Supporters of whip use in racing are mostly men, study findings show

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Researchers in Australia have delved into public perceptions of whip use in racing. Photo: Florian Christoph CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Researchers in Australia have delved into public perceptions of whip use in racing. Photo: Florian Christoph CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Those who support racehorse whipping are significantly more likely to be male, research has shown.

The more often people attended races or gambled on them, the more likely they were to agree that horses should be hit with a whip during the normal course of a race.

Researchers have delved deeper into data from an Australian survey commissioned (but not conducted) by the Australian RSPCA on racehorse whipping.

The initial survey results revealed that 74% percent of respondents felt horses should not be hit with a whip during races. Furthermore, 87% who watched or bet on racing would continue to do so if whipping were stopped.

“This finding is important,” said University of Sydney researcher Professor Paul McGreevy and his colleagues, “because the racing industry has long used the argument that serious punters want to see horses ‘ridden out’ (that is, ridden hard to the finish line) so that they can be satisfied that the horses they have backed have been given the best chance of winning.”

Among those who watched and gambled on horse racing at least once a week, 90% said that they would continue to do so if whips were not used.

The researchers analysed further data from the poll of 1533 people to learn more about the 26% of respondents (113 females and 271 males) who supported the whipping of racehorses and the 10% of racing enthusiasts in the sample (44 females and 63 males) who would stop watching races and betting on them if whipping were banned.

They examined associations between age, gender, and income level of respondents.

“The main finding of the present study is that men are more supportive of whipping horses during horse races than women,” McGreevy and his colleagues reported in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE.

“Even when age, household income, and involvement with horseracing are taken into account, males were more likely than females to have no problem with horses being whipped.

“This is, arguably, not surprising given that men are approximately eight times more likely to engage in violence generally than women and that most animal crime offenders are male.

“The more frequently respondents attended horse races or gambled on them, the more likely they were to agree that horses should be hit with a whip during the normal course of a race.

“It cannot be presumed that most racing enthusiasts are aware of recent animal welfare concerns regarding the use of the whip in racing,” they said.

“It may be that the more exposed they are to whip use the more they see it as normal or the more they regard coercion as being needed to avoid jockeys throwing a race by not ensuring that the horses are pushed to their limits.

“It may also be the case that gamblers want to win money at any cost, even if it means that a horse is ill-treated.”

Those in the lowest income bracket were found to be over-represented among racing enthusiasts who would stop watching races and betting on them if whipping were banned,

The study team said horse racing was steeped in tradition but was increasingly the source of various welfare concerns, such as the use of the whip and the physical dangers to horses involved in jumping races.

Recent studies, they noted, had cast doubt on the effectiveness of whipping horses during races, which has raised questions around its continuing justification.

The study team said that, in the context of horse racing, whipping can be considered violence only if the individual using the physical force intends to harm the animal.

“It is acknowledged that intent to cause harm is difficult to infer and this has led to the definition of animal abuse referring to ‘non-accidental’ behaviour.

“Allowing animals to be whipped in the name of entertainment and accepting the role of pain in this practice are at the core of the debate around this persistent issue.

“The horse race industry has steered clear of acknowledging that whipping might involve pain, insisting instead that horses recognise it simply as encouragement, but the industry offers no explanation for why this might be so.

“Pain or distress in non-human species is difficult to evaluate, but there is general acceptance that all mammals share the capacity to experience pain and this is recognised by legislation that governs the use of animals in research.

“Ironically, if a racehorse were whipped in the carpark outside the racetrack, the perpetrator would face charges under animal cruelty legislation outlawing any unnecessary, unjustifiable or unreasonable action that causes harm or injury, and could face significant fines or imprisonment.

“If whipping horses is considered a form of violence, the fact that it is aired during prime-time television and can be seen by minors may be of concern because it may normalise the meting out of physical punishment.”

On-track whipping, they noted, is not subject to animal-protection laws but is regulated by a lower set of legal standards laid out in the Australian Rules of Racing.

They said the most plausible explanation for people who would stop betting on races and watching them if whipping was banned is their belief that races are not fair, and somehow lack integrity, if horses are not seen to be “ridden out” on their merits (that is, are not whipped).

“This view is not supported by the persistence of Thoroughbred races (and gambling on them) in Norway where whip use has been forbidden for more than 30 years.

“It also runs counter to recent evidence that whip use is not associated with improved placings in Thoroughbred races.”

The authors said racing organisations may consider the findings of their study helpful in their deliberations on the merits of continuing the practice of whipping tired horses in the name of sport.

The study team comprised McGreevy and Bethany Wilson, from the University of Sydney; Mark Griffiths, from Nottingham Trent University in England; and Frank Ascione, from the University of Denver in Colorado.

McGreevy PD, Griffiths MD, Ascione FR, Wilson B (2018) Flogging tired horses: Who wants whipping and who would walk away if whipping horses were withheld? PLoS ONE 13(2): e0192843. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192843

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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