A subject that excites animal welfare activists is the use of whips in racing.
Is it necessary? They certainly don't think so. And they have been taking their argument to the public, especially in Britain.
PVC-clad dominatrixes have already surprised racegoers at Newmarket by challenging race officials to offer their own rumps for a whipping to see how they liked it! For the record, no officials volunteered.
And, in an effort to highlight their views, Animal Aid has completed a study of 161 races which they are using to show that the majority of thoroughbreds actually go better without the whip. Some interesting points from their study are:
Whipping in the first sector (first 400m of a 1200m race)
Of all the horses whipped in the first sector of the 161 races studied, only one went on to win. (This winning horse was also whipped during the middle and finish sectors of the race.) This is strong evidence, they argue, that no advantage can be gained by a rider who whips his/her mount in this early phase of a race.
Whipping in the middle sector (400m to 800m of a 1200m race)
As the races progress, the pace is usually set and jockeys should have established their positions. However, several jockeys resort to the whip in what is the middle sector of a race. Horses whipped here may not be able to go the pace or have set the pace and are starting to tire. These are usually outsiders in the betting - those running with a poor handicap weight, or of limited ability. The distinct pattern to emerge from the study is that, in the vast majority of cases, whipped horses still drop back out of contention or they make mistakes, which in the jumping game can prove fatal. Alternatively, a horse will lose his/her stride, change legs and become anxious (tail swish, sweat). None of these outcomes profit the jockey, owner, trainer or punter, they argue.
While most horses in most races were whipped, the data show that there was a negative correlation between frequent whip use and winning.
Just as only one horse who was whipped in the first sector of the races studied went on to win, jockeys who whipped their mounts in the middle sector also hurt their chances of crossing the line first. Of 464 horses whipped in the second phase of the 161 races, only 17 were winners.
Whipping in the third sector (800m to 1200m of a 1200m race)
The research understandably showed that, in the final stages of a race, more horses were whipped more often.
A horse is "urged" along during a race finish in New Zealand.
The rules of racing in New Zealand that pertain to whipping state:
Rule 867, Seventh schedule:
While most horses in most races were whipped, the data show that there was a negative correlation between frequent whip use and winning. In fact, 40 of the 161 races were won by horses that were not whipped at all - that is, 25% of the total.
When it came to examining the impact of the whip during the final bid for the line, another unexpected finding emerged.
Horses finishing first and second were actually whipped the least - or not whipped at all. They won more races than the horses hit the most.
Looking at the data relating to first and second placings - in reverse, we find that the most-whipped horses won just 51 of the 161 races: that is fewer than 30% of the total.
Taking this a step further and all being equal, the data demonstrates that, if the whip had not been used at all in any of the races studied, 110 of the winning horses would still have triumphed - that's a 70% correlation with the actual results. And many of the 51 other winners may also have crossed the line first without the incentive of the whip.
It could be easy to shrug off such studies, but when well-respected horsemen such as Natural Horsemanship advocate Monty Roberts starts to draw attention to the use of whips, then the whole subject gains more attention.
Already, Roberts has spoken out against the use of stockwhips at the starting gates in New South Wales, Australia.
Unimpressed by this, he presented a report to Racing NSW and a subsequent decision was made to ban this method of "encouraging" horses into starting gates from this month.
While Roberts has achieved world-wide fame for his ability to communicate with horses, the racing fraternity here will also know Roberts as the owner and trainer of such greats as Lomitas, Alleged, Sharivari (Horse of the Year in NZ) and Bahroona, (champion sprinter and sire in NZ). Roberts is still actively involved in the Thoroughbred racing industry in the US, where he says that his horses respond to his non-violent approach.
"A whip has no place in horsemanship at all," argues Roberts. "It's medieval for horses." He also points out that a horse that wants to win, that has that competitive spirit and natural "will to win" is always going to be a far better racing prospect than the one that has to be beaten for half of the race.
What do others think?
New Zealand Jockeys' Association National President Dave Taylor says that in some cases the whip can be used to get the horse to concentrate on the job at hand.
"The jockey must ensure that the horse is given the best opportunity to win the race. Some might be a bit lazy or might need a smarten up", but once the horse has been tried "there's no place for continued whipping."
In some cases "once they get one or two, they certainly lengthen out their stride and put more into it".
Taylor also pointed out that a lot of trainers will tell the jockey before the race not to whip the horse. It happens quite often, he said, which is evidence that not all horses try their best for a whip.
NZ Thoroughbred Racing Control Administration Manager Phil Tolley said: "We are fully aware of the need for the horses to be treated in a humane way."
He went on to say that most riders do not overwhip their horses.
"The better riders only use the whip as a last resort. They don't punish their horses at all." Asked if NZTR was comfortable with its present regulations regarding the use of the whip, Mr Tolley replied: "Our whip rules have been in for some time and all the agencies who concern themselves with animal cruelty are more than happy with the rules as we apply them."
Tolley said that the rules for the use of the whip are simple: "The guidelines are that you can hit the horse with the whip up to six times and then you must relieve the horse for six strides (giving it time to respond) before it can be whipped again."
If the horse starts going backwards all whipping must cease ... "you cannot flog a dead horse, so to speak." He also pointed out that you can only continue to whip the horse if it is improving or sustaining its run.
But when a horse is whipped excessively, the stipendiary stewards will go back through race footage, frame-by-frame and count the strikes. If the jockey has struck the horse more than six times then they'll be warned and if they still don't heed the guidelines next time then they're likely to wear a three-day suspension.
"The ones that can't count have got three days away from the races to learn to count."
Animal Aid's report on whipping - A Hiding to Nothing