Harness racing takes the lead in horse welfare

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“[This] 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 years … with a strong focus on health and welfare of [our animals].”

“We see [this decision] as a vital way of demonstrating our responsibility as an industry, and to earning and maintaining the social acceptance and sustainability of [our business].”

“Undoubtedly, some may resist change, or feel the decision limits competitiveness ... We are confident they will be proved wrong and will eventually see the merit …”

In an ideal world, comments like these could be used to describe almost any industry that uses animals.

We could be talking about improving thoroughbred racing, banning live exports, ending the battery cage – even breeding happier healthier dogs.

But we’re not.

Instead, these powerful words were spoken by Mr Geoff Want, Chair of Harness Racing Australia, as he announced the industry’s landmark decision to ban the use of the whip in racing.

Let’s be clear: this is a really big deal. The Australian harness racing industry has just become the first code in the world – in the world – to voluntarily end its use of the whip.

But just as momentous as the decision are the reasons behind it.

Mr Want goes on to say:

“There is ample evidence the whip is not needed in our industry and that its use to enhance racing performance is questionable,”

“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.”

Importantly, Harness Racing Australia has made this decision as part of an ongoing program to improve integrity and animal welfare in the sport.

Other initiatives include lifetime traceability, horse rehoming programs and zero tolerance of drugs.

These moves have been made with a very strong focus on educational and consultation, and it shows.

Australia’s leading driver – and 11-times winner of the national drivers’ championships – Chris Alford said he supported the ban, saying “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,”

The harness racing industry has made a bold decision. I suspect, over time, it will prove to be a profitable one as well, as sponsors and partners recognise the value of being associated with an industry that prioritises animal welfare and integrity, adapts to change, and understand the importance of social acceptance.

There are important lessons here for other industries.

The question is – who is listening?