Do whips make racehorses run faster? Evidently not, say researchers.

Horse people have debated the ethics of whips, spurs and training aids through equitation history.   I weigh in with nothing against the use of artificial aids – applied within a system and with timing a horse understands.

Racing whip rules have been written and revised, swayed by the court of public opinion and the advocacy of welfare groups.    But this research from equitation scientists, asked this interesting whip question about whip use on the race track…

“Does it actually work?”   

I’ll let you read the full study, but in a nutshell….Equitation science researchers discourage whip use in racing because…

It doesn’t make sense. To the horse. Or in the results.

Evidently, use of the whip on the race track doesn’t improve steering, reduce interference or make racehorses run faster.  

Welfare  advocates cry out against whip use. The current compromise? Whip less.

But according to leading equitation scientists, reducing whipping frequency could be just as bad for the horse, causing confusion and creating new welfare issues.

“New industry rules intended to improve horse welfare, focusing on decreasing whipping frequency, may actually go against the principles of operant training and, specifically, negative reinforcement. This may lead to ineffective training results and/or the occurrence of aversive behaviors.” Angelo Telatin, PhD. “

Here’s the article

and my summary of the International Society for Equitation science whip research:

Dr. Paul McGreevy. The  International Society for Equitation Science and advisors to the British Horseracing Authority on welfare issues recommend against the use of the whip for ‘encouragement’.
The science tells us why…

Learning theory informs us that whipping a horse as it is accelerating punishes the behaviour one is hoping to encourage, serving instead to inhibit that response. Countless studies on the use of whips in racing come to the same conclusion. Whipping racehorses does not make them run more quickly.   study investigating Australian harness racing from 2007 – 2016, found that as whip use rulings became more stringent, winning times were not compromised

Does it improve steering, or reduce interference?

No. Comparing 1,178 starters in whip-free (apprentice) and whip-permitted (professional jockey) races in the UK, researchers found that shifting right or left or interfering with another horse was more likely in the whip permitted races. Analyzing photographs of Australian racehorses who ran either clockwise or counterclockwise researchers found that the hand in which the whip was held was not related to the direction of the track but to the handedness of the jockey, again suggesting that whip use is not being used for steering correction.

Horses may be too fatigued to respond, or they have learned that their responses fail to alleviate negative consequences (i.e. they are whipped regardless of whether they accelerate or not, or when they are already running at their maximum) and they simply give up trying to affect their outcome – a state of learned helplessness.

Again, citing Dr. McGreevy, the WHWO suggests that if whip use is to continue ethically, jockeys need to have a grounding in equine learning theory, as without this understanding there exists an increased potential for abuse…