Whip use: Horses may be more sensitive to pain than we thought

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A special staining technique called immunohistochemistry allowed Dr Lydia Tong to specifically stain up only nerve endings. In this case they have been stained a bold red. There are more nerve endings in the horse skin than the human skin, including in the epidermis (the layer on top with all the blue circles). These represent sensory fibres, including those which feel pain, she said. Photos: Lydia Tong's report
A special staining technique called immunohistochemistry allowed Dr Lydia Tong to specifically stain up only nerve endings. In this case they have been stained a bold red. There are more nerve endings in the horse skin than the human skin, including in the epidermis (the layer on top with all the blue circles). These represent sensory fibres, including those which feel pain, she said. © Lydia Tong

An Australian forensic veterinary pathologist has found evidence that horses are not as “thick-skinned” as many believe, raising questions around whip use.

Dr Lydia Tong, who is with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, found that horse skin was thicker than human skin, but by less than 1 millimetre.

The difference, she said, was primarily in the deep collagen tissue, which sits below the superficial pain-sensing fibres.

“The horse epidermis – the very top-most layer of skin where the pain sensing nerves are found – was actually thinner than the human epidermis,” she told Catalyst, an Australian science show screened on ABC.

This meant that horses had fewer skin cells lying between the source of pain, such as a whip, and its sensitive nerve endings.

“In some ways you could therefore argue that when it comes to pain, the horse’s skin is thinner,” she said.

A close up of the very top layer of the skin (epidermis) where the sensitive pain sensing nerve fibres end. The human epidermis is thicker than the horse epidermis, so there are more cells lying on top of the nerve endings.
A close up of the very top layer of the skin (epidermis) where the sensitive pain sensing nerve fibres end. The human epidermis is thicker than the horse epidermis, so there are more cells lying on top of the nerve endings.

Tong conducted her research at the request of Catalyst, which posed the question: Is there any anatomical reason to believe that horses don’t feel pain like we do?

“This small pilot study suggests that horse skin really doesn’t have all the supposed ‘padding’ from pain that we often assume larger animals have,” she reported.

“And even more revealing than that, the skin of the body – where we whip horses – may have even more sensation than ours.”

Tong noted that while there was some information available about horse-skin thickness, it appeared that no-one had ever looked specifically at the pain-sensing fibres in the skin of horses.

She set out to see if horse-skin thickness and nerves were really that different to human skin.

She took a piece of horse skin from the flank area, as well as a piece of skin from the equivalent area on a human. She examined both the structure of the skin and the precise location and amount of nerve tissue.

Her work under a microscope revealed that horse skin was less than 1mm thicker than human skin, but that the horse epidermis was actually thinner than the human epidermis. She described both findings as surprising.

A piece of horse and human skin side by side, showing a comparison of depth. The pink area shows the collagen (dermis), and the thin purple area at the top is the epidermis, where most of the pain-sensing nerve fibres are found, Tong said.
A piece of horse and human skin side by side, showing a comparison of depth. The pink area shows the collagen (dermis), and the thin purple area at the top is the epidermis, where most of the pain-sensing nerve fibres are found, Tong said.

Tong then employed a special stain that coloured only nerve tissue, revealing that horses appeared to have considerably more nerve endings in their skin than humans, including the nerves in the epidermis where the pain sensation primarily occurs.

“We were astounded by these simple findings,” Tong said.

She said she intended to extend her work into a full-sized research project.

“I believe that the best way to make a decision about horse whipping is by establishing the facts through science.

“Are we using pain to make horses run faster? So far, it certainly looks like it.”

Australian Racing Board chief executive Peter McGauran told Catalyst that the industry was satisfied, on all the available veterinary advice that, if jockeys kept to the limit of strikes allowed under the rules, there was no cruelty to a horse.

The whip used in horse-racing was padded, he noted.

“There are strict rules as to how often a jockey can strike a horse and in what manner. And I believe this does not inflict pain on a horse.

“It’s instead part of the urging of a horse to extract the best possible performance. If there was any aspect of cruelty to it, neither I nor the many thousands of people who care tenderly and lovingly for these horses would have a part of it.”

He acknowledged that if evidence emerged that it inflicted pain, then the industry would do away with the whip.

The Catalyst material can be viewed here
The transcript of the item can be read here
Dr Lydia Tong’s report can be read here

5 thoughts on “Whip use: Horses may be more sensitive to pain than we thought

  • March 25, 2015 at 11:14 pm
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    All animals suffer. The point is, that if ppl STOP ABUSING animals, this even wasn’t an issue.

    Reply
  • March 26, 2015 at 7:01 am
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    Why is this a surprise? A horse can feel a fly land on its’ body and twitches his/her skin to get rid of it. Surprise? Surely not! Research it? Certainly. There are non-believers all over. And that is not a surprise either . . .unfortunately.

    Reply
  • March 26, 2015 at 3:42 pm
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    I have seen when watching a televised horse race nothing but the whips flying up and down constantly. If someone could see the damage done to the skin after a race the whipping would have been stopped years ago. I’ll bet that the fear of the whip is one of reasons that some race horses act up on the track and don’t want to run. I also believe these horses would run fine without being hit constantly. Give them their head and let them run and see just who wins.

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  • March 27, 2015 at 5:43 am
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    The whip is psychological. Humans ‘think’ it helps the horse and encourages him to run faster. Bunch of bologna. Encouragement? That’s like screaming at a kid while he’s running a 100 m dash. He’ll run faster – on fear not determination.

    I agree let the horse have it’s head, train humanely and drop the whip. If you can’t race without a tool – then I’m sorry you’re not a winner. Some horses have the heart to run and others don’t. You just have to find the right horse with the right desire. Whipping does not get you that desire.

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  • January 2, 2018 at 7:36 am
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    I am thankful for this research since it was reseach that made the world aware of the importance of respectful and loving care and treatment of children, although it should be more than obvious to us all. The same goes for the care and treatment of animals and horses very much in particular. Horses are seen as some form of numb cattle (cattle aren’t numb either although treated as such). And the history of whipping and beating horses and cattle is seen as natural and “necessary”. As much as humans have no right to torture and destroy the psyche of an elephant to make her do tricks in a circus or perform as a “ride”. Just the same we do not have the right to hit any animals ever, not in the name of sport, foodindustry or whatever the money there is in it. The human relation to animals (and very much horses) need to radically be enlightened that we have the responsibility to protect and love other animals and our only mother earth.
    Hence – Whipping horses is non excusable!!!

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