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A world-first study published in open-access journal Animals today has shown that horses’ skin has a similar capacity to feel pain as human skin – a finding that may be the final straw for the whip in Australian horse racing.

The study, co-authored by a team led by veterinary pathologist Dr Lydia Tong and the Sydney School of Veterinary Science’s Professor Paul McGreevy, found that the outer, pain-sensitive layer of skin is similar across humans and horses, meaning that humans and horses have similar structures to detect pain.

“This study tells us one important thing: if whips hurt us, they hurt horses,” said RSPCA Australia Chief Scientist Dr Bidda Jones.

Professor McGreevy said that the study, which examined microscopic sections of skin from deceased humans and horses, showed no significant difference in the concentration of nerve endings in the outer layers of skin or in the thickness of the outer skin layer.

“This means that it is likely that horses respond to tactile pressure in a similar way to humans,” said Professor McGreevy.

“Horses have thick skin – but it’s the outer layer of skin that matters when it comes to how they feel pain. What we found is that it’s very likely that if whips hurt humans – which they unquestionably do – they also hurt horses.”

It follows another landmark study, released two weeks ago, that showed whips have no influence on the conduct of a race, don’t make races safer and don’t make horses run any faster.

“We already knew that whips are unpopular*,” said Dr Jones.  “With the release of these two world-first studies, we can now say that they’re also unnecessary and unacceptable.

“There is simply no good reason whatsoever to whip horses during a race. Racing industry leaders have consistently said if it’s proven that whips hurt horses, whips must go. Now it’s time for the industry to act on the evidence and on their commitments,” she said.

“The evidence is now in to pave the way for whip-free racing to be introduced in Australia, as it has in other parts of the world.”


* An independent poll commissioned by RSPCA Victoria and conducted in July to August 2020 found that 69% of Victorians think horses should not be whipped in the normal course of a race, and 71% of Victorians who attend or bet on horse racing would continue to do so if whips were banned.

Editors’ notes: This study was funded by RSPCA Australia.

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