Should we Still be Whipping Racehorses in the 21st Century?

This week we shall turn to the equestrian world.  As related a month ago in this column, you will be very aware that Downpatrick is a cradle of modern horse racing.  We have one of the finest courses in Ireland and been blessed by the visits of some equine superstars.  I see no reason why we shouldn’t be at the forefront of equine science today, as we have been for centuries.

Man has been riding horses for about 4000 years now.  Evidence indicates that the horse was first domesticated around 2,500 B.C.  First they were yoked to plough fields, but then some bright spark decided that farming was hard work and it was easier to steal your neighbour’s stuff.  So he put a chariot on a horse and terrified neighbouring tribes.  This activity is recorded in Egyptian reliefs and the fantastic Assyrian friezes in the British Museum.  The country that learned to control the horse in warfare conquered the world e.g Ghengis Khan and his Mongol Horde.  In our own part of the world Julius Caesar noted that the Celts he faced in the British Isles used chariots to charge his legions.  Now, cleaving to the matter at hand: Roman mosaics show us that their own charioteers used whips.

A whip is used to “encourage” a horse to run faster at the appropriate time in a race.  It might be to overtake and opponent, or to surge forward in the final few metres.  Whips are usually made of leather or some form of flexible wood.  The rider brings the whip down on the flank (hip) of the horse, and the resulting sensation will cause the horse to move forward.  Proponents of the use of the whip argue that it does not hurt the horse, merely encourages it to run, as it has been “trained that way”.  The argument runs that some horses would not perform unless the whip is used, as this is what they know.

The counter argument is this – “if a whip didn’t hurt a horse, why would it react at all?”.  Presumably the horse feels something when the rider strikes it, otherwise it would not surge forward.  Horses are physiologically similar to humans, so while we cannot know what a horse feels, we can infer that it is similar to what a human would feel if whipped.  In our society, such an action would be an assault, and therefore illegal.  The other justification that horses are trained to run with the whip could be easily dealt with – ban their use in 4 years time, this would allow a gradual change in training methods for horses and jockeys alike.  It seems likely that when a horse is whipped it feels, at the least, discomfort and fear.  These are sensations that we should seek to minimize to protect the human-animal bond, not enhance.

It is time to end the use of the whip when dealing with the horse.  Equine science has made huge advances in recent years with respect to training horses.  Monty Roberts and others have shown that humane techniques can be used to “break horses” without the “breaking part”.  I.e. train them to be ridden in days rather than months by focussing on communication from the horse’s point of view.  Times change, and the time has come to reassess whether we really should be whipping this noble animal in the 21st Century.  Our ancestors, the Assyrians and the Romans did a lot of admirable things, but this was not one of them.