Time to remove the whip from horse racing
2019-04-01 18:21:10 -

By Imelda O’Connor


The Ireland I grew up in overwhelmingly supported the dictum: ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ Due to this misguided wisdom, many of my generation do not look back at an enchanted youth here, but rather one sadly overcast by the use of corporal punishment in Irish schools. How so many of us actually managed to rekindle a love of learning years later is an awesome tribute to the survival of the human spirit.


The State-sanctioned school punishments were usually meted out with the aid of a slender elongated object that bore a strong resemblance to crops and whips. And these beatings hurt so badly I still flinch and catch my breath when I witness an animal being subjected to a flogging today. That means I flinch and feel roused to anger and compassion for racehorses almost daily, as I catch sight of them being vigorously whipped to succeed.


It was not until 1974 that the cruel practice of corporal punishment in Irish schools was first given media attention. In August of that year Tony Kinsella, representing the Irish Union of School Students, spoke out against the practice and asked for it to end. Slowly, public opinion in Ireland shifted, but it took a further eight years (in 1982) before the Department of Education’s sanctioned approval of teachers liberally dispensing ‘six of the best’ was banned. The ban was finally enshrined as a criminal offence in 1996.


Irish society has undergone a magnificent shift in attitude from its earlier reliance on inflicting painful corporal punishment to a more compassionate rearing of its children. Now, thank goodness, children have legal protection for that human right of a childhood free from cruel and inhumane treatment.


But the gaze of the Irish public now needs to move toward the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals.


And foremost in my mind is the abhorrence of the whip in racing. That crop hurts; its purpose is to hurt.


I pointed out before just how long it took between those first public words on banning corporal punishment in schools in 1974 and its final establishment as a criminal offence in 1996. That comes to more than two decades. But the Protection of Animals Act in Ireland, which proclaims it an offence to beat an animal, goes even further back in time, to 1911.


Yet here we are in 2019 with racehorses being flogged in our direct view and few humans seem to react to the sheer horror of this. I doubt if many are even aware that the 1911 Act is being violated right in front of them.


Back in April 2006, I was galvanised into expressing in print my dismay at the sight of a whip being held aloft in triumph over the exhausted face of the winning horse at that year’s Grand National. Of course, like so many other lone voices pleading for compassion and respect for animals, my published letter barely caused a ripple in changing race-viewers’ sensitivities toward horse whipping.


More recently, however, a whiff of change is in the air, of people generally becoming more empathetic and respectful of other forms of life. The vegan movement is founded on the conviction that animals must be extended the same rights to a life free from inhumane treatment as we humans insist upon.


With vegans’ compassion for animals being at the forefront of their campaign for a kinder, more egalitarian co-existence with all living forms, getting the whip out of racing seems a most obvious cause for it to support.


As a vegan supporter — interviewed for an article titled ‘March of the vegans’ by Katie Glass in the Sunday Times Magazine on 6 January — put it: “If you have the ability to feel pain and suffer … if you have a heart and a central nervous system, you are an equal. We have to reach out to people’s hearts. Animal rights are human rights.”


Hopefully, with the concerted effort of the vegan movement combined with that of the many animal welfare organisations, that ghastly symbol of pain-infliction and human dominance, the whip, will soon be banned from racing and indeed all other equestrian pursuits.


Imelda O’Connor is a reader of Metro Éireann.

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