THE WHIP IN BRITISH HORSE RACING IS NOT A WELFARE ISSUE
The horse racing and gambling industries – who of course are significantly linked – again face pressures from the ‘outside world’ in what looks a critical time for both. Racing is again having to answer questions on welfare while the pressure on bookmakers concerning responsible gambling have never been greater.
The potential ramifications on the sport of horse racing are diverse, and have scope to significantly change the way we operate. It’s a time for racing to continue positively engaging with government and animal welfare groups in what is a tricky period, but it’s also a time to educate, again, especially where the whip is concerned.
While there is a sense that the whip debate has gone on forever, recent parliament debate in the UK and a poor whip-happy ride from Christophe Soumillon in last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup Classic have again sparked the discussion.
It’s a discussion that frustrates me, for the simple reason, science is on our side. But still animal welfare groups and some politicians seemingly refuse to absorb the facts concerning the whip or are willingly happy to stay ignorant to suit their own goals.
As someone who works in the horse racing industry and has seen first-hand how the British Horseracing Authority have moved to improve welfare in general in recent times, which include hugely positive changes regarding the whip, it’s infuriating to see the uneducated continue to put stumbling blocks in the way our sport. They continue to insult those in the industry and continue to lack common sense.
But while the case, as an industry we must remain positive, together and continue working to educate the outside world. And this is important, particularly considering a recent YouGov poll for Animal Aid, where 68% of respondents were opposed to jockeys using whips. That is a significant number, and far too high, but with education on the topic you’d be confident that figure would decrease. Hopefully significantly.
Through education, it can be done, especially with science on your side. On the BHA’s website regarding the whip, they say, “In British racing the use of a foam padded, air cushioned whip is permitted, with strict controls on its use. Existing evidence and scientific knowledge shows that, with the appropriate design and these strict controls in place, it does not compromise the welfare of horses during a race”.
The fact that this comes from the regulator of horse racing, and is science-based, is hugely significant in fighting our corner. In fact, the modifications to the whips that are currently in use in the UK, were done so in partnership with the RSPCA. They are designed to create a sound rather than inflict any pain to help in keep a horse going forward.
With regards the “strict controls” mentioned above, this of course relates to the number of times a jockey can use their whip and on what part of a horse’s rear-end they can strike. If all done correctly, there is no welfare issue.
If our sport’s regulator says this, with the aid of science, what are we, as an industry, supposed to think?
WHY THE WHIP IS NEEDED
According to the BHA's David Sykes, director of health and welfare, the BHA's whip review of 2011 found that acceptable use of the whip includes to focus a horse, to encourage it to perform at its best when in contention, and for safety.
On the first point, although animals, horses are not too far removed from humans in terms of having their own personalities and traits. Some horses can be lazy, some horses boisterous and some can lack focus. A correct administration of a whip can curb these undesirable traits. This would also have a knock-on effect regarding the safety of boisterous types and horses who lack focus.
With regards encouraging horses to perform at its best when in contention, isn’t that a huge part of sport; finding out who is the best? If jockeys were stopped from completely using their whip for encouragement purposes, I’d be very confident we would regularly witness the best horse in the race not winning. Is that a positive, given we are told the whip is not a welfare issue when correctly used?
Is that good for owners? Is that good for trainers? Is that good for jockeys? Also, is it good for punters, people who help fund the sport of horse racing through betting? In a peer-reviewed paper released in February this year, entitled, “Flogging tired horses: Who wants whipping and who would walk away if whipping horses were withheld?”, 10% of racing enthusiasts in the sample (44 females and 63 males) said they would stop watching races and betting on them if whipping were banned.
Racing has developed a bad habit of shunning its core fanbase in the quest of new race-goers recently, if a whip ban was brought in, based on this study, it would certainly look a case of biting the hand that feeds you.
Finally, with regards safety, while plenty of those who wish the whip to be banned, they have agreed to jockeys carrying a whip for safety purposes. That at least is a positive, but I say again, if the science behind the whip says if used correctly it’s not a welfare issue, the current regulations in the UK look perfectly fine.
The country of Norway and its regulations on the whip have been put forward as an example to follow. In 1982, the whipping of horses was banned in Norway. Apart from juvenile races, jockeys are not allowed to carry or use a whip.
There have been reports of lazy horses who race in Norway being sent to other jurisdictions because of their idle nature. If a ban was enforced in the UK, could we, as well as potentially losing punters who bet on racing, see owners move their horses to other countries? Something to digest if Norway is being used as an example.
Just last week, South Africa trialled their first ever whip-free race in what was the first of a series due to be run. After the event, South Africa’s National Horseracing Authority’s Arnold Hyde confirmed the move was sparked by public pressure with the aim of trying to attract a new audience. He said, “there is a perception that [whip use] is an area of racing that may be seen in a negative light by people outside the industry”.
