Vet ethics: A quick whip around the racecourse

Melbourne’s Spring racing has again raised the question of the use of whips as performance aids in thoroughbreds. Jockey Zac Purton was fined $3000 over his “excessive” whipping of Caulfield Cup winner Admire Rakti. For the same ride, Purton collected $87,500 prize money.

Let’s begin an ethical investigation of this issue by imagining the following scenario. Suppose we are hosting an overseas visitor who is unfamiliar with horse racing – let’s call her “Maree”. Maree enjoys the atmosphere of the Caulfield Cup and the athleticism of the horses. However, it becomes evident that she is rather shocked by something we ourselves barely noticed – namely, the sight of horses like Admire Rakti being whipped as they head hard for home.

On the train home she bursts with questions. Does the whip hurt the horses? Isn’t causing pain the whole point of such furious physical contact? Does it really make them run faster?
Maree then continues, more pointedly: The spectators seem not to care or even notice that the horses are being whipped. Is it right for your country to allow this to happen? As a veterinarian, do you and your profession have a considered opinion on the ethics of whipping horses?

We may feel that Maree deserves an answer. But how and on what basis should we respond to her?

Former jockey Danny Brereton wrote in the Herald-Sun that whipping horses is, regrettably, part of a macho tradition in Australian horse racing, one that is unworthy of genuine horsemanship. Whips, Brereton wrote, should be used only for safety and not for performance enhancement. We should, on this view, follow the path of Norway which
banned the whipping of racehorses in 1982.

The Australian Racing Board, however, argues that the changes it introduced in 2009 adequately protect horses from whipping which carried out for the purposes of “encouragement”. ARB rule 137A mandates the use of whips with padded ends and forbids striking the horse around the head and abdomen; striking on consecutive strides; and striking with an arm raised above shoulder height.

The rule further bans whipping the horses more than five times in a “forehand fashion” before the last 100 metres. There are no limits to the number of strikes permitted in a “backhand” motion nor of strikes in the last 100 metres of the race. However, the ARB contends that whipping under these rules does not cause the horses pain or injury.

Suppose we look next to the AVA for moral guidance as we attempt to answer Maree. The AVA’s policy on whipping states that “excessive or incorrect use of a whip on any horse” is not condoned. It says that the whip “functions as a training aid by being a tool for negative reinforcement”.

Citing peer-reviewed research by Evans and McGreevy, the AVA policy questions the claim that whipping increases a horse’s competitiveness. That 2011 study found that “increased whip use was not associated with significant variation in velocity as a predictor of superior placing at the finish”.

Can we use the AVA policy to answer our overseas visitor’s question about the ethics of whipping? Unfortunately we cannot. For while it suggests that whip use may be unnecessary (and therefore perhaps cruel), the policy conclusion is simply that “there should be additional research into the use of whips in horse racing”.

Moreover, the policy does not tell us what “excessive” whip use means. Does it accord with the ARB’s definition of excessive, or is it at variance with that stipulation? What we really want to know is what kind of performance whipping is reasonable, or whether it is simply unreasonable.

Consider the claim that the whip is a tool of “negative reinforcement”. According to behavioural theory, it is more accurate to call such whip use “punishment”. A punishment is a stimulus that is usually aversive and that functions to decrease a behaviour.

When we observe, for example, the whipping of horses pulling carriages or of donkeys as beasts of burden we are seeing the administration of an aversive punishment which decreases the tendency of the animal to slow down or stop.

A 2012 study by McGreevy et. al. may shed more light. Using high speed footage taken of races, the study found, contrary to the findings of the Stewards,

evidence of at least 28 examples, in 9 horses, of breaches of the whip rules (one seam contact, 13 contacts with the head, and 14 arm actions that rose above the height of the shoulder). The whip caused a visible indentation [in the horses’ flesh] on 83 per cent of impacts. The unpadded section of the whip made contact on 64 per cent of impacts.

As the authors conclude, the “results call into question the ability of Stewards to effectively police the rules concerning whip use and, more importantly, challenge the notion that padding the distal section of whips completely safeguards horses from any possible whip-related pain”. The Stewards, in other words, simply lack the technology and ability to ensure the rules are abided by. Jurists tell us that laws which cannot be enforced are bad laws.

Furthermore, the Stewards are unable to police degrees of intensity of impact. As long as they remain within the above rules, jockeys can strike horses anywhere along a spectrum that runs from light impacts to very forceful ones.

But supposing, counterfactually, that the Stewards do have the ability to reliably enforce a range of rules limiting strikes, would that assuage Maree’s concerns? The above study shows that the whip makes a substantial indentation in the horse’s body. The authors consider this grounds for saying that it hurts the horses, not least because we already know that a horse’s skin is highly sensitive, as can be observed when flies alight upon it.

In addition, the unpleasantness of the pain and/or fear felt by the thoroughbreds is presumably exacerbated by the fatigue the horses are undergoing in the final stages of the race, and also by the permission granted by the Australian Racing Board for unrestricted backhand whips and discretionary strikes in the last 100 metres.
So, with this information in hand, what would our overseas visitor Maree make of the whipping issue now? Or more to the point, what should we in the vet profession say and do about it?

Send your responses to

SIMON COGHLAN has a PhD in philosophy. His doctorate addressed human and animal ethics and he has published in this field in peer-reviewed journals. He has a Masters in Bioethics and a Grad. Cert. in Higher Education. Currently he lectures at the Australian Catholic University. He is also a Melbourne veterinarian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.