The Whip in racing and why banning it is a good idea

by David Cormack

There are fewer issues more divisive or contentious in racing than the use of the whip on racehorses. The topic has had, and continues to have, a polarising effect and, despite fairly recent and significant changes relating to its use, it remains a topic that some see as threatening the very future of the sport.

On the one hand people who support its use would argue that racing horses without the whip would change the nature of the sport in a variety of ways that would lead to a diminishing of its appeal as both a general entertainment and betting medium. On the other hand, those who would like to see its use limited further or eliminated altogether would argue that continued use of the whip leads to an increasingly negative perception of the sport that is going to turn people away from racing and potentially attract external pressures for change that will see racing lose control of its own destiny in relation to perceived animal welfare issues. And some would argue that it is just plain and simply morally wrong.

On 14th December the debate around the whip took a new twist when Nick Rust, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, told BBC Sport that “a new structure for penalties and deterrents for overuse of the whip” will be announced in January 2019.”

And, fuelling the fire further still, the BBC reported that ‘it is understood senior figures in racing are preparing for a possible ban on the use of the whip within three years.’

Such a move would be a highly significant watershed moment for the sport both in relation to the whip and its stance on a range of other welfare issues.

The whip – a background

Throughout the history of British horse racing a whip has been carried by jockeys. There are two principal reasons for its use. Firstly, it is used as an aid in enhancing the horse’s performance in racing terms (i.e. to encourage or coerce a horse into getting from A to B in a faster time than would otherwise be the case). Secondly, it is an aid to manage and control the general behaviours and actions of a horse, a horsemanship tool effectively.

The design of the whip has changed greatly. In days of yore they were very long, tapered and basic in design. They would break the skin, leave weals and marks on horses and could be used with impunity. Attitudes towards animal welfare were, of course, different in those days but although gradual changes were made to design and use of the whip, the tool being very much different at the turn of this century than two centuries earlier, marks were still being left on horses when the whip was used with excessive force or frequency. That fact and the increased public awareness and sensitivity to such issues manifested in the introduction, in 1984, of the first set of specifications governing the design of whips to be used in racing under rules.

These specifications governed the length and width of the whip and also the flaps used on the end of the whips and have been reviewed and upgraded several times since, notably in 1996 and 2009, with the current design now incorporating not only specifications for length and width but specific requirements relating to cushioning on both the shaft and, if fitted, flaps. Whips used by any jockey racing in the UK must comply with the regulations, which are quite specific in terms of design.

In addition to the rules governing design of the whip there are very specific rules relating to how the whip can and cannot be used by jockeys during a race. Over the last 35 years various changes have been introduced and how whips can be used has become subject to tighter controls and increasingly stiff penalties for rule breaches.

The most wide-ranging changes occurred when, in September 2011, the sport’s governing body, the British Horseracing Authority (the BHA), published a comprehensive review into all aspects of the use of the whip in racing and approved the 19 recommendations for improvements that had been made by the group conducting the review. The following month a series of new rules were implemented governing various aspects of whip use.

The rules, introduced in October 2011, were initially problematic. Jockeys, represented by their professional association, were unhappy with a variety of aspects of both the regulations and the penalty system. Several rounds of changes were made over a period of months and eventually what was seen as a workable set of rules was arrived at.

So, what is the problem?

The BHA had launched an informal review into the whip rules in 2010. However, the issue was brought into sharp focus in the spring of 2011 following a series of high profile rule breaches, particularly in April 2011 when Jason Maguire was banned for five days after his Grand National winning ride on Ballabriggs. He had hit the horse 17 times after the last fence and the dramatic aftermath, which saw Ballabriggs being dismounted and doused with water and given oxygen after finishing exhausted in unseasonably hot conditions, added to the perception that Maguire had been much too hard on his horse.

The Grand National is racing’s shop window and the television audience for the race far exceeds that of any other racing event so there could have been no more high profile stage for a jockey to flout the rules relating to the whip. The race attracted a great deal of attention with the BBC receiving a high number of complaints (over 300, ten times higher than the number received the previous year) but it is worth noting that only 8 of the complaints were in relation to the whip – the remainder were concerned with coverage of horse deaths and general complaints over whether the BBC should be covering the race at all.

At the end of that month jockey Timmy Murphy incurred a two day ban for his ride on Whitbread Gold Cup winner Poker De Sivola, another high profile race televised on terrestrial television. By then the BHA then clearly felt they had to be seen to act and the ‘informal’ whip review was formalised, leading to the publication of the report in September of that year and the resultant introduction and refinement of the changes to the rules governing whip usage.

