Do horses feel pain when whipped? Racing industry officials have long held that they don’t.
Yet in two studies released around Melbourne Cup week, Professor Paul McGreevy from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science and his colleagues have found that not only have horses evolved to feel as much pain when whipped as a human would, but that there is no compelling reason to whip these animals at all.
The culmination of nearly a decade of research, these findings have the potential to fundamentally change the racing industry, locally and worldwide.
Published across two papers in open access journal Animals, Professor McGreevy says he would not be surprised if the findings prompt the phasing-out of whipping in Australian racing within two years.
Professor McGreevy and colleagues examined whether horses are likely to feel as much pain as humans would when whipped. Using microscopic samples of skin from 10 deceased humans and 20 euthanised horses, they looked for differences between the species’ skin structure and nerve supply.
The results revealed “no significant difference” between humans and horses in the concentration of nerve endings in the outer layers of skin, nor any difference in thickness of this skin layer.
“This was not surprising, as horses, like humans, need robust yet sensitive skin to respond to touch, say, from flying insects or other horses,” said Professor McGreevy.
“From this, we can deduce that horses are likely to feel as much pain as humans would when being whipped.”
“Repeated strikes of the whip in horses that are fatigued as they end a race are likely to be distressing and cause suffering. A horse’s loss of agency as it undergoes this kind of repeated treatment is thought to lead to learned helplessness.”
In another paper, Professor McGreevy and colleagues, including Professor Phil McManus from the School of Geosciences, used data from the UK racing industry to compare 67 races with whips to 59 without, controlled for variables including number of horses, racetrack surface characteristics on the day, and race distance.
“In the UK, unlike in Australia, the racing authorities hold whip-free races for apprentice jockeys,” Professor McGreevy explained. “This seems at odds with the racing industry’s claim that whips are necessary for steering, and therefore, jockey safety.
“Nevertheless, our analysis of racing stewards’ reports from the two types of races revealed no statistical safety difference between races with and without whips.”
He and his co-authors also found that race times and metrics of racing integrity – compliance with rules – did not differ between the kinds of races. “This invalidates industry assumptions to the contrary,” Professor McGreevy said.
“The findings of this study clearly show that the use of whips in horse racing is unnecessary, unjustifiable and unreasonable.”
Declaration: These studies and the costs of open access publication were supported by the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and the RSPCA Australia.