whip use in racehorses

Jockeys whip racehorses. But welfare advocates cry out against it. The current compromise? Whip less.

But according to leading equitation scientists, reducing whipping frequency could be just as bad for the horse, causing confusion and creating new welfare issues.

“New industry rules intended to improve horse welfare, focusing on decreasing whipping frequency, may actually go against the principles of operant training and, specifically, negative reinforcement,” said Angelo Telatin, PhD, associate professor of equine studies at Delaware Valley University, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. “This may lead to ineffective training results and/or the occurrence of aversive behaviors.”

In a recent pilot study, Telatin and his fellow researchers studied how 14 horses reacted to light whipping on the hindquarters at various intervals: 3 seconds, 1.5 seconds, or less than one second between a series of three taps. The researchers used the tapping to teach the horses, wearing halters and blinders (to prevent seeing the trainer’s body language), a new skill using the whip: moving their hindquarters toward the whip. Telatin presented his study during his presentation at the 2017 International Society for Equitation Science Symposium, held Nov. 22-26 in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

The group found that the horses learned the requested behavior better if the whipping occurred in intervals of less than one second. With 1.5- or 3-second intervals between taps, the horses tended to try new, unwanted behaviors—seeking, essentially, a way to stop the tapping.

Applied to horse training, the study results suggest that if a rider whips a horse in intervals of more than one second, the horse will not associate moving forward with the cue from the whip, Telatin said. For the horse to understand through negative reinforcement that the whip means forward, the tapping must stop when the horse responds by going forward. If he goes forward and is tapped again two or three seconds later, the negative reinforcement has failed, and the horse might try new behaviors—including aversive ones, such as bucking or kicking out—to stop the whipping. They might also become desensitized to the whip or even try slowing down.

“If we use the whip as a negative reinforcement tool, we want to make sure there’s no behavior for the horse in between strikes,” he said. “But in the industry, the average use of the whip carries an arm recharge time, and it could take more than a second to lift the whip all the way back up above the shoulder and down again.”

During that time, up to three seconds, horses can “invent their own behavior and be convinced that it’s working to stop the whip,” he said. “A wrong or unwanted behavior is often an unwanted shaped response because we don’t control the timing of the whip.”

The study could lead to better use of the whip through more voluntary behavior of trainers and jockeys, said Telatin. If they learn about the science behind whip use, they might act more out of a desire for effective whip use than out of having to follow set whip rules.

The way many riders use whips actually constitutes what scientists call “positive punishment.” Positive punishment is the addition of an unpleasant stimulus (in this case, the whip strike) after an action by the horse. Essentially, if the rider whips the horse, the horse moves forward, and the rider whips the horse again, the rider is “punishing” the horse for his action of moving forward.

“The most powerful tool to change the world is education,” Telatin said. “If we go to the federations with this information, they can educate—not police—riders. So if we change the mentality, then we can accomplish better welfare for the horses. And we really need to focus on shifting the use of the whip to negative reinforcement as opposed to positive punishment.”