A debate on the use of whips was a highlight of the 2010 Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) Annual Conference. Andrew Harding, CEO of the Australian Racing Board (ARB) and Dr Andrew McLean, from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC) were invited to expose their views on this contentious topic. 

The debate’s inclusion in the conference program intrigued me because, on 18th May this year, the ARB had announced there would be no further changes to whip rules, and by organising the debate, the AVA were openly stating that the issue is not over and there is more to discuss.

AVA President, Dr Barry Smith, told Horses and People: “This is a topical issue and the debate was organized to provide an opportunity for the issue to be discussed in a public forum for the benefit of AVA members, and allow differing perspectives to be put out in the open and an exchange of ideas for the future.”

Back in August 2009, to address concerns about whip use and improve public perception, the ARB introduced new rules which resulted in huge attention from the media when a month later, jockeys in four states held snap strikes and threatened to disrupt the Spring Racing Carnival if the new rules came into effect. The rules were relaxed which pacified the racing industry, but not welfare organizations or the AVA it seems.

Andrew Harding was keen to point out that it was the ARB “as diligent self-regulator” who was responsible for initiating the discussion on whip use, explaining that prior to 2008 there was very little debate, and they had received a lot of criticism from both camps for opening up the issue.

So why did the ARB feel the need to act? Because attendance and public interest in racing is waning. Mr Harding said “…[the ARB] were of a view that in terms of speaking to future generations X, Y, etc, the sight of the whip in the fashion it was being used in Australian Racing was a turn off…”

I commend the ARB for recognising that whip use is of concern and their attempt to do something, (even if the motivation is commercial rather than ethical) but is it fair to rely on regulation to moderate where and how horses are hit?

The industry is adamant that whips cannot be banned because they are necessary for ‘safety, correction and encouragement’, so the ARB feels the only option is trying to ‘control’ whip use with rule reforms. The new rules attempt to:

  1. Control the number of strikes a horse can receive – the whip can only be used forehand, on non-consecutive strides, and only 5 times until the last 100m after when the jockey can use his/her discretion. (This means it is ok to strike the horse around 18 times.)
  2. Limit the force with which jockeys strike – by specifying the jockey’s arm must not be raised higher than shoulder level.
  3. Reduce the pain those strikes can inflict – by using padded “shock absorbing” whips which are now mandatory.

But, rather than try to ‘control’ whip use by limiting the number of times, the force of the strikes or the pain they cause to horses, and pretend that whips are used for ‘safety, correction and encouragement’, the racing industry could start by calling a spade a spade and admit that the way jockeys and track riders use the whip as they approach the finish line equates to punishment for failing to perform.

In times when most of us enjoy a high standard of living and uphold high moral values it would follow that we  should apply the basic right to be free of pain to all animals. This however, seems to offend many, who consider the whole whip debate ‘political correctness gone mad’. But ethics aside, with just a little education, even those who defend the right to whip would find it hard to argue against the fact that punishment is a very inefficient way to train horses. There is more than enough research that shows it inhibits learning, and that punished animals don’t try new responses.

This is what Dr Andrew McLean explained to the debate’s audience – There is a much more efficient and effective way to train horses, and horse people just need to be more educated.

So why is this message so difficult to get across? Probably because the horse industry is still chained to 6000 year-old traditions and a majority is reluctant to admit there is an urgent need for education – particularly education in learning theory. The generalized poor understanding of how horses learn leads to poor training results and behaviour problems that in turn lead to wastage and reduced welfare.

“…if jockeys and trainers really understood how horses learn, they would find much better ways to train them to accelerate. They would also find there is no need to use whips, certainly no place for punishment, and this better training would have better results.”  Dr McLean said and he proposed that trainers and jockeys should be focusing on training acceleration, rather than relying on fear to improve a horse’s performance on the race track.

Do horses run faster when they are scared?

“Yes, if you hurt a horse with the whip it will run away” said Dr McLean, “but is it using the best biomechanics and its physiology to the maximum advantage? By using the whip you don’t end up producing the best athletic performance in racing, you simply elicit a fear response, it makes much more sense to train”.

So horses can race without whips?

“Horses learn to stop and go by responding to the rider’s legs and rein pressure/release signals, including galloping, so well trained horses should not need whips. Thoroughbreds are generally hyper-reactive by nature, so it’s not difficult to teach them to go forward without whips at all. Because they have a high flight response, they are easy to encourage forward… more than 90% are quite easily motivated to run. A whip ban would force trainers and jockeys to become real trainers.”

But in the real world, are hands and heels enough to ‘remind’ the horse he needs to try harder? There’s a lot of money at stake!

“Well in some cases it won’t be, but that’s the horse that won’t be the winner, the one that shouldn’t win and be bred from. Only some horses win in the current punishment system, so yes there will be some that don’t.”

Don’t you use whips in your training system?

“There would be no welfare issue with whips if we use them via negative reinforcement (pressure/release), which is where we reduce the pressures to small cues… I think a long whip is really handy to train certain things because you can’t reach the area you want to tap with your hand for example, but the whip as a punisher should be banned in all sports. At the moment jockeys and track riders are using the whip in a haphazard fashion, thinking that the animal knows what it should do, and it knows what the whip will do, therefore they just have to use it to make it go faster and if it doesn’t go faster when they use the whip it doesn’t really matter, maybe they tried.”

“What they don’t recognise is that when they stop using the whip, when the whip is withdrawn and the horse didn’t go faster they are actually de-training acceleration. They need to recognize they only need to train it as a light cue, but I don’t see there is a necessity to use it to be honest, because I think if the horse is trained very well to go from the rider’s leg, and you can teach him to accelerate from the rider’s leg, I don’t see that the whip is going to be a better cue.”

Dr McLean says that if the riders feel they have to use the whip, they should simply use it with a tap-tap-tapping motion that gets faster until the horse goes, and the important thing is to stop tapping the instant he goes or gives an acceleration response, that’s really the key. If the timing of the release is not immediate and clear, some horses won’t know what was being reinforced. He said that learning theory could really offer the golden age of training in all horse sports if only people could see how this technology could be used. “We’re a long way from that, but I think that’s what we should be heading towards” he added.

Dr McLean finished the debate asking for: “some commitment from Andrew Harding on a move towards an education system for perhaps licencing trainers and jockeys. Understanding of learning theory is a new understanding of how animals learn things, how you can reinforce a behaviour, and that’s what we need – for trainers to ask: how can I reinforce this horse’s acceleration? This has huge potential.”

Andrew Harding did not take up the challenge: “I’m not going to dodge the question and I’m not going to give a commitment that I’m going to go and tell Bart Cummings how to train horses, I’m just not”. He finished saying that the next step the ARB was taking on the issue was funding research on the effect of padded whips.

I asked the AVA for their position, Dr Barry Smith said: “The carriage and use of whips is a longstanding practice in the horse industry, however the welfare of horses is paramount.

“There are differing views on the need for whips and the AVA would encourage research to define whether whips are necessary or not. The views of all concerned must be taken into account during discussions – jockeys, trainers, owners, regulators, equine behaviourists and so on.

“The AVA would support a program of ongoing education of horse trainers in modern aspects of behaviour theories which should be used when educating and training horses. This would also have positive flow-on effects to OH&S issues for people who work with horses as better educated and trained horses are more predictable and less likely to injure people who work with them”.

My view? There would still be winners without whips, and the notion that people would find better ways to train horses has to be a win-win situation. Finding ways to improve and safeguard the welfare  of horses is not just something that makes me feel better, it is essential to ensure we see the horse sports we all enjoy continue and thrive in the future.