Three ways for racing to halt the spread of whip bans

The big news in the harness racing world last week came from the land downunder. Harness Racing Australia announced that — beginning in September of 2017 — the use of whips will be banned for racing and training.

This policy was somewhat unexpected, but was clearly driven by the greyhound ban earlier this year in New South Wales (covered in HRU in August). Time will tell if this action is sound, dangerous, or does nothing at all to stem the tide regarding animal welfare in Australia.

Here across the pond, racing is a little different, but animal welfare issues are not.

Not so long ago (in 1939) a movie about Jesse James was made, and in a closing scene a horse was made to jump off a cliff into an ocean below. There was not a great deal of trick camerawork in those days, and there was no safe way to shoot the scene; the horse ended up jumping, and was killed. When word of the event hit the newspapers, the outcry was palpable, and the Humane Society got involved. This is how oversight began, and from that film forward, it’s the reason we see “no animals were harmed” messages in the credits.

Society, through urbanization and education, was evolving when it came to the treatment of animals.

Fast forwarding 75 years, things are even more night and day. Today, ethical treatment of animals laws are so common that even how animals are harvested for food is regulated. It’s a different world.

So, with changing society, maybe harness racing should get ahead of the curve and ban whipping in the U.S. and Canada?

I think that’s over-the-top. I believe the public understands the need for a whip for a “buggy horse” when it comes to control and safety. A whip’s benefit is completely logical, even to a layman. But, with the world changing, some response is needed because these issues are not going away.

Here are three things I think the sport in North America can do right now to ensure the Australia whip ban stays in Australia.

First, the judges need to enforce the rules. The sport of harness racing has rules already on the books with regards to overwhipping, kicking, whipping under the shaft, and myriad other techniques to illegally move a horse forward. If a driver breaks them, aggressively fine them, give them days, and call every one of them without fail.

To me, watching the Elitlopp each year is glorious. The drivers – with whips – tap a horse beautifully and get the most out of them. It’s trotting in its purest form, and the hackers and slashers are nowhere to be found. This majesty of driving is not accomplished in any mystical way; if a driver raises his whip above his shoulder he is not given an electrical shock; she is not sent to a Swedish version of Guantanamo Bay. The judges simply enforce the rules.

Don’t think for a second the top drivers here would not like these rules enforced.

Second, when confronted, the sport needs to stop with the silly arguments excusing overwhipping, or techniques that look like horse abuse. If I have to answer how a driver whipping a horse 22 times in the lane was “only hitting the saddle pad” one more time to a newbie, my head is going to explode. Dumb excuses make the sport look backwards and out of touch, and only invite more criticism.

A driver hacking and slashing looks bad, sure, but it’s also probably pretty ineffective; because study after study in Australia (which predicated many of these bans) have shown that horses are immune to the 10th or 30th slash. In fact, where whip use is curtailed (like Europe, New Zealand and Australia, pre-ban), studies show horses are getting faster, not slower. If you hack, you’re doing it wrong.

The most professional drivers already know this, which is why Yannick, or Tim, or John rarely go to work like so many inexperienced drivers do. They know when their horse is done.

As for kicking or whipping below the shaft or under the horse, just stop it. It looks terrible and it’s a reason why so many want to take the whip away and tie drivers’ boots to the shaft, a la Walter Case, in the first place.

An added benefit to improved optics is that when drivers do treat horses kindly, it helps relay to the public that the sport cares about the animals who put food on the table.

Last up, harness racing should create a funded animal welfare committee to handle decision-making on these matters (along with public relations). This type of committee is common in the animal research world as scientists struggle with the public’s changing view towards animal usage for testing.

Dr. Paul McGreevy, Animal Sciences Professor at the University of Sydney, has proposed how this may work for racing:

“Such a welfare committee could move away from decisions based on opinion towards decisions based on evidence, particularly science-based evidence. It could include equitation scientists, veterinarians with welfare qualifications and research experience, ethicists, lay members, animal welfare members as well as representatives of human stakeholders such as stewards, trainers and jockeys. But its chief stakeholder should be the horse, something the industry should enthusiastically embrace since it constantly reminds us that horse welfare is paramount,” he wrote.

A group like this would help racing immensely as our world evolves in these matters. It would act as a sounding board for those inside the sport, be an avenue for referral when the sport is confronted with issues, and work towards educating the public and formulating responses when putting out political fires. Something like this is long overdue for a horse-driven sport like harness racing.

In the end, I believe whip bans are not necessary. I think the current set of rules do the job, if the judges enforce them. I believe to be a top driver in this sport, the best drivers from past and present prove you don’t need to overwhip, or kick, or rely on illegal tricks. I also firmly believe most drivers care about the animals they drive.

I completely believe that the sport can take care of whipping issues on its own. It doesn’t take bans, it takes planning and foresight.