Vow And Declare’s post-race whip welts contradict racing’s official line that padded whips don’t hurt.
The welts show up on a number of images we have obtained, as a series of blisters (raised skin lesions), grouped into almost parallel linear patterns that match the site of the whip strikes he received during this year’s Melbourne Cup. His jockey did not breach any whip rules. A veterinary pathologist has reviewed the images and says the raised marks were most likely caused by trauma.
Welts are the consequence of damage caused to body tissues when struck by an object traveling at a high speed. The impact stretches and deforms the skin, sending a shock wave through underlying structures. The tearing and crushing of tissues ruptures underlying blood vessels (what we call bruising). The damaged tissues release chemicals that trigger a local inflammatory response that renders the site hot, puffy and sore. Inflamed tissues at the site of impact may swell to form raised areas like the ones we can distinguish on Vow And Declare’s hindquarter.
Although similar raised marks can result from allergies and other conditions, it is the location and pattern of the inflammation that tells the story. Welts and bruises that carry the imprint of the implement used are, for example, one of the factors considered when interpreting cases of child abuse.
While not a life threatening injury (and we have reports that Vow And Declare is healthy and enjoying a well-earned rest at home), there is no doubt that welts are painful. The pain that is associated with inflammation motivates the horse to protect the damaged area in a bid to avoid further damage. In a horse race, the jockey is allowed to use the whip at his/her discretion in the last 100m of a race. This means that an already sore area can be struck again several times.
In the images of Vow And Declare, you can distinguish at least four strikes in the area above his right stifle. When viewing the high resolution images (which we are unable to post online), it is possible to discern the stitch lines that secure the padding to the stick’s shaft.
When asked to comment on the images we obtained, Racing Victoria acknowledged the raised marks are visible and said they asked their Stewards to review the race footage and can confirm that Craig Williams, the rider of Vow And Declare did not breach the allowable permitted uses [of the whip]. They further stated that no one noticed the marks, not even during the compulsory post-race inspection in which veterinary surgeons examine the horses for signs of injury:
“All horses in Victoria are observed by the veterinary surgeons as they return to scale post-race to see if there are any identifiable injuries. Additionally, as Vow And Declare was the winner of the race, it was one of six horses directed by the Stewards to be sampled post-race. When a horse is subject to post-race sampling, it is again looked at by the veterinary surgeon to see if there are any apparent injuries. The raised areas on the hindquarter of Vow And Declare were not noted on the day” said the Racing Victoria spokesman.
According to the current Welfare Guidelines for Australian Thoroughbred Racing, “Any post-race whip welts clearly indicate injury”, which begs the question, is anybody checking the horses for whip-induced trauma and inflammation?
It seems uncanny that despite thousands of eyes and many cameras focused on the Melbourne Cup winner, we are the first to ‘see’ the impact and ask the obvious: If modern horse whips aren’t supposed to hurt and the whip was used within the rules, what went wrong for the Melbourne Cup winner?
Racing Victoria did not provide an answer to that question or comment further on why the injuries were not picked up by the racetrack veterinarians on duty, so I can only speculate that perhaps no one is checking on the basis of the official line peddled since padded horse whips became mandatory in 2009; that approved horse whips used within the strict rules don’t hurt.
Racing has tried, for at least a decade, to convince the public that, by virtue of their design, these state-of-the-art encouragement implements cannot inflict any pain. But to date, there are no peer reviewed studies to show padded horse whips don’t hurt whilst a growing body of evidence suggests otherwise.
And besides, whenever horse sports have to regulate a practice or the use of any piece of equipment on the basis that it could otherwise cause the horse harm and/or injury, the onus should be on the sport to provide sufficient evidence that said rules are effective in the field and protecting horses from harm.
In the whipping case, racing bodies seem to have missed the opportunity to find out whether the use of the whip causes a post-race inflammatory response associated with trauma in individual racehorses.
As a combination of heat, pain, redness (bruising) and swelling, inflammation is not hard to identify. Of the four associated aspects, in horses, bruising is harder to spot because of the coat hair, but pain and swelling should be detectable by physical examination, and unusual heat can be picked up with thermography – a non-invasive test that uses an infrared camera to detect heat patterns and blood flow in body tissues.
It is a tool that is already used by other horse sport regulators including the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). The cameras are used in combination with a physical examination to detect hypersensitisation in showjumpers. They can show the unusual heat patterns that result when irritants are applied to the legs. This is a banned practice that causes the horse to lift his/her feet higher in a bid to avoid hitting any showjumping rails, which incurs expensive penalties.
Thermography was used to confirm inflammation caused by a whip strike to human thighs when two brave people volunteered to be struck with an approved racing whip. The evolution of heat patterns and bruising was recorded on camera. That footage can be seen here and here.
But in 2014, the Australian Racing Board dismissed out of hand a research team’s proposal to conduct a study designed to determine whether thermographic cameras would allow whip injuries to be identified.
Racing Victoria’s head of equine welfare and veterinary services at the time, Brian Stewart, agreed thermography “may provide useful information” and added that “certainly the persistence of heat for more than an hour or so would be a pretty good indication that there was tissue damage caused by the whip”. He stated the racing industry was considering conducting its own study, but failed to commit to a start date.
Too much time has passed. The racing industry is already fighting public relations battles on many welfare fronts and while there have been positive announcements of meaningful changes, the elephant in the room continues to be a failure to commit to a complete overhaul of the whip rules.
In a recent interview on the ABC’s RN Breakfast Show, when pressed on the future of the whip and despite insisting that the whip is a public perception issue and not a welfare problem, Racing Victoria’s CEO Giles Thompson admitted that the public would eventually force a ban.
Many people hope this happens sooner rather than later – for the benefit of horses and the sport’s future and social licence to operate. Vow And Declare’s photographic evidence should highlight how difficult it will be for horse sports to contain future scandals particularly when, armed with a smart phone with infrared capabilities (a feature which has been available since 2016), the public will be able to identify injury even when it is missed by racing stakeholders.
So let’s fast forward the inevitable and stop defending the indefensible – horse whips should be carried for safety but not used to urge horses to the finish line.
Hardcore punters who believe horses will not race without whips should check out the British Horseracing Authority’s Racing Excellence Hands and Heels series, where horses have been running straight and winning races without being whipped for at least 20 years.
But before I go, let me add my hope that, when racing finally makes the long awaited decision to ban the urging of horses with a whip, they also tighten their efforts in policing the use of electric shocking devices. Not just for the horses’ sake but for the sake of all those of us who want to enjoy horse sports into the future.