In terms of animal welfare one obvious measure in terms of the whip ‘hurting horses’ was the frequency with which they were being found with weals and marks at the end of their races. In 2010, the last full year before the new whip rules were introduced, this number stood at 17, or once every three weeks on average. This dropped to 10 in 2011, the year the changes were introduced (in October) and in the years following the changes the number has peaked at 5 (in 2013) and been as low as zero (in 2017). The average for the six full years since the changes has been 2.16 per year, just over one every 6 months.

It’d be hard, looking at those figures, for anyone to argue that the changes to the rules have not improved the situation in relation to the marking of horses. From one horse marked every three weeks to one every six months would seem a significant improvement and many would recognise that the physical injury to horses now caused by use of the whip is low on the scale of animal welfare issues within racing and surely miniscule in relation to animal welfare issues in society in general.

Yet bodies such as Animal Aid, who actively campaign for a total whip ban, are not satisfied by the improvements and argue that although the number of marked horses may have reduced there is no effective measure of the pain that horses may feel when, at the end of a race when already tired, they are whipped by the jockey. Below is a policy statement taken from their website which outlines the basis of their opposition to racing in general, and to the use of the whip in particular.

‘Animal Aid opposes horse racing because of its exploitation of its primary asset – the race horse. Of course, we know that an end to horse racing is some way off, but we believe that a ban on the whip for all but safety purposes is feasible now. It has been demonstrated to work in Norway and in ‘hands and heels’ races; it would be popular with the public; it would prevent some falls; and, most importantly of all, it would prevent a shocking amount of cruelty and brutality to horses.’

In 2014 a YouGov poll commissioned by Animal Aid purported to show that 70% of respondents were opposed to the use of whips in racing and the organisation have used this poll result to demonstrate public support on the issue.

The RSPCA stop short of a total ban but stress in the position statement on their website that the use of the whip needs to be strictly controlled and rules enforced.  They also say ‘the present situation is untenable, particularly its excessive use in racing under the guise of encouragement. ‘ They also highlight evidence from a scientific study which illustrated that the number of fallers in jumps races is correlated with whip use – ‘Horses which were being whipped and progressing through the race appeared to be at greater risk of falling compared to horses which were not whipped’

Considerable opposition to the whip from animal protection organisations then and, if the YouGov poll from 2014 can be taken as a reliable barometer, from the general public also.

Within racing opinion is divided.

Many racing professionals see the whip as an essential tool. They argue that it is necessary to bring the best out in racehorses and that there is no welfare issue associated with it. Many also feel that ground given on this issue would be part of a gradual slide towards greater and greater regulation being imposed on racing.

Influential observers and racing journalists Kevin Blake and James Willoughby have both been forthright in their view that the whip presents no welfare issue and is essential to the appeal of the sport. While many others have written on the topic, the arguments put forward by Blake and Willoughby seem to encapsulate the key points made by those who argue for the whip to be retained for encouragement purposes.

Blake’s arguments, set out in an article on the At The Races website in March of 2018, centre around his view that the whip does not pose a welfare issue. He also highlights the need for jockeys to carry a whip on safety grounds.

He then goes on to argue that the whip triggers a horse’s natural response to flee and that the triggering of this flight response, if removed, would result in a tendency for free-going, wayward horses to win more frequently with lazier horses who might need some encouragement at a disadvantage. He cites that this would be bad for the breed as a whole as breeders may favour temperamentally unsuitable horses.

He closes by arguing that racing needs to educate people on the whip, highlighting that it does not represent a welfare issue. He also suggests that ‘…racing should not concern itself with trying to appease the unappeasable.’

In a more recent article, published on 17th December 2018, Blake makes the point that if the whip is dispensed with then the logical next step for bodies such as Animal Aid and their lobby is to focus all their attentions on the racehorse deaths that occur. These deaths are surely a more potent welfare issue than whip use and Blake’s opinion is that racing will find that issue harder to defend.

James Willoughby’s arguments mirror Blake’s to an extent. He also argues that use of the whip within the current rules does not constitute a welfare issue. Ever open to alternate views, he also spoke out strongly to highlight Victor Espinosa’a ride in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, when the horse was struck 30 times without, in Willoughby’s view, giving the horse adequate time to respond.

But Willoughby is in the same camp as Blake in as much as he sees a ban on the whip as likely to have a detrimental effect on the breed. In a recent appearance on Racing UK’s Luck On Sunday programme he articulated that view in terms framed around his view that removal of the whip as an aid to encouragement is likely to mean, in some instances, that the best horse will not win.  In an impassioned articulation of his key arguments he stated that ‘we desperately need to know who the best horses are.’

But not all racing folk share those views.

