The British Horseracing Authority has announced that it will be introducing tougher penalties in order to deter jockeys from breaching the whip rules. According to a report, tougher penalties are expected in big races with the specific aim of cleaning up the industry’s public image when it come to the welfare of horses.

‘No Timeline’ For The Changes

jockey using the whip

Those that regularly campaign for horse racing to introduce tougher rules over the use of the whip will be disappointed to hear the Chief Executive of the British Horseracing Authority, Nick Rust, declare that there’s ‘no firm timing’ for the changes to come into effect. They will be pleased, however, to learn that senior figures within horse racing believe that a total ban on the use of the whip could come about within three years.

They will, at least, be pleased that a new penalty structure for the over-use of the whip is likely to be introduced in January 2019. Rust confirmed that the current structure is not doing enough to deter jockeys from breaking the whip rule, especially not in the big races where there’s ‘so much at stake’. He said, “The current penalty structure works well in the majority of races but perhaps not in the top races”.

Professional Jockeys' Association Not Convinced

jockey holding the whipThe BHA might well believe that limiting the use of the whip or even banning it altogether might improve the welfare of horses, but the Professional Jockeys' Association believes that there’s a ‘fundamental flaw’ in the plan to introduce tougher penalties for jockeys that breach the whip rules. The boss of the PJA, Paul Struthers, told the BBC that banning the whip won’t make ‘a blind bit of difference’ when it comes to horse welfare.

Despite not being convinced that tougher penalties will make much difference to the overall welfare of horses, Struthers admits that everyone can ‘see the direction of travel’. The implication appears to be that the British Horseracing Authority appears to be willing to ban the whip rather than deal with the actual problems affecting the welfare of horses in the UK. It is perhaps noteworthy that the BHA’s announcement comes on the back of a review into the deaths of horses during the Cheltenham Festival when seven horses died.

Struthers said that the PJA had no knowledge of the authorities planning to announce a new structure for their penalties in January, adding that the Professional Jockeys’ Association would find it ‘bitterly disappointing’ if they introduced a change to the way penalties work without first consulting them. He made reference to some people in the sport believing that ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘draconian penalties’ would solve the matter, but said it’s a flawed argument because it’s based on the false idea that ‘breaches [are] intentional and the current penalty structure [is] so lenient that jockeys pay them little regard’.

Struthers is keen to point out to the British Horseracing Authority that making the wrong decision about this might make things worse in the long run. He said, “if I'm right, such penalties might only serve to make the situation worse as harsher penalties for what are ultimately minor infractions of the rules would fuel the problem they're trying to solve…Our members are aware of the scrutiny on the sport and of their responsibilities towards it”.

The BHA’s Considerations On Whip Usage

jockey about to use the whipIn 2011 new whip rules were introduced that limited the number of times a jockey could whip a horse during a flat race to 7 occasions and 8 in a jump race. The waters of the guidelines were muddied slightly because stewards were entitled to use discretion depending on numerous factors, meaning that they could chose not to impose a penalty if they felt the circumstances of the whip usage were justified. Even with that, though, the regulations imposed in 2011 were amongst the toughest in the world.

Speaking about the circumstances that might lead a jockey to overuse the whip, Rust said, “In the adrenaline of the moment in a big race, jockeys will occasionally leave aside the rules and may forget where the limit is”. A perfect example of that could be seen in the 2018 Gold Cup when Richard Johnson over-used his whip as he rode Native River to victory over Might Bite. He was subsequently punished for that, being issued with a 7 day ban and fined £6,550.

It’s something that Rust believes that the BHA has to work harder to avoid, saying, “We have to stop that happening because even though all the evidence says that horses do not suffer any pain or cruelty through use of the whip, there is obviously a perception issue”. The whip is used to encourage the horses to keep running at their maximum, with the whip itself having padding on it. According to Rust, though, jockeys need to limit their use of it because it is ‘unedifying’ and the public don’t like the idea of the horses being hit.

Even so, Rust is quick to point out that no definitive decisions will be made any time soon, but that the BHA is keen on having a debate around the issue. The welfare of horses has been brought into the light after the BHA released a 67-page report about the deaths of horses during the Cheltenham Festival, which made many suffusions like additional veterinary checks. The majority of people involved in horse racing think that the deaths of horses is a far more important issue than the use of the whip and Rust even pointed to the fact that the whip isn’t mentioned once in the report.

Is The Whip A Welfare Issue?

jockeys using the whip

With Rust insisting that the use of the whip is little more than public relations issue and doesn’t actually hurt the horses, the natural question is whether or not it’s even a welfare issue at all. Modern whips actually have an air-cushioned end that reduces the extent to which any damage to the horse is done. There also some that believe it can be used for safety purposes and that its an important tool when it comes to thoroughbred racing.

The majority of the opposition comes in the form of those that think it is cruel to whip horses. There are large numbers of those under 30 years of age who think that way, which is a concern for the BHA when you consider that younger people are the industry’s future. There was a parliamentary debate into horse racing in October that many believe has caused the British Horseracing Authority to rethink their approach to the use of the whip and horse welfare in general.

The World Horse Welfare charity actually accepts that the whip is indeed helpful from a safety point of view but does not believe that its use is necessary for the encouragement of horses during a race.

They are keen for a debate on the use of a whip during events, avoiding taking a firm position on the matter until such a time as that debate has taken place. They believe it certainly is a welfare matter when it is used too much, but plenty within the industry think it’s about perception first and foremost. Some commentators do not even call it a whip, instead opting for the more gentle sounding ‘persuader’.

Paul Struthers from the Professional Jockeys' Association was keen to point out that no one cares more for the welfare of horses than the jockeys themselves, pointing out that many get into the sport in the first place because they love horses and find that the bond between a horse and its rider is a special one. He made clear that jockeys are keen to work with the rest of the industry to make the right decision, saying, “we will be a constructive participant in any discussions about the current rules and penalties, whenever they might take place”.