Horse talk: do horses enjoy the race that stops a nation?

Author’s note: this blog post is not intended to be contentious or to criticise the horse racing industry but merely to stimulate thought and debate – Can we improve the life of horses? Can we place a bet on the winning horse?

Do horse enjoy the race that stops the nation?

The race that stops a nation

This week in Australia we will stop to watch a horse race. It is Melbourne Cup week. For those who are unfamiliar with the MC, it is the “horse race that stops a nation”. I remember my first Cup, shortly after moving to Australia. I was in Sydney’s city centre and at 3pm the city went deadly quiet. No cars; no people. Weird I thought but no, just the Melbourne Cup. A public holiday in Melbourne, on the first Tuesday of November each year some 3 million people will stop to watch the race.

You may not be a regular gambler but chances are you may be tempted to put a bet on the favourite horse (or even the outside chance of a trifecta).  Or you cheer on the horse you were allocated in the office sweep. So… you stop to watch the race but do you stop to think about the horses?

Take a step back from the starting gate and pause to consider…

  • Are we compromising horse welfare by the use of the whip?
  • Can we tell from their behaviour who is likely to win the race?
  • Do horses actually enjoy the race?

Horse whipped

Whipping can be a painful business. Just ask Professor Paul McGreevy,  Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science at University of Sydney and a member of the: International Society for Equitation Science. In the name of science, he whipped himself and produced the following thermographic image of his leg post-whipping. It hurts!

There are rules for using whips, which vary from country to country, yet these are often only enforced after their misuse – the horse suffers the consequences. It is often argued that horses have thick skin. Yet they feel a fly land on them. Some countries do not use the whip at all – and they still have horses that win the race!

Is the absence of whip use to the detriment of the horse’ performance? Well, probably not, research by University of Sydney veterinary scientists suggests. Horses are whipped most frequently by jockeys with advanced placement in a race during the last few hundred metres of the race – when the horses are at their most tired. Horses, however, actually achieve their highest speeds prior to the last part of the race, when whips are not in use. In other words, horses do not require whipping to run their fastest.

horse whipped
Image: © Liss Ralston

As the RSPCA says… “A top performance horse needs great genetics, great preparation and great horsemanship. Whipping does not come into it.” RSPCA

Could the Melbourne Cup become the ‘race that stop the whip’, as suggested in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. Perhaps next year? And could we think of another emblem for the winning rider, rather than their gold-plated whip. Perhaps we need to celebrate the bond between horse and rider with a more appropriate reward.

Conclusion: Whipping does not make horses run faster. We may be compromising horse welfare by whipping them.


Horse behaviour prior to the race

Whipping aside, can we predict which horse will win a race from their behaviour prior to the race? Many regular betters or those who consider themselves skilled horseman may like to think they can confidently predict the winner, by observing horse condition and behaviour, as they parade in the mounting yard before a race. However, even professional handicappers, who make a living by calculating a horse’ weight or speed advantage in a race, admit that they cannot assess pre-race condition or behaviour.

When the behaviour of 867 horses was studied prior to racing in Melbourne, those that ultimately were race winners were more relaxed and were fitter than losers. Losers (those who finished in the last 20th percentile) tended to be more aroused and required greater control. Increased arousal led to increased elevation of the head, neck and tail. Sweating, combined with the previous factors, may also indicate a horse more likely to lose than win the race. Perhaps these aroused horses have almost run their race, energy-expenditure-wise prior to even beginning it.

Conclusion: Look out for relaxed horses and place your bets on them.

Horse talk: do horses enjoy the race that stops a nation?

Do horses actually enjoy the race?

We could argue that race horses are born and bred to race. Those that are more relaxed may be less likely to be stressed by racing. Since these relaxed horses are more likely to win, they are also more likely to race again and be bred from, to create future winners. This argues an ‘evolution’ towards horses that enjoy racing. I’m not sure, however, that we could ever argue that any horse enjoys being whipped.

Well, here’s my disclaimer… I am no horse racing expert. I am no horse expert of any kind! Horses are different animals to dogs and cats. I leave horse behaviour advice to people who have much more experience and qualifications in equitation science. I leave the Melbourne Cup or any racing winning predictions to those who know much more than I. I even leave the fashion competitions to those more fashionable than me…lol!

Is horse racing morally justifiable? Will whipping ever cease? Do horses enjoy racing? I’m going to leave this debate and the answers up to you!



Read more:

Whips hurt horses

History of the Melbourne Cup

Whips in racing

The race that stop the whip?

Whip use by jockeys

Pre-race behaviour

Equitation Science

Not the Melbourne Cup

Listen to podcasts

Horse racing’s big hit: why use whips?

Stop flogging dead horses

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  1. Hi Jo, after 13 years in thoroughbred horse racing as a Handicapper/rider/eventer etc, thought I’d post a few observations on above;
    Whipping – all the comments from RSPCA et al are technically correct, however it is at the end of the race (finish post, not mid race) when the horse is fatiguing that the jockey is financially incentivised to get the best out of their horse. The vast majority of horses aren’t top performance & will tend to slacken off when the going gets tough (same as humans!). Others will run to their best every time without the use of the whip at all, a good jockey who knows the horse will observe this at the time.
    I have 1st hand experience from working in the Syd Uni Equnine Exercise Physiology unit, whereby the real time telemetry of oxygen consumption, heart rate etc can be observed in a closed environment. It’s pretty clear when a horse isn’t running to it’s previous results & the mere threat of the whip usually sees significant performance response (learnt behaviour). Not saying it’s right or wrong, just observations…

    Pre race behaviour – the top form students & high level investors will often have someone specifically employed to observe the horses in the mounting yard. Not sure who the advice above comes from?
    The Melb Uni study unfortunately doesn’t deal with what I think is the really useful point. That is, is there a correlation between a specific horses behaviour & it’s relative performance each time it turns up to race? E.g. if a top quality horse is agitated/sweating abnormally, yet is usually calm before races in which it has performed well in the past…or vice versa is sometimes the case, particularly with sprinters/speed horses.
    If someone could publish an objective form guide to rate every horse from this perspective each race, then overlay that with all the other info, now there’s a Golden Ticket! Currently it’s only the high rollers in the bigger races that would be factoring this in…

    Anyway, food for thought 🙂

  2. Great thought provoking post Jo. You hear so many trainers/breeders/jockeys etc say how much they love their horses but if you really boil it down, although they may genuinely love their horses, they are involved in racing for the money it brings in, not because they think it’s what their horses want to do for fun. It’s all about the money, and the welfare of the horses is secondary. If all the money that was spent on breeding, training, transport, feeding, vet bills (and then the betting, clothing, drinking, catering etc) was spent on people and animal welfare, the world would be a much kinder place!

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