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Australian Harness Racing Leads the World in Welfare Reform

February 2017 by Horses and People Magazine

Harness Racing Australia is banning the use of whips to urge horses to the finish line from 1 September, 2017 in a world-leading equine welfare initiative that improves the industry’s image and enhances its sustainability.

The decision sets the pace in animal welfare, and for the long-term support and sustainability of the industry. It also aligns with high expectations of the community, fans, and industry participants in harness racing.

The announcement makes Australia the first country in the world to voluntarily take such meaningful action.

The whip ban broadens Harness Racing Australia’s (HRA) world leadership position in the industry, which is already established through a wide-ranging welfare agenda, including zero-tolerance to prohibited substances in racing.

The Chairman of HRA, Mr Geoff Want, said today: “The whip ban decision was not taken lightly, but was made on our own initiative because we believe it is the right decision at the right time.

We have been moving down this path for six years by limiting its use with a strong focus on health and welfare of horses.

“We see the ban as a vital way of demonstrating our responsibility as an industry, and to earning and maintaining the social acceptance and sustainability of harness racing.”

HRA Executive meeting yesterday unanimously agreed to the implementation details of the ban, following the proactive initiative of members at the Annual General Meeting of Harness Racing Australia last October.

The Executive also gave detailed consideration to the likely effect of the ban on harness racing audiences and the punting public.

“We are strongly of the belief that the improved image of our sport will add to the appeal of our racing product and be broadly welcomed by fans,” said Mr Want. “We are confident that wagering turnover will not be impacted and indeed a number of professional punters have indicated support for the ban.”

The implementation of the ban from 1 September, 2017 will allow for a program of awareness, education, and research and monitoring to be undertaken across the industry.

The program will embrace the education of drivers and horses. It will also include a major research task to ensure safety is maintained when drivers do not have a whip to control unexpected horse movements.

Mr Want said many drivers were concerned control over a horse would be curtailed without a whip, especially when horses shy (leap sideways) or back up. He said HRA Executive accepted the challenges the ban presented for ensuring safety was maintained for drivers, people, horses, trainers, stablehands and people nearby.

“Between now and the implementation of the whip ban, we will consult widely in the industry, especially with drivers and trainers, and with animal welfare advocates, such as the RSPCA,” Mr Want said.

“Whatever tool evolves from this process, it will only be allowed to avoid or guide a horse out of a dangerous situation to itself, other horses, drivers or anyone nearby.

“It will definitely be banned from use to urge a horse to better perform and strict penalties will apply for any breaches of its use.

“Undoubtedly, some people may resist change, or feel the decision limits competitiveness in harness racing. We are confident they will be proved wrong and will eventually see the merit of banning the whip,” he said.

"We know some drivers are concerned about safety issues, but we feel the process of developing a tool to maintain safety will allay concerns.

“There is ample evidence the whip is not needed in our industry and that its use to enhance racing performance is questionable,” he said. “If no driver uses a whip then no driver has a perceived advantage - each race will be conducted on a level playing field, have a fair winner and horse welfare will be enhanced”.

Mr Want said animal welfare would continue to be addressed during the transition to banning the whip and the industry would seek input from the RSPCA going forward.

CEO of the RSPCA Australia, Ms Heather Neil, commended the HRA’s leadership, and said: “This is a powerful sign the harness racing industry is both listening to its stakeholders and acknowledging the concerns of the wider community.

“As Harness Racing Australia has recognised, racing should celebrate quality horsemanship, breeding and training - whips shouldn’t come into it.”

Mr Want said: “Our members have a considerate and ethical equine welfare agenda and rules, and we do a great deal to enforce rigorous animal welfare protocols. The whip ban is part of continued improvements.

“For example, we have just appointed our inaugural Equine Health & Welfare Coordinator to benchmark states, review policy, manage disease and quarantine, and clear international horse movements.”

Australia’s leading driver - and 11-times winner of the national drivers’ championship - Chris Alford said he supported the ban.

“Drivers are very sensitive to their horses, and appreciate and support moves to ensure high standards of animal welfare that are aligned with community expectations,” he said.

“We also know that a shying horse is a danger to itself, drivers, people and other horses nearby. I fully support the decision to ban the whip, plus maintain safety for all involved.”

The move is receiving much publicity worldwide and is well supported within the industry.

The RSPCA and Professor Paul McGreevy (in this piece) welcomed the announcement, and are urging the Thoroughbred racing industry and its governing body Racing Australia to follow the lead of harness racing, and announce the end of whip use as the outcome of the current whip rule review.