Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

No Need to Flog a Tired Horse

By Stephen Luntz

A study of 48 racehorses has found no benefit from whipping them in the last stage of a race.

The research was conducted by Hon A/Prof David Evans and Prof Paul McGreevy of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science. It was funded by the RSPCA and published in the Public Library of Science.

Although only one horse was not whipped at all in the study, the number of times the other horses were whipped ranged from 1–14 over the last 400 metres. Evans and McGreevy found that increased whipping did not improve the chances that a horse would place.

“How a horse ran in the first part of a race, when it wasn’t being whipped, was the most critical factor in racing success,” Evans says. “So horses are being whipped in the final stages of a race, in the face of muscle fatigue, for no benefit.”

Interestingly, the one horse that was not whipped came from ninth place at the 400 metre mark to win the race, although Evans stresses that a single example should not be relied on.

Evans says some trainers have claimed that whipping a horse causes a short extra burst of speed, but Evans argues that this lasts no more than 20–30 metres and may even be detrimental, causing the horse to become more tired and lose speed over a longer distance. “It’s hard for a fatigued animal to respond to a noxious stimulus in a sustained way,” he says.

The finding has not been welcomed by many in the industry, and Evans acknowledges that a larger study, including a range of surface conditions, may be required to settle the question permanently. However, he claims that this is the first published study of the effectiveness of whipping horses, and as such makes a case that the practice is pointless.

Despite this, Evans says, there is great pressure on jockeys to continue whipping because a jockey who chooses not to whip a horse may be seen to have not tried. “Everyone notices the horses that win and that these are whipped, but they don’t look at those that don’t,” he says.

Horses in Australian races can only be struck with padded whips, which many argue do not cause pain, but Evans says we lack a method to test this.