issues,” however a consensus about whether and how such findings impact the policy was not reached.
Whether the rules government the use of whips in racing is itself a welfare issue, and whether existing use is sufficiently regulated, is an issue being considered by a designated working party of the PAC.