Several influential leading figures within the sport including the late commentator and journalist Sir Peter O’Sullevan and former champion jump jockey John Francome have long voiced their favouring of much greater control and even a total ban on the use of the whip. Francome’s views (he favours a complete ban) are based on a belief that a total whip ban would encourage higher standards of horsemanship and also encourage more people to engage with the sport. Legendary US jockey, the late Bill Shoemaker, was quoted as saying ‘more races are lost by the whip than are ever won by it’.  O’Sullevan likewise believed that ongoing disregard for whip rules by jockeys was damaging to racing.

The newly appointed Racing Post editor Tom Kerr added fuel to the fire,  writing a strongly worded article on why he believed a total ban was necessary and inevitable. Kerr was keen to stress he believed there was no welfare issue associated with correct use of the whip but, contrary to Kevin Blake and James Willoughby who would, in short, like racing to stand firm and defend its position, Tom Kerr highlighted the ‘visceral perception’ describing, graphically, the viewpoint that a person with no connection or bias towards the sport might hold. ‘All they see is the appearance of violence being inflicted upon animals, a sight that is otherwise as alien to modern life as freak shows and madhouses and to many just as abhorrent. The perception is appalling; it is of a sport that punishes its heroes.’ Strong stuff indeed, no doubt designed to some extent to provoke a reaction, which it did.

Kerr goes on to argue that racing would be none the worse for a total whip ban, viewing such a move as an inevitable eventuality.

And so the arguments go on, but if you summarise the key positions I think they look something like this.

Those who argue for the whip to be maintained as an aid to encouragement would argue some or all of the following –

That the whip does not constitute a welfare issue when used correctly, within the rules.

That the nature of racing (and breeding) would be fundamentally altered to its detriment by a total whip ban.

That racing should protect the horse by enforcing the rules and awarding appropriate penalties to offenders.

That racing should focus on education in order to develop a wider understanding that the whip does not constitute a welfare issue.

That racing needs to stand firm and not bow to public pressure, based on false perceptions, on issues that the sport recognises do not pose an animal welfare risk (such as the whip).

Those who argue for a ban, or further reduction in the frequency and nature of whip usage tend to argue some or all of the following points –

That the whip does or may constitute a welfare issue (although many who think a ban is the correct course do accept that it does not constitute a significant welfare issue).

That favourable public perception of the sport is being challenged significantly by the sight of horses being hit on a racecourse.

That the sport would not be damaged significantly by a whip ban.

That changing public perception through education on the topic would present a difficult and, perhaps, impossible task.

So who is right and what should happen next? 

I have to state at the outset of this summary that I am in the Tom Kerr camp and also that I agree with the view that, properly used, the whip does not constitute a significant welfare issue. If I were a practising animal activist I would campaign on any number of issues before my attention would turn to the whip, if indeed it ever did – unless it was shown that racing was unable to manage use of the whip within the current rules.

And I think you could argue that, currently, racing is unable to exert that control. In itself this does not appear to be creating a welfare issue (the reduction in numbers of horses visibly marked after a race would tend to support that, assuming no bias in the collection of the data). But it does add fuel to the argument that whip use and misuse fuels a negative perception of the sport among spectators.  

The perception that can be generated is one of a ‘win at all costs’ mentality among jockeys and connections. This can be particularly levelled in the case of big races where prestige, prize money or breeding values can escalate to a point where there the rewards for winning the race can far outweigh any punishment for improper whip use.

There has been a 52% decrease in the number of offences relating to whip use between 2010 and 2017. These are figures the BHA would point to as vindication for the introduction of the new rules. In 2010 there were 1085 offences which equated to 1.18% of rides and 2.98 offences per racing day (assuming racing occurs every day bar Christmas Day). By 2017 this had dropped to 518 offences, equating to 0.57% of rides and around 1.4 offences per day.

No real arguing with those numbers in terms of the reduction but are the numbers of rule breaches low enough to alter the views of a doubting public? A public which, as Kerr points out, has a collective ‘direction of travel’ in terms of societal attitudes which render defending of the hitting of racehorses in pursuit of winning a race an increasingly difficult sell. The 2017 level still equates to 9.8 offences a week. Just shy of 10 times in any week a jockey will breach the rules relating to the use of the whip. Each and every week, on average.

That may be one of the reasons that the BHA have indicated in that BBC article that stronger penalties are likely to be introduced, with Chief Executive Nick Rust suggesting the ‘top races’, in other words those most likely to draw attention, provoke public criticism and render a jockey more likely to adopt a win at all costs mentality, may well be a target for changes.

Paul Struthers, spokesman for the Professional Jockeys’ Association, defends the status quo. He argues that increasing the severity of penalties may have the opposite effect to that intended in as much as imposing stiffer penalties for what may be relatively minor infractions would fuel the debate still further, something the BHA are clearly keen to avoid.

