Does whipping make horses win? – Do we care?

You’ve all seen it: jokeys furiously whipping the horses galloping under them. Cute girls with cowboy hats flying off in the dust, whipping their racers around barrels.

Does whipping increase speed? .. Really?

Paul McGreevy, a veterinary ethologist at the University of Sydney, co-authored a study about the efficacy of whipping race horses. Quoted by, and Yahoo News, McGreevy says:

    “It’s the first study to confirm that whipping does not increase the chances of the horse finishing first, second or third,” “Ninety-eight percent of the horses were whipped in this study without, on the whole, influencing race outcome.”

So are horselovers everywhere breathing a sigh of relief –whew, I should have known better than causing my horse pain for my own gain. Now we have accurate proof that we need to train without pain.


Australian newspapers reported that many of the nation’s jockeys, trainers and horse owners “scoffed” at the research. I have not been able to find a source quote for who exactly reported who exactly “scoffed.” I could not determine if whoever “scoffed,” scoffed at the research itself or if they were defending the practice of physically hurting horses to make them run faster. I posted on a racing forum asking opinions about the whipping study, but the thread did not generate any interest.

A closer look at the study
I am thrilled when serious researchers have the resources to set up serious, credible studies regarding such issues in the horseworld. Our training techniques work amazingly well, given that they are based on art and traditions and much less on science or real facts. However, we are all aware that beating animals into submission and using all kinds of physical pain to control animals was and still is distressingly common. On the other hand, we can use whips, wands, wild willow sticks, and target poles and even orange plastic sticks (at $57 each or are they $75 by now!) and we use them as communications tools, not to inflict pain or fear. In fact, we specifically train young horses to understand the use of a whip or crop as a communication tool and the horses accept it as such.

I emailed Dr. Mc Greevy with my main question regarding the methodology of this study:

    should a jockey insist that whipping is effective in increasing speed, or should a percentage of horses in future studies indeed increase speed when whipped, it would be worth considering that the speed increase occurs inspite of, not because of the pain — possibly due to the cue of raising/lowering that whip.

    Such a cue could be “good” .. ie to clearly (visually) communicate rhythm ..consequence of
    non-compliance would be the removal of trainer’s attention as in a time out ..
    ..or “bad” .. as in a threat followed by a hit/pain.

About those questioning the validity of the study, Dr. McGreevy wrote (private communication): “One day they will have to admit that they supported the whipping of tired horses – what a strange position to defend!” and “The correct use of whips as signalling devices is explored in the attached papers.”

Dressage people also immediately brought up appropriate uses of a crop as communication device in this thread on the Ultimate Dressage bulleting board. A trainer I respect captures what many consider appropriate uses of the crop, she writes:

    A usual use of the whip is one hit and fan the horse with the arm. The first hit (or two) does get a reaction, after than most fan with the whip. Almost all know that more doesn’t help with anything.

A barrel racer writes in the same thread:

    I only carried a whip with a horse that I thought may be deciding not to listen to my cues to move it. […] Now when used I would pop them once. If that didn’t tell them to move it, then we needed more training or maybe he was hurting. As far as running home don’t use it for that. My horses would run at the urging of my legs. No huge kicking, no reason for that. The more still I could be an convey my message the better. I see too many barrel racers whipping on the home stretch and the horse is never picking up more speed. Useless and cruel. So my opinion is it can be used successfully and with tact. But unfortunately, too many use it excessively and I’d be interested in seeing races without the whip to see how that worked out. I also think the whip is probably more abused in barrel races than in horse races, but I could be wrong about that.

We might need another controlled scientific study to prove that whipping doesn’t make barrel racers go faster, either. In a future post, I will look at Dr. McGreevy and Dr. Evans’ research about using whips to communicate.

But isn’t it fantastic that, thanks to this study, we now have data to validate the humane trainers’ and riders’ opinions that whipping to cause pain “doesn’t help with anything?”


An Investigation of Racing Performance and Whip Use by Jockeys in Thoroughbred Races
David Evans, Paul McGreevy
Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Citation: Evans D, McGreevy P (2011) An Investigation of Racing Performance and Whip Use by Jockeys in Thoroughbred Races.
PLoS ONE 6(1): e15622. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015622

Horsewhipping Study Whips Up Controversy
Rebecca Kessler, LiveScience Contributor, 09 February 2011

    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, researchers found.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: