Study Evaluates Forehand vs. Backhand Whip Use in Racing

Study Evaluates Forehand vs. Backhand Whip Use in Racing

Jockeys struck a simulator with significantly (approximately 15%) more force with the backhand than forehand.

Photo: Liss Ralston

The modern animal welfare movement was born in early 1800s Victorian England to protect cattle, horses, and sheep from human cruelty. One of the catalysts for this movement was the whipping of tired work horses. Nearly two centuries later, tired horses are still being whipped, opined Paul McGreevy, BVSc, MRCVS, PhD, MACVSc, professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia—only now it's in the name of sport.

McGreevy and his Australian colleagues have taken a research interest in the way racehorses are being whipped in public, which he discussed at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

"We've been looking at the impact and force with which whip strikes land when they're delivered in the forehand (held like a tennis racket) and the backhand (held like a ski pole)," he said.

The Australian Racing Board's Rules of Racing states that prior to the final 100 meters of a race, the jockey cannot use the whip in a forehand manner in consecutive strides or on more than five occasions. After the 100-meter mark, jockeys can use the whip freely at their discretion, the rules state.

McGreevy pointed out, however, that when racing stewards review video of whip use, they only do so at 25 frames per second and they focus on forehand whip strikes. Results from one of McGreevy's previous studies showed that even at 2,000 frames per second, it's still difficult to police whip use and that jockeys use backhand more than forehand.

"This seems to imply that backhand whip use is less closely scrutinized, which may have profound implications for horse welfare," McGreevy said. "Despite the good will of the racing board to try to protect the horse, they may have got it wrong."

McGreevy and colleagues used this racehorse simulator equipped with pressure detection pads to examine whip strikes' force on impact.

Photo: Courtesy Lesley Hawson

So McGreevy and colleagues set up a racehorse simulator equipped with pressure detection pads to examine whip strikes' force on impact. They asked six right-handed jockeys to deliver 12 consecutive strikes in the left forehand, left backhand, right forehand, and right backhand. They determined that whip action (forehand vs. backhand) does not influence force on impact when using the non-dominant hand. However, when jockeys used their dominant hand, they struck with significantly (approximately 15%) more force with the backhand than forehand, McGreevy said.

"Not only are the backhand strikes landing with more force, but you really can't say there's a standard whip strike. To say that a whip strike is a whip strike is a whip strike is to make a flawed assumption," he said.

"This result challenges the current focus on welfare concerns around forehand whip strikes," McGreevy continued. "It should inform any review of the rules around whip use since it may help to avoid any unjustified focus on either forehand or backhand whip use."

As a potential improvement to both racing integrity and horse welfare, he suggested that jockeys instead carry whips primarily for steering and safety purposes, rather than for striking fatigued animals.

"If you think about it, if the horse attempts to respond when being struck repeatedly, then effectively you're punishing it for responding," he added.

In conclusion, McGreevy said, "What we're seeing here is that whip laws are allowing the harshest impacts to go unchecked, and whipping tired horses in the name of sport is increasingly difficult to justify."

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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