Whether the BHA will go as far, at this stage, as some would like by introducing disqualification of horses who have been subject to whip misuse is unlikely but that is a step many claim would be a more effective deterrent. Such a move would also rid the sport of the perceived unfairness of a horse whose jockey has broken the whip rules keeping the race when the runner up and other runners in the race may have been ridden within the rules, an unfairness highlighted by former jockey, television pundit and jockey coach Mick Fitzgerald.

Such a move would be highly controversial and potentially even more damaging to the sport than the status quo. Imagine the scenes in betting shops and within the industry were, say, a winning Derby favourite disqualified because the jockey had marginally infringed the rules. Yet there seems something not quite right about a situation where a jockey can effectively ‘cheat’ but still retain the prize, doesn’t there?

Assuaging public perception and how to go about it is at the very heart of the debate.  If racing cannot alter the ‘direction of travel’ in relation to the public’s perception of whip use then it will surely find itself under increasing external pressures which could well result in either the weight of pressure being too much to bear, forcing racing’s hand or simply that the decisions relating to welfare will be referred to an external body, something the BHA is obviously keen to avoid.

This was somewhat starkly brought into focus during a recent parliamentary debate, prompted by a petition raised by Animal Aid reaching the necessary 100,000 signatures (a number that racing would do well to reflect on). The debate, while congratulatory towards the BHA in certain respects, illustrated that there is a certain appetite to consider whether the sport requires an independent regulator to govern on issues relating to welfare. While the current government’s position is that it does not, noises from the opposition benches suggested that a change of government could well blow a new wind across the debate.

My own opinion is that racing is a traditional sport. It has a traditional and, on the whole, conservative outlook. It is inward looking and reluctant, in general, to identify and proactively address issues from any kind of external paradigm. And it underestimates, in my view, the size of the challenge here. In Animal Aid it faces a determined, politically adept organisation who will be relentless in their pursuit of what it believes needs to change within the sport.

Racing also, in my view, underestimates the rate of that ‘direction of travel’ of societal attitudes. Imagine how quickly a social media fire would spread in the event of, for example, multiple deaths occurring in a Grand National.  And how difficult that fire would be to extinguish. Such an event could easily trigger significant knee-jerk reactions which were not in anyone’s interest within racing.

I also have to say that I think some of the fears outlined by Kevin Blake and James Willoughby in relation to the impact a ban would have on the sport are unconvincing. There is no real scientific data to support the view that the results of horse races would be substantively altered nor how much impact the whip has in terms of performance.

Yes, there will be instances where certain horses may lose races they may have won but that is already the case. A huge number of factors can influence the result of a race. In fact, playing devil’s advocate, the sport might be ‘fairer’ in the event of whip ban in as much as the advantage a horse may artificially possess because it is ridden by a certain jockey who possesses greater skill, strength or tactical awareness relating to whip usage will be negated and the horses will be on more of a level playing field, one could argue.

The horses that win would be the ones capable of going faster than the others without whip encouragement. People would breed for those qualities and, in the longer term, the breed would continue to evolve positively in terms of performance.

Racing does not exist in and of itself and it doesn’t exist solely to identify the best horses. Its purpose is, and has always been, to entertain. Everything else falls apart if the sport no longer entertains. And it does so in multi-faceted ways. Yes, James Willoughby is correct in asserting that identification of the best horses is, for some people, an absorbing facet, the major source of entertainment they find within the sport. And it may be that this is true for a wide cross-section of the sport’s core following. And yes, that is one of the risks of a blanket whip ban, were racing to lose its core fan base on the basis of uncompetitive racing.  But I simply do not believe that would be the case. Does it really matter if horses were to slow down by 0.2 secs or 0.5 seconds or whatever because the whip was not used? I don’t believe the vast majority of the sport’s followers would find that a reason to stop following the sport.

Racing would still be competitive, the puzzle no less compelling, the spectacle no less colourful, dramatic and aesthetically appealing.

Racing does not exist in a vacuum and it can only continue to exist with the permission of society. Society’s attitude towards animal welfare issues, perceived or otherwise, is undoubtedly hardening and the hitting of animals in the name of sport (which is what we do) will almost certainly become increasingly at odds with what is deemed acceptable. If racing fails to recognise that and act proactively then it is, in my view, treading a dangerous path. It is disappointing if, as seems to have been the case, it’s taken a jolt from government to prompt the changes we may see soon and, going forward, racing must be much more on the front foot.

If the whip didn’t exist and you invented it tomorrow what chance do you think you’d have of gaining acceptance of its use in races to encourage the horses to go faster? Nil would be the answer I strongly suspect.

In twenty years, in my view, we won’t look back and question if banning the whip for all but safety use was the correct course, we’ll wonder at how long it took us to do it.

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