Trainer Darren Weir will not contest three charges for alleged possession of electronic devices used to give shocks to horses, according to a statement released by Racing Victoria earlier today.
The statement says assistant trainer Jarrod McLean will contest a charge for allegedly possessing a similar electric shocking device.
The charges against both are to be heard on a date to be fixed by the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board. They stem from January raids at Victorian properties when Victoria Police seized four electric devices, known as “jiggers”.
But this latest issue highlights inconsistencies in our attitudes to the use of aversive devices on animals in general.
Racing Victoria’s chief executive Giles Thompson said today the incident was a “bruising for the reputation of the industry”.
One of Australia’s most respected equine veterinary surgeons said previously that such “cruel, medieval measures” threatened the future of Victorian racing. Meanwhile trainers were said to be outraged at allegations that every trainer would have a jigger in their stable.
We agree that any violence towards animals can never be condoned.
That said, whipping is still allowed in Australian thoroughbred racing, despite a recent poll showing three-quarters of those quizzed were against its use.
Training horses to respond to unusual cues
Jiggers refer to illegal battery-powered shock devices. They were commonly used in Australian horse racing until the quality of stewards’ surveillance improved with the introduction of video recording.
Nowadays, those inclined to apply them must rely on illegal training prior to a race. This involves classical (Pavlovian) conditioning designed to ensure that a horse anticipates the delivery of a shock following some kind of stimulus that can be applied during a race.
Most anecdotal accounts describe jiggers as being applied to the horse’s neck. The horse feels the pressure of the device before it discharges its electric shock, a pressure similar to that of the butt of a jockey’s whip.
This is critical, because the jockey must be able to apply a similar cue in the same anatomical area of a horse on race day. Through classical conditioning, the pressure cue means that the horse will anticipate a shock when it feels the butt of the whip during the race.
Additional associative learning is involved when an item of equipment that the horse wears is linked to the application of the shocks.
For example, if blinkers are fitted whenever jigger conditioning is carried out, when the horse races with the blinkers (a change that must be approved by the stewards and declared to punters), it associates the equipment with the shocks it received in training.
In learning theory, stimuli like the blinkers are known as occasion setters, ones that increase the strength of a conditioned reaction.
Races are recorded so that stewards can spot tell-tale signs of rule-breaking such as the butt of the whip being pressed against a horse’s neck. That said, filming from just one side of the course is almost universal, so that up to 50% of the jockeys’ interactions with their horses may go unrecorded.
Electricity in animal training
Jiggers are just one of a number of what are called electric pulse training aids (EPTAs) – devices that apply an electric current to the skin of an animal.
The number of these devices used in Australia is not known. They are illegal in South Australia and the ACT, whereas in New South Wales they are permitted for containment of dogs by invisible boundaries.
The UK’s Companion Animal Welfare Council (CAWC) produced a report on these devices in 2012 in which it said:
It has been suggested that there are currently around 350,000 EPTAs in the UK, although the number in active use is unknown.
The report concluded there were “sound animal welfare-based arguments both for and against the use of EPTAs in theory”, but there was also a substantial lack of relevant research to inform the conclusions of those from either side of the debate.
A subsequent study published in 2014 found dogs that had been shocked with remote-controlled devices were more tense, yawned more often, and engaged in less environmental interaction than dogs trained without shocks.
No research to date has compared the effects of EPTAs with other aversive devices – for example, the use of choke chains that are a far more common instrument of abuse in dogs.
The CAWC report identified an inconsistency in attitudes towards the use of shock, in that electric fences to contain livestock are generally accepted.
It’s worth noting that Australia is leading the world in the development of GPS-triggered electric shock collars to contain cattle on broadacre properties.
What about the whip?
The aversiveness of jiggers relative to strikes from padded whips will depend on the voltage discharged, not to mention the wetness (and therefore conductivity) of the haircoat of a horse.
So there is no such thing as a standard jigger zap, just as there is no such thing as a standard whip strike. And while there are some limits on the number of whip strikes that can be inflicted on a horse during a race, there are none for whipping at home in training.
It may one day be shown that random events of violent force from whips on tired horses are worse than random shocks to fresh horses during track work.
The industry may then regret the current outcry on jiggers, unless it has by then accepted that the whipping of tired horses is just as bad for the image of racing.