Whipping horses doesn't work and new observations of grief in chimpanzees

Research shows that whipping horses doesn't make a difference in races

Posted Feb 02, 2011

Horse racing can be hard on the animals who are used to make money and entertaining to those who find this to be a worthwhile activity. However, serious injuries often occur when these animals are pushed beyond what they normally are capable of doing, even if few are fatal. People around the world were horrified when Eight Belles had to be "put to sleep" on the track after she broke both front ankles during a running of the Kentucky Derby. Usually this goes on behind the scenes after some horses are run to death or experience serious injuries so they're no longer money-makers. But this poor horse was in so much pain it would have been adding insult and indignity to injury to make her wait to be killed behind closed doors.

As we know, horses are incessantly whipped while they're racing, but new research from the University of Sydney shows that "whipping horses is pointless and does not make a difference in the outcome of the race." (Please click here to hear a radio interview.) The summary from the peer-reviewed published paper reads as follows:

"Concerns have been expressed concerning animal-welfare issues associated with whip use during Thoroughbred races. However, there have been no studies of relationships between performance and use of whips in Thoroughbred racing. Our aim was to describe whip use and the horses' performance during races, and to investigate associations between whip use and racing performance. Under the Australian Racing Board (ARB) rules, only horses that are in contention can be whipped, so we expected that whippings would be associated with superior performance, and those superior performances would be explained by an effect of whipping on horse velocities in the final 400 m of the race. We were also interested to determine whether performance in the latter sections of a race was associated with performance in the earlier sections of a race. Measurements of whip strikes and sectional times during each of the final three 200 metre (m) sections of five races were analysed. Jockeys in more advanced placings at the final 400 and 200 m positions in the races whipped their horses more frequently. Horses, on average, achieved highest speeds in the 600 to 400 m section when there was no whip use, and the increased whip use was most frequent in the final two 200 m sections when horses were fatigued. This increased whip use was not associated with significant variation in velocity as a predictor of superior placing at the finish."

Thus, traditional thinking is shown to be outmoded. Rosanne Taylor, Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary science at the University of Sydney noted: “Science has the ability to challenge our views of what is otherwise considered the norm. This result is a good example of how evidence can inform the way we work with animals to promote their optimal performance and welfare. In this instance, the future wellbeing of Australian racehorses is looking brighter, because we now better understand that horses give their best when they are not whipped, before the 400m mark, positioning themselves for a win or place.”

Let's hope these important findings find their way into how horses are treated around the world.

On a brighter note, recent research has shown once again that non-human animals experience deep and rich emotions. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have observed a chimpanzee mother showing "behaviours not typically seen directed toward live infants, such as placing her fingers against the neck and laying the infant’s body on the ground to watch it from a distance. The observations of Katherine Cronin and Edwin van Leeuwen provide unique insights into how chimpanzees, one of humans’ closest primate relatives, learn about death."

How like us are they? This is a topic to be considered at an upcoming meeting at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Researcher Mark Bodamer of Gonzaga University notes, "It was only a matter of time, and the right conditions, that chimpanzees’ response to death would be recorded and subjected to analysis that would reveal remarkable similarities to humans."

Once again science shows how we can improve our relationships with animals who we use for entertainment and how remarkable other animals are.