“Unpopular and unnecessary”: studies show no reason for whips in racing

RSPCA Australia has welcomed a new study that calls into question the use of whips in horse racing, and strengthens the case for whip-free racing.

The peer-reviewed study – published now in the journal Animals - effectively debunks traditional arguments by the racing industry, that the whip is needed to maintain “racing integrity” (to give every horse a fair chance of winning) and ensure the safety of riders by helping with steering.

The study of 1,178 starters from 126 races compared stewards reports from 59 “whipping-permitted” and 67 “whipping-free” races in the UK, and found no link between the use of whips and fairness or safety in the race.

Specifically, the study compared races that took place over a similar time period, at the same racecourse, over the same distance, with the same number of horses, and similar track conditions – meaning the only significant difference was whether or not the whip was used.

For “whipping-free” races, the study examined the “Hands and Heels” series, a series of races for apprentice jockeys, where whips cannot be used except to get a reluctant horse moving at the start of the race or for safety reasons.

“The study has given us a chance to test a really culturally entrenched assumption about whip use in racing,” said lead researcher, Dr Kirrilly Thompson from the University of South Australia.

“There’s an assumption that whipping horses is important for the safety of riders. There’s also a belief that whipping horses makes them go faster. But no one’s actually tested these things before,” said Dr Thompson.

“We found that whipping doesn’t work, and in particular, whipping doesn’t make horses run any faster. There were no significant differences between movement on course, interference on course, incidents related to jockey behaviour, or race finishing times.

“We can’t find anything to recommend the use of whips,” she said.

RSPCA Australia Chief Scientist, Dr Bidda Jones, said there was no good reason to defend the use of the whip in horse racing.

“We know that the public no longer supports whipping horses – for example, a recent poll found 69% of Victorians think horses should not be whipped in the normal course of a race, and 71% of Victorians who attend or bet on horse racing would continue to do so if whips were banned,” said Dr Jones.

“Now we know that not only are whips unpopular, they’re also unnecessary as they don’t appear to affect the actual race.

“In other words, the whip can no longer be defended as a tool for racing speed, integrity or safety.

“This new study indicates that ‘hands and heel’ races could be added to race programs in Australia right now, with no change to jockey safety or race outcomes.

“Allowing whipping-free races would be a great first step towards phasing out the use of whips altogether,” said Dr Jones.

Racing Australia rules currently allow a horse to be whipped five times prior to the final stage of a race, and then an unlimited number of times during the last 100 metres.

Editors’ notes: The full study is available here and was part-funded by RSPCA Australia. Video of an interview with Dr Thompson (for audio-visual grabs) is also available on request to media@rspca.org.au.