Australia will be the first country in the world to ban the use of whips in harness racing and training when a ban comes in on September 1, 2017.
Harness Racing Australia says the ban is “a world-leading animal welfare initiative that improves the industry’s image and enhances its sustainability”.
The announcement followed Australasian harness racing’s Inter Dominion finals in Perth.
“The whip ban decision was not taken lightly, but was made on our own initiative because we believe it is the right decision at the right time,” HRA Chairman Geoof Want said.
“We have been moving down this path for six years by limiting its use with a strong focus on health and welfare of horses. We see the ban as a vital way of demonstrating our responsibility as an industry, and to earning and maintaining the social acceptance and sustainability of harness racing”.
He said the implementation of the ban from September 1 will allow for a program of awareness, education, and research and monitoring to be undertaken across the industry.
The program will embrace the education of drivers and horses. It will also include a major research task to ensure safety is maintained when drivers do not have a whip to control unexpected horse movements.
Want said many drivers were concerned that control over a horse would be curtailed without a whip, especially when horses shy or back up. He said the HRA Executive accepted the challenges the ban presented for ensuring safety was maintained for drivers, people, horses, trainers, stablehands, and people nearby.
“Between now and the implementation of the whip ban, we will consult widely in the industry, especially with drivers and trainers, and with animal welfare advocates, such as the RSPCA,” Want said.
“Whatever tool evolves from this process it will only be allowed to avoid or guide a horse out of a dangerous situation to itself, other horses, drivers or anyone nearby.
“It will definitely be banned from use to urge a horse to better perform, and strict penalties will apply for any breaches of its use.
“Undoubtedly, some people may resist change, or feel the decision limits competitiveness in harness racing. We are confident they will be proved wrong and will eventually see the merit of banning the whip,” he said.
“There is ample evidence the whip is not needed in our industry and that its use to enhance racing performance is questionable,” he said. “If no driver uses a whip then no driver has a perceived advantage – each race will be conducted on a level playing field, have a fair winner and horse welfare will be enhanced”.
The HRA had also appointed an Equine Health & Welfare Coordinator to benchmark states, review policy, manage disease and quarantine, and clear international horse movements.
RSPCA Australia CEO Heather Neil commended the HRA’s move on the whip ban. “This is a powerful sign that the harness racing industry is both listening to its stakeholders, and acknowledging the concerns of the wider community.
“As Harness Racing Australia has recognised, racing should celebrate quality horsemanship, breeding and training – whips shouldn’t come into it.”
Australia’s leading driver – and 11-times winner of the national drivers’ championship – Chris Alford said he supported the ban.
“Drivers are very sensitive to their horses and appreciate and support moves to ensure high standards of animal welfare that are aligned with community expectations,” he said.
“We also know that a shying horse is a danger to itself, drivers, people and other horses nearby. I fully support the decision to ban the whip, plus maintain safety for all involved”.