The realities of the whip in horse racing
After what seemed an endless string of PR disasters for horse racing in the years following the changes made to the whip rules in Great Britain in 2011, the jockeys have largely adjusted to the confines of the rule and major whip controversies are now mercifully rare. However, the issue of the whip still rears its head, often in the aftermath of a big race where the rules have been transgressed. With such debate tending to descend into heated exchanges between opposing sides in entrenched ideological positions, the simple realities of the whip itself and its function as an essential tool of the trade are regularly lost in the mire.
Before one delves into the details of the subject, the salient point in this whole discussion is that when used correctly the modern whip is not a welfare issue in racing. It is a very light, foam-filled piece of equipment that is designed to make a loud crack rather than to hurt horses.
Anyone that has handled a modern whip will know this. It is next to impossible to physically hurt even the highly-sensitive human hand while at rest with the modern whip. Given that anyone with sporting experience will know that our capacity to register minor pain and discomforts is significantly reduced when in the heat of physical competition, to suggest that such a tool can inflict pain on a 500kg thoroughbred horse when used correctly on their thickly-skinned and heavily-muscled hindquarters whilst adrenaline is coursing through their bodies in a race is frankly laughable.
Indeed, David Muir of the RSPCA, a fierce campaigner for restriction of the use of the whip in racing and one can assume one of the keenest followers of studies on the subject, recently conceded on Luck On Sunday that there is no scientific evidence to prove that the whip inflicts pain on a horse when used correctly. In a world where perception is everything, this reality cannot be emphasised enough.
The natural follow-on question from this point is one of “if the whip doesn't have a physical impact on horses, why is it needed at all?” Again, the explanation is a straightforward one. Thoroughbred horses are quite clearly much physically stronger than any human. While some are tractable enough to be handled and ridden without the need for significant aids, in most cases various pieces of tack and equipment are required to help safely control and instruct them. Given that the physical influence a human can exert on a horse is further reduced when they are precariously perched on top of them, the whip is an absolutely essential tool to help the rider safely control the horse beneath them. For that reason, every horse is trained to respect and respond to the whip from the very early stages of their racing education.
As well as that, the whip is also essential as a means of encouragement to get the very best from the vast majority of racehorses. The reason for this lies in the reality that thoroughbreds have been selectively bred for an extremely heightened flight response for hundreds of years. For as long as the breed has been cultivated, the whip has been used as the trigger to capitalise on this response when it is required, with the motion, impact and noise of it being applied to their hindquarters playing on the horse’s natural instinct to flee as quickly as possible.
With this in mind, taking away the whip as a means of encouragement would risk unintended consequences that could fundamentally change horse racing and the thoroughbred breed for the worse. It would be likely to lead to highly-strung, free-going types that are very or even overly generous on the bridle faring much better on the racecourse. This would come at the expense of more even-tempered, relaxed and even lazy horses that need stronger encouragement from the saddle to show their very best. Indeed, there is already plenty of anecdotal evidence of this sort of scenario playing out in hands-and-heels races for apprentice riders where whips can be carried but only used for corrective measures, with the lazier horses that compete perfectly well when given strong encouragement not giving anything like their full effort in those circumstances.
Thus, removing the whip as a tool of encouragement would be to the disadvantage of the very type of thoroughbred we have been striving to breed for hundreds of years. It would also inevitably lead to more temperamentally undesirable thoroughbreds being bred from. This could only be considered a significant backward step for the breed.
Perhaps even more concerning is that restricting the use of the whip could create real horse welfare problems. The main danger would be a rise in unethical training methods designed to heighten the flight instinct of horses in the absence of a whip, such as with the use of electrical “buzzers” or other nefarious means. Anecdotal reports suggest that this has become a serious issue in countries such as Norway which is one of the very few racing nations that has banned the whip.
Considering all the above justifications for its use, it really is remarkable to me that some in the sport see a banning of the whip as inevitable. Are we really that insecure? Are we really that willing to meekly submit to the views of the uninformed?
For me at least, the road that horse racing must take on this issue is very clear and that is the path of education. Having been making the suggestion in print for many years, it remains a mystery to me why the racing authorities in Great Britain and Ireland do not engage in ongoing education of the public as to the realities of the whip. For instance, why isn’t there a one-man information stand at every single race meeting with whip-related information and most importantly, racing whips that can be handled by any curious racegoers that want to make up their own mind on them? I defy anyone to handle a modern whip and come away with serious concerns about it.
The extent to which racing has failed to educate its own audience in this regard is illustrated by the results of a poll I ran on Twitter asking my racing-focused followers had they ever had the opportunity to hold and examine the modern whip used by jockeys in British and Irish racing. 75% of them responded that they had not. If this number is so high amongst committed followers of horse racing, one can only imagine how high it is amongst casual racing followers and the general public. This needs to be rectified as a matter of priority.
While so many in horse racing are seemingly incurably insecure about our sport, it should be clear that our sport has nothing to hide when it comes to the modern whip. Of course, many members of the public will never be willing to listen to the realities, preferring to retain their image of horses being cruelly lashed in the name of sport. However, racing should not concern itself with trying to appease the unappeasable that will never change their uninformed opinions regardless of evidence to the contrary. The notion that we should fundamentally alter our sport based on the ignorant views of those that don’t and never will take a meaningful interest in our sport is absurd.
Going forward, if we educate those that do actually like and care about horse racing on the realities of the whip or other potentially contentious issues in the sport, those people will ultimately serve as the best ambassadors that horse racing can wish for amongst the wider public.
We as lovers of horse racing must strive to be more confident, self-assured and educated about our sport. If we don’t believe in it, how can we expect anyone else to?