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:
- Hurts their chances of winning.
- Hurts their beloved animals.
- 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.
I think it is surprising that someone measured the relationship between a practice and an outcome. This rarely occurs in industry and government. People measure which salesmen perform better but they don’t measure which sales techniques perform better.
Why, I wonder, did you frame this useful post in terms of ‘truthiness’–which I find
a slippery concept?
-as the article notes, horses are generally fatigued in the latter part of the race. So how would they counter the claim that although horses are going slower at that stage of the race when they are being whipped, it is because they are fatigued and they would be going even slower if they weren’t being whipped. I’m not sure how you work out the truth or falsity of that counterfactual.
-is it possible that they may have compared (i) horses who were being whipped in the final stages of a race with (ii) horses who were not being whipped, and concluded that horses of type (i) were slower than horses of type (ii)? If that is what they did, there seems to be an apparent problem with their methodology. If a horse is running well, the jockey may not bother using the whip because he/she sees no need to. Horses going well at the end of a race and headed for a win are sometimes, e.g., “eased down” rather than put under extreme pressure. So the reason why there may be a correlation between running faster and not being whipped may be that running faster explains why they aren’t being whipped, rather than their not being whipped explaining why they run faster.
-I’m surprised that 98% of horses are whipped. The “conventional wisdom” in racing is that some horses respond best to hands-and-heels riding and to not being whipped, and often are ridden by jockeys who excel at hands-and-heels riding. I would have guessed that this “conventional wisdom” would have applied in considerably more than 2% of cases.
And then you’d add to that the cases where the whip is “waved” at a horse but the horse isn’t actually hit with the whip, which also supposedly quite common.
First habits, then blink blink, truthiness and later, sadder and wiser the truth of the matter. Well, that’s about us right? Not just the horses…