Does whipping actually hurt a horse?

Dr Lydia Tong

A NSW veterinary pathologist believes she's found the answer to the question whether whipping actually hurts a horse. 

(Transcript from World News Radio)

It's been one of the more controversial questions in horse racing: does whipping actually hurt a horse?

As Kristina Kukolja reports, for the first time, science appears to have come back with an answer.

(Click on audio tab to listen to this item)

Dr Lydia Tong has made a discovery that's putting the horseracing industry under the microscope, yet again.

The forensic veterinary pathologist at the Elizabeth MacArthur Agriculture Institute outside Sydney has been studying human skin and comparing it to a racehorse's, paying close attention to areas where thoroughbreds are known to be whipped.

"We found that, actually, there seem to be more nerve endings in that piece of horse skin, which was a big surprise. In addition, this idea that horses' skin is thicker and so they are more resistant to pain was a little bit debunked because, in fact, the very top layer of the skin which lies over the pain sensing fibres was actually thinner in horses than it was in people. So, it was only a comparison of the two -- one person and one horse at this stage -- but it really gave us a lot of food for thought."

From the anatomical differences, and similarities, she draws conclusions about how horse skin might respond.

"I think what we can say that there's no neurological or anatomical reason to believe that they are experiencing anything differently to what we are. We know that neuro-anatomy is incredibly well conserved between species -- certainly mammals -- and the function that senses pain is one of the most primitive parts of neurological function. So, we don't have any reason to believe that it's any different."

Past research has indicated whipping has no effect on a racehorse's speed on the track.

There are allegations violations go unsanctioned, and what would constitute animal cruelty off the racecourse is being overlooked on it.

Elio Celotto from the Victoria-based Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses hopes Dr Tong's study will be a step towards eradicating the whipping other than to control the racehorse.

"I'm not sure what more the racing industry needs to know that we don't already know that clearly these horses are running out of (because of) fear, and it's time that the racing industry changed the way they use their whips. If they want the general public to be on side with horse racing they must address this issue."

But the country's top thoroughbred racing authority says there are restrictions on how padded whips are used on racehorses.

The CEO of the Australian Racing Board, Peter McGauran, is satisfied with the way industry rules are enforced, and regulated.

"We constantly have the rules governing application under review. We will take account of any objective study. However, we work with horses every day, we operate continually under veterinary and scientific advice and we don't believe the whip -- if properly applied within the rules, and we strictly enforce it and penalise jockeys who breach the rules -- inflicts pain on a horse. We could not sanction inflicting pain on a horse."

Peter McGauran says the horse racing industry is taking its obligations seriously.

"Stewards penalised or fined jockeys on 570 instances, over the last 12 months, out of a 197-thousand horses competing, which represents a breach of the rules in 0.03 per cent. We would want that to be zero alltogether and we keep reminding jockeys of their obligations and the need to meet community standards and expectations of the wider public. We will enforce the rules even more stringently, but jockeys have already adapted to the new regime and overall there is compliance."

Dr Lydia Tong doesn't believe that's where the conversation should end.

"I'd like to do more research to present something that's more rock solid. I think that the industry, from what I understand, is very open to having the discussion. There are already countries such as Norway, who have banned whipping in racing. There are models there to look at. I think we need more research and have a nice, open and informed discussion with the industry."




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