Whip Use - Painful or Encouraging?

There has always been controversy regarding whip use and horses especially in the racing world. Animal rights activists claim that whips hurt horses while most jockeys and trainers claim padded whips don't hurt, merely encourage. Dr Lydia Tong, an Australian forensic veterinary pathologist has found evidence that horses may be far more sensitive to whip use than previously thought.

She had set out to see if horses' skin thickness and nerves were really that different to human skin. She took a piece of horse skin from the flank area, as well as a piece of skin from the equivalent area on a human. She examined both the structure of the skin and the precise location and amount of nerve tissue.

A comparison of depth in horse vs human skin. The pink area shows the collagen (dermis), and the thin purple area at the top is the epidermis, where most of the pain-sensing nerve fibres are found.

She found that horse skin was thicker than human skin, but by less than 1 millimetre. The difference was primarily in the deep collagen tissue, which sits below the superficial pain-sensing fibres. "The horse epidermis – the very top-most layer of skin where the pain sensing nerves are found – was actually thinner than the human epidermis." This means that the skin is thinner between the source of pain, such as a whip, and it's sensitive nerve endings.

"And even more revealing than that, the skin of the body – where we whip horses – may have even more sensation than ours." Tong discovered that horses appeared to have substantially more nerve endings in their skin than humans, including the nerves in the epidermis where the pain sensation primarily occurs.

Upper image: Horse Skin
Lower image: Human Skin

Nerve endings have been stained a bold red. There are more nerve endings in the top layer of skin in the horse skin than the human skin. These represent sensory fibres, including those which feel pain.

Are we using pain to make horses run faster? So far, it certainly looks like it.

The chief executive of Australian Racing Board, Peter McGauran, stated “there are strict rules as to how often a jockey can strike a horse and in what manner. And I believe this does not inflict pain on a horse. It’s instead part of the urging of a horse to extract the best possible performance.” He also noted that "the whip used in horse-racing was padded."

He acknowledged that if evidence emerged that it inflicted pain, then the industry would do away with the whip.

Professor Paul McGreevy, an animal behaviour and welfare scientist at the University of Sydney, said whipping horses “was arguably the most visible form of violence against animals’’.

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