Dr Hugh J Wirth, AM
President, RSPCA Australia

Animal Welfare

There are many definitions of animal welfare and, to date, no definition has been agreed to internationally. This paper advocates the perhaps old fashioned view that the welfare of horses can always be assured simply by the constant application of high standards of husbandry (in the broadest definition).

Similarly, there is no internationally agreed definition of the philosophy of animal welfare. For nearly two hundred years the dominant philosophical view of animal welfare in western society is that humans must treat animals humanely. Where humans make use of animals, or interfere with their habitat, they should bestow a level of care befitting human dignity as a rational, intelligent, compassionate being, and a level of care merited by the nature of the animal as a sentient creature capable of responding to human care and attention. Such care should be marked by sympathy, consideration, compassion and tenderness towards animals.

A new philosophy of animal welfare denies the right of humans to use animals in any situation, claiming such a right is pure exploitation. The aim of this philosophy, if realised, is for all living creatures to live in harmony with each other.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals movement

The RSPCA in Australia has, for 129 years, adhered to that philosophy which accepts that humans may use animals for a large range of purposes, but in doing so must act humanely. The principle Objectives of the RSPCA are to (1) enforce the law with respect to the prevention of cruelty to animals, and (2) create and sustain an intelligent public opinion about the welfare of animals.

The RSPCA, in attempting to achieve these Objectives, has been transparent as it believes that honesty and accountability will in the end have their own rewards in credibility and acceptability. When the RSPCA has a problem it voices it, as it is the Society’s job to represent animals and ensure that their welfare is acknowledged and pursued. If that obstructs people from making money so be it as there is no shirking from the obvious truth that if a society accepts cruelty to animals it accepts cruelty to humans and is, as a consequence, demeaned.

The RSPCA will not intrude where the use of animals is open and fair and where animals are respected. RSPCA involvement in public awareness campaigns on animal welfare issues and participation on committees and inquiries initiated by both government and non-government sectors indicates that the preferred position of the Society is to discuss and negotiate on an issue rather than resort to confrontation. The RSPCA will always be satisfied by honest incremental improvement to the welfare of animals, but if confrontation is required to commence such negotiations the Society will not be afraid of such action.

General Policy on Use of Horses in Entertainment and Sport

RSPCA Australia believes that horses should not be used for sport or entertainment when such use is likely to increase the risk of injury, suffering or distress to the animals or is contrary to their natural behaviour and training.

The Society believes that clubs/associations/individuals responsible for organising events in which horses will participate should be responsible for the proper conduct of these events as required by a Code of Practice which would specifically:

(a) require permits to be obtained to conduct the event and enable its cancellation if any of the requirements were not met or were contravened;

(b) require courses to be fairly designed to allow fit and trained animals to complete them uninjured;

(c) exclude the use of performance enhancing/reducing equipment or devices such as spurs, whips, drugs, or neurectomy, and the use of medication which would then enable an injured horse to compete;

(d) postpone the conduct of events if the weather, ground or temperature conditions were such that competing horses could be endangered or likely to suffer; and

(e) require veterinary declaration of horses’ fitness to perform and continue to perform in the particular event and that a veterinarian be in attendance for its duration.

General Australian Horse Welfare Issues

The following issues have required RSPCA attention over the last thirty years. While there has been overall improvement made in most areas, none of the important issues have been finally resolved:

Harness Racing Issues

The promotion of Harness Racing in Australia in the last twenty years has raised public awareness of the sport and thus a closer scrutiny of the industry. The expectations of the general public regarding good animal welfare standards for animals used in sport are by no means static. When a matter associated with the use of an animal disturbs members of the community they turn to the RSPCA for advice and action.

Throughout the 1980’s and the first five years of the 1990’s the RSPCA was constantly embroiled in Harness industry "scandals" – allegations of improper/cruel whip use, use of drugs (etorphine) associated with involvement of organised crime, cruel training techniques such as electrical shocks and the "burr" a device made of solid plastic spikes fitted around the lugging pole designed to keep horses’ heads straight.

Sulky design and devices to ensure wheel interlocking was a passing interest, but the main issue has always been the most visible one, that of whip use and the refusal to adopt the use of whip pads to protect horses from over-zealous whip users. RSPCA submissions to the Harness Racing authorities on the use of the "Swish Whip" in 1982 and to the Committee Investigating the Abolition of Whips in Harness Racing in 1990 show that the Society’s major interest was about the unmanaged, over-vigorous and injurious use of whips.

The current welfare issues before the RSPCA regarding the Harness Racing industry are perhaps the least of its concerns in the area of horse sports.


The RSPCA does not seek the cessation of harness racing but does and must say very clearly that horses should not be used in sport when such use is likely to increase the risk of injury, suffering or distress to the animals or is contrary to their natural behaviour or training.

Those of you charged with the management of harness racing must consider the growing public awareness and concern about the use of animals in many areas of sport and entertainment. The horse is a noble and much revered animal and nothing stirs the Australian community so much as cruelty to or neglect of horses.

RSPCA demands relating to the use of animals in sport are reasonable and are based on community expectation of those people in control applying consistent and open community standards of honesty and compassion.

We can honour the magnificence of a fit horse competing and we can place winners on pedestals but we cannot ever accept winning at any cost.

You must know that the RSPCA does not preach. Our communication with the Harness Racing industry has been virtually negligible for several years and that must mean that there are many fewer public complaints about the conduct of harness races. We must not presume, however, that the industry is squeaky clean either.

As we get older the word "respect" takes on a more significant value and I and the RSPCA movement here and overseas seek only that we respect each other and that we respect the animals under our control.

Horses, after all, have a most important place in our hearts and lives and if we cannot respect them and their nobility and history we are the poorer and should never be allowed to have control over them.

RSPCA Australia
PO Box E369
Kingston ACT 2604


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