Of all of the various criticisms that are aimed at horse racing, perhaps the one that makes the least sense to those on the outside is the manner in which jockeys use whips on the horses. Their usage is something that has long been the case, but there is some evidence to suggest that there is no need for that to be the case. The welfare of the horses is the primary concern of those that oppose the use of the whip, rejecting the suggestion that the horses don’t feel any pain from the whip. Not only that, but both the horses and the jockeys are more likely to suffer injury when a whip is used.
The question then becomes, could racing take place without a whip? If so, why is it that some people are so married to the idea of a whip being used whenever possible? The British Horseracing Authority carried out a consultation on whip usage that resulted in the rules around it being changed, yet it is still used in order to ‘encourage’ horses to run faster, with the other main reason for its use being one of safety. Whilst it is difficult to argue with safety as a primary factor, if there is science to show that the performance of horses doesn’t improve when a whip is used then should one be used at all?
What The Current Rules Are
In 2022, the BHA announced that there was to be a change of rules around the whip. The whip was designed with input from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ensuring that it is foam-padded and absorbs energy. It is made up of a composite spine that has a polymer surround, encased within a thick foam padding. Only one company is allowed to supply whips for use in British racing, whilst the Clerk of the Scales will check them to make sure that they’re in good working order.
The current rules around whip usage are as follows:
- Can be used a maximum of seven times in jump racing, six times on the flat
- The Whip Review Committee will look at how the whip is used in terms of force, as well as whether it is from over shoulder height and whether time for a response from the horse has been given
- If a rider has contravened the rules then they will face a possible suspension, whilst three suspensions in a six month period will result in a referral to the Judicial Panel
- If the whip is used four or more times over the permitted level, both the horse and the rider will be disqualified from the race
Those rules are obviously fairly all-encompassing and make a massive difference to the world of racing. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which a horse wins a race such as the Gold Cup or the Queen Mother Champion Chase, only for the usage of the whip by the jockey to result in them being disqualified from the event.
The BHA, therefore, feels as though it has done enough to ensure that the use of the whip is as responsible and fair as it can be. When the newer rules were first introduced there was a backlash from jockeys and a spate of initial suspensions. Some rules were adjusted and jockeys quickly got used to the new guidelines.
What The Science Says
Though the British Horseracing Authority carried out a consultation on the use of the whip by professional jockeys, there are many critics who feel that the body did so in order to say that they had done it rather than because they had any intention to listen to what was being said.
The RSPCA, for example, who helped in the development of the whip, said in 2021 that it was time for the BHA to ‘follow the science about whipping’. The question then becomes: what does the science say? A study by McGreevy et al in 2012 said that using a whip is likely to result in pain.
The study used high-speed video of races and shows that the skin and muscle of a horse was deformed when the horse was struck by a whip. Even though part of the whip was padded, the unpadded part hit the horse in two-thirds of cases and thus rendered the padding useless. The notion that the skin of a horse is thicker than a human is also not supported by scientific fact, given that the pain receptors are located in the same sort of area that they are in humans. On top of that, critics point out that if horses can’t feel the whip then why bother using it in the first place.
Can Races Take Place Without Whips?
You can read about the whip rules in more detail elsewhere on this site, which is why we’re not covering it any more than is necessary for the point around whipless races. We know that horses feel the pain and makes very little difference to the performance of the horse. In 1991, an Independent Senate Select Committee into Animal Welfare in Australia noted that ‘Competent riding of a horse using only hands and heels to urge the horse on should provide just as an exciting race and may also encourage more emphasis on improving horsemanship’.
If the supporters of horse racing believe that the use of the whip is crucial to the performance of the horses, they might just want to have a look to Norway. Using a whip has been banned in Norwegian racing since 1986, with many believing that it would have a detrimental effect on the sport. Many made countless assumptions about what would happen in Norway, especially considering that neighbouring Denmark and Sweden would both continue racing with whips. Surely horses moved from Norway to either location would improve, then go back to under-performing when returned home?
Not a bit of it. Instead, horses that were running in Norway carried on as normal. The favourites won in about 30% of races, whilst those that were shipped to one of the whipping countries rarely improved once the jockeys started whipping them. The evidence showed that there was virtually no need for jockeys to use a whip in order to get a horse to run as fast as possible, instead seeing them perform just as well as if they hadn’t been whipping in the first place. If Norway isn’t a good enough example, the BHA can look to its own apprentice jockeys in the United Kingdom instead.
Apprentice jockeys have been banned from using the whip for years, with the ‘hand and heel’ method used instead. Why is that jockeys just learning their trade have been able to do so without a whip, but fully fledged professionals threaten to all but down tools when any suggestion of a whip-free race is suggested to them? It seems as though all in the horse racing industry have become blind to the use of the whip by jockeys, all but ignoring it when they have been watching races for a long time. Newcomers notice it, however, and it is enough to put some of them off.
Does It Even