The authors of this paper did discuss possible ways to understand the effect and concluded that there was no evidence “to commend the use of the whip in horse racing” and acknowledged that in fact WF races could be adopted more widely to “alleviate increasing public discontent with horse racing”.
The authors of the paper on skin do discuss that pain is a very subjective experience, and that we cannot know what the horse feels, but this research is a significant contribution to our understanding. We should be mindful that just because the horse is so much bigger and does not necessarily let us know that they experience pain, it is now evident that a strong hit with a whip is likely to be experienced as pain. Strong use of the whip is punishment. We know punishment is not an effective way to change behaviour.
A few decades ago, parents and educators thought that it was okay and even required to punish even small children to help them learn. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a catchcry. Modern teachers would not dream of spanking or caning a child. We know better now. We use encouragement and praise to motivate children. We know that rewarding good behaviour is the most effective way to train anything, whether it’s children, elephants, husbands or horses.
As equestrians, we need to be informed by the science that is becoming available to us. The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) recommends that when using aversive stimuli (i.e. the whip), “the removal of the aversive is more important than the application” — that is, timing is everything. ISES believes that the use of the whip in racing to encourage a horse to go faster “is not supported by learning theory”. A horse is unlikely to discriminate between whip use to encourage speed when increasing speed is physiologically possible (negative reinforcement) and whip use to discourage slowing when increasing speed is physiologically impossible (positive punishment). In racing, whip use is greatest in the final stages of the race when the horse is tired, and thus it becomes positive punishment — which is most effective in discouraging behaviour. Without clear timing, predictability and consistency in whip application, the horse may enter a nervous system state of hyperarousal, resulting in a flight or fight response, or even freezing — none of which is useful for the jockey or of benefit to horse and rider safety. In addition, the ISES believes that whipping in racing is aversive beyond the levels they consider to be acceptable, due to the pain and distress it can cause.
Classical trainers all the way back to Xenophon have taught us that kindness and light aids get good results. We will of course continue to use the whip as an aid to help us be clear to our horses, but we should always start with a light touch. Squeeze with the leg, then kick, then tap with the whip if the response is not enough. We may need to back it up with a sharp tap, but repeated hard smacks are more likely to inflict pain that your horse will only want to run away from, so may not really enhance your training, unless you are training him to run away from you.
Another way to use the whip in training is recommended by Podjahsky, where you can use the whip to softly tap the rhythm of the piaffe steps. He feels the rhythmical light touch and it encourages him to follow the rhythm. This is a light touch that does not inflict pain.
I once bought a trained horse who responded to the changing of the whip from hand to hand and generally lifted his game when he felt me move the whip to the other side. Clearly this was learned, but is a good example of the lightest use of the whip. As Tom Roberts taught us, the kindest thing you can do for your horse is train him well, as a well-trained horse is welcome anywhere. There are going to be times when a strong aid is necessary, but know what you are doing and use the strong aid to support the light aid, and quickly reward the horse when he does what you ask. EQ
Tong L, Stewart M, Johnson I, Appleyard R, Wilson B, James O, Johnson C, McGreevy P. A Comparative Neuro-Histological Assessment of Gluteal Skin Thickness and Cutaneous Nociceptor Distribution in Horses and Humans. Animals. 2020; 10(11):2094.
Thompson K, McManus P, Stansall D, Wilson BJ, McGreevy PD. Is Whip Use Important to Thoroughbred Racing Integrity? What Stewards’ Reports Reveal about Fairness to Punters, Jockeys and Horses. Animals. 2020; 10(11):1985.