While different jurisdictions aiming to bring a new audience can never be criticised, did the South African National Horseracing Authority first try to go down the education route, in the hope of proving this perception wrong? After all, the whips used in South Africa are said to be quite similar to the ones used by British jockeys and therefore, if used correctly are not a welfare issue.
Whether overall horsemanship standards in Norway and South Africa are up to those of Britain and Ireland, I don’t know, but I highly doubt it, with respect. And with that being said, should we potentially be a follower? I’d have thought we were more leadership material in 2018.
WE ARE NOT PERFECT, BUT IMPROVEMENTS HAVE BEEN MADE
In 2011, the BHA made significant changes to the British whip rules “to address an increasing number of whip offences, which had risen by more than 40% between 2008 and 2010”. This led to a reduction in the number of times a whip could be used by a jockey. From 16 uses of the whip, a flat rider could only use his stick seven times while a National Hunt jockey was down to eight. And remember, all with a whip that is scientifically proven not to be a welfare issue when used correctly.
A new penalty structure was also introduced at the time, while Stewards were given discretion in assessing individual use of the whip, but also how it was used. All the above are huge steps taken by the BHA that should be applauded.
While the rule changes were met with staunch criticism by some at the time, I think in hindsight, it has been universally well-received now we are in 2018. Progress has been made that is backed up by BHA data too. Year on year, since the new whip rules have been brought in (2012), there has been a drop in offences by jockeys.
It should be noted however, that last season offences did creep up again, but overall, the change looks to have been hugely positive. It’s not perfect though, as BHA data in the same time frame also says horses have been marked directly by use of the whip from jockeys. Thankfully, the numbers are tiny. 2013 saw five horses marked, but last year zero horses were recorded to have been affected.
Given the whip currently used, I assume these wealed horses were affected by improper use of the stick? In these cases, bans and fines must be handed down – that is something I very much support.
The “totting-up procedure” in the UK for misuse of the whip is also one I support, and we saw that come into play last week with Jamie Spencer. His ride on Phoenix Of Spain in the Vertem Futurity Trophy Stakes saw Spencer pick up a whip ban, his fifth offence of its type in the last six months, triggering the BHA to ban him for 21 days.
Spencer is somewhat fortunate his ban comes at the end of the Flat season proper, but it will hopefully remind him and other jockeys of the rules and their duties. Being forced to miss 21 days of paid work is a significant loss of earnings for a jockey and again, it’s an initiative that the BHA should be praised for.
MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT LACKING COMMON SENSE AND SHOWING IGNORANCE
There was an equine welfare debate in the British parliament on October 15, and some of the comments made by supposed informed members of parliament were frankly worrying. In a piece by Tom Kerr of the Racing Post, Kerr reported on comments made by Labour spokesman Luke Pollard.
Pollard’s remarks on equine fatalities read as, "If we are to legitimise the BHA continuing to govern the regulatory approach, when will [the fatality rate of 0.2 per cent] be halved? When will we get to 0.1 per cent – by what date? What steps will be taken to get there? What happens if we do not get there? When will the target be zero?"
“When will the target be zero?" is a comment derived from a fantasy world. While Pollard can be guilty of lacking common sense, former Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron is guilty of ignorance. On the eve of the Westminster debate, as reported by Chris Cook of the Guardian, Farron didn’t know the full role of the BHA with regards to welfare in British racing.
Just like the public, certain people within or in and around government need to be educated on equine matters. Just because a person has been or is in government or politics, it shouldn’t be assumed they know what they are talking about or doing. Brexit being a prime example where the British government is concerned.
HELPING IN POSITIVE CHANGE
While I feel the current whip rules in use in British racing are among the best in the world, I’m not against change if it helps in fighting the poor perception racing may have within the outside world.
Is it maybe time to stop calling the whip by its known name, for a start? For example, in South Africa, they call it a “crop”. Elsewhere, more “hands and heels” races for apprentice jockeys should be brought in with the aim being, by the time young riders reach a fully professional level, the use of a whip may be minimal.
In every race card at every meeting that takes place, more information on the whip should be made available, along with the great changes that have been made over the years, the BHA data and the science behind it not being a welfare issue. This should be common practice. Maybe it is already?
Those are just three off the top of my head, but I’m sure they have been covered long ago. Plenty of what has been talked about before has been covered in this piece too, but if it’s yet another that helps change the wrong perception people have about horse racing welfare and the whip, it will be worth it.
At the end of the day, people within racing have been told by its regulator, backed by science, that the whip, if correctly used, is not a welfare issue. It’s by no means perfect, and it never will be, but I firmly believe the current whip rules in British racing are among the very best in the world and not a threat to horse welfare.
It’s time the people within the industry do too. We must work hard to educate the government and public, as you've seen, and believe we are doing the right thing where the whip is concerned.