By Emanuela Valle, veterinary surgeon
The whip: let's clarify a boorishcustom to be abolished
With the latest events on the racing fields there has been a lot of talk about the use of the whip and, to confirm the dishonesty of this gesture, I would like to try to summarize what science says, because only it can really protect the horse.
In literature, researchers now show that the whip effects on horses have been tried to be identified for nearly 20 years.
A first study in 2004 conducted on flat obstacle races identified the use of the whip as a potential risk factor causing a horse to fall during the race, so much so that the same authors, perhaps among the first, suggested "whipless racing".
The group of Prof. McGreevy, an expert on horse well-being and behavior, actually proved - data to hand - that the increased use of the whip was not associated with significant variations in speed, nor is it predictive of a better finish on arrival, it is rather a counter productive help, not only for the result but above all for the well-being of the horse. And so, slowly in the world of racing, where the whip is a tradition considered necessary, regulations are finally born on the use of the whip and whipless racing.
How is it possible? The much loved whip used to "straighten" and spur the horse does not actually seem to give the desired effects even in races where strictly speaking, using the whip is thought to be the same as encouraging the horse to run more.
Well, this is what we think. We are certainly diverted from fierce cowboy films and traditions unfortunately linked to the need to punish the animal. What scientific studies confirm is the exact opposite.
A whip has very deleterious effects on the horse both physically and psychologically. The most obvious is certainly the pain. If we want to make a comparison, let's think for example, of some loud spanking (which for children of my time was almost the norm). Those moments, I'm sure we all remember: pain and negative emotions remain well etched in our minds and this also applies to the horse.
In fact, his skin is very sensitive. The very recent studies by Tong et al., 2020 show that, although the horse's skin is a little thicker than human skin, this does not isolate it from pain. In fact, the superficial epidermal layer is richly innervated and all the anatomical structures responsible for the perception of pain as it happens in humans are present.
The purpose of the dense superficial skin nerve network is easily understood when we think about the fact that horses are able to feel a tiny fly resting on their massive body. In short, if they are able to feel a small insect, why shouldn't they feel the effect of a whip?
A loud whip has an incredible strength. Some studies have evaluated an impact force of up to 55 newtons, a unit of force that is equivalent to 5.5 of the so-called kilo-force. Such a force causes serious injuries and it does not matter that the whip is of the "padded" type, and approved in its terminal design. The impact is not always on the back and often occurs on the abdomen, both extremely sensitive and delicate body parts.
We do not think that these problems are related only to the world of racing, because they are also present in the world of classical riding. Injuries such as bleeding, swelling and abrasions are reported by a study conducted by Uldahl and Clayton, but they are also easy to understand from the analysis of the FEI yellow cards (the yellow card given in the event of a warning following the violation of rules of the FEI regulation). Among these is also the excessive use of the whip as an abuse on the horse. Just browse the FEI website to see how many riders have received this warning for these very reasons.
This is the hardest side to accept, because on the competition fields or anywhere, abuse should not be allowed. But if this still happens, I believe it is linked to the lack of knowledge of the animal and its learning abilities. In fact, in addition to the already very serious physical issue, there are the psychological effects that the horse experiences when it is whipped. The need to whip the horse, either to make him run or jump more, or to make him learn his lesson is just our misguided idea.
In the horse’s mind, sound lashes on the finishing straight or before a jump are not an incentive to do well, but an aversive stimulus that does nothing but cause pain and fear that certainly does not facilitate learning.
It is unthinkable that the horse discriminates in favour of the use of the whip used in these ways and understands that it must complete the required task. More likely, his state of mind will be linked to fear: this determines escape responses, hyper-arousal, while in other cases it results in the so-called freezingwhich manifests itself with a true "freezing" of the animal that appears blocked and unable to do any action.
Pain and fear are negative emotions that do not help in communication with the horse. They do not create the necessary conditions for communication, positive and effective learning.
• The horse's skin is as sensitive to pain as that of humans.
• Even a single lash can be strong enough to cause physical injury.
• One or more lashes create a state of fear and agitation in the horse that does not allow himto learn anything.
• Whipping a horse is never justifiable in any context.
• McGreevy P., et al., (2013). A note on the force of whip impacts delivered by jockeys using forehand and backhand strikes. Journal of Veterinary Behavior,8(5), 395-399. link
• Tong L., et al., (2020). A Comparative Neuro-Histological Assessment of Gluteal Skin Thickness and Cutaneous Nociceptor Distribution in Horses and Humans. Animals, 10(11), 1-15.link
• Evans D and McGreevy P. (2011). An investigation of racing performance and whip use by jockeys in thoroughbred races. PLoS One, 27, 6(1), e15622.
• Hood, et al., (2017). Whip Rule Breaches in a Major Australian Racing Jurisdiction: Welfare and Regulatory Implications. Animals,7(1), 1-25. link
• Pinchbeck G. L., et al., 2004. Whip use and race progress are associated with horse falls in hurdle and steeplechase racing in the UK. Equine Veterinary journal, 36(5), 384-389.
• Thompson K., et al., (2020). Is Whip Use Important to Thoroughbred Racing Integrity? What Stewards Reports Reveal about Fairness to Punters, Jockeys and Horses. Animals, 10(11), 1-13. link
• UldahlM., Clayton H.M. 2019. Lesions associated with the use of bits, nosebands, spurs and whips in Danish competition horses. Equine Veterinary journal 51(2):154-162