Apparently horses in races are almost always (98%) whipped.*  The main reason is to make them go faster.

Congratulations to the scientists from the University of Sydney who won a prize for discovering that “whipping does not increase horses’ chances of finishing in the top three and that they actually run faster when they are not being hit.”

So it seems that overwhelmingly, the horse racing experts – the jockeys and trainers particularly – have for decades followed a practice which:

  1. Hurts their chances of winning.
  2. Hurts their beloved animals.
  3. Hurts their standing in the wider community.

Given how much money is at stake in horse racing, this is remarkable.  It calls out for explanation.  How can these experts have persisted for so long in such self-destructive behavior?   Here are some possible explanations.

First, the idea that whipping makes a horse go faster has a certain “truthiness.”  This truthiness made questioning the practice seem otiose.  Further, belief in the truthy proposition became a perceptual filter through which they “saw” that whipping made horses go faster.

Second, the omnipresence of whipping prevented the possibility of observing the weak correlation between whipping and losing.   If only about half of the jockeys whipped their horses, then over time people might have started to notice that the unwhipped horses tended to win a bit more often.  Or at least didn’t lose more often.

Third, since everyone else was whipping, everyone naturally assumed that whipping was the “right” thing to do.   Failing to whip the horse would look rather odd – especially if you didn’t win.   As Mark Twain wrote: “We are creatures of outside influences; as a rule we do not think, we only imitate.”

* I don’t know anything about horse racing.  This claim seems implausible, but here is my source.