whip use in standardbred racing

Dramatic whip use in Standardbred racing might make for a thrilling finish for some spectators, but it’s probably not going to make the horses trot any faster. Recent study results suggest that modifications in whip rules over the years, aimed toward more ethical use, had no negative effect on racing performance or race times.

Their data analysis suggested there might have even been a slight trend toward improved performance after whip use in Standardbred racing was regulated to allow for “flicking actions of the wrist or elbow” as opposed to a “swinging arm action,” said Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Harness Racing Australia changed whip use rules in Thoroughbred and harness racing, starting in January 2010, toward more “welfare-friendly” rules, he said. Those progressive changes were met with criticism that less whipping would make the horses run slower. But results from McGreevy’s study contradict that criticism, he said: He and his fellow researchers found that since the rules were introduced, horses haven’t raced any slower—on the contrary, they’ve become slightly faster.

The early 2010 change prohibited jockeys from holding only the whip in either hand—they must hold reins in both hands, limiting their ability to strike with force. Later that year and the following year, authorities allowed an exception to the rule for the last 200 meters (656 feet) of the race, but they eliminated that exception in 2016. Current Harness Racing Australia rules state that “a driver shall be deemed to have used the whip in an unapproved manner” if “whip action involves more than a wrist and elbow action” and “if the whip is used other than in a flicking motion,” among other provisions.

Study Results

McGreevy and colleagues gathered data from all 133,338 harness races put on by Harness Racing Australia and its member organizations from the 2007-2008 racing season to the 2015-2016 racing season. They compared the winning times of these races, which were all at least 1 mile (1,609 m) long.

They found that, overall, winning times improved over the nine-year period. In fact, horses were more likely to clock winning times of less than 1:55 minutes after the whip regulations were introduced in 2010 compared to before. While many factors might play into this improved performance trend, more ethical whip use in Standardbred racing does not seem to hinder it, McGreevy said.

“We acknowledge that race times improve over time and found that moderation of whip use did nothing to affect this change,” he said.

Ethical Whip Use in Standardbred Racing

The data suggest that racing authorities could improve on animal welfare without compromising race results, said McGreevy. Racing without forceful whipping might change the “entertainment” image of racing as people have come to know it, he said, but overall, a more ethical use of the whip could lead to an improved public image of the sport.

“Racegoers may have become accustomed to the display of whip use at the end of races, as if it demonstrates that each horse is being ridden out on its merits,” he said. “Races in which whip use is permitted only for safety purposes may, at first glance, appear less spectacular than the currently norm, but observers will soon begin to appreciate the skills of the best hands-and-heels jockeys.

“Racing with hands-and-heels only, as is the case in Norway and for some races in the U.K., undoubtedly reveals the best horsemanship,” McGreevy added.

While this study focused on harness racing, but he said previous research has revealed similar results for Thoroughbred racing. Generally speaking, whipping an exhausted horse isn’t likely to improve his performance, regardless of the equestrian sport, he said.

“The public whipping of tired horses 150 years ago (in Victorian England) was the original catalyst for the animal protection movement we know today,” McGreevy said. “Whipping tired horses is impossible to justify and so remains a bad look for any discipline.”

The study, “Longitudinal trends in the frequency of medium and fast race winning times in Australian harness racing: Relationships with rules moderating whip use,” was published in PLOS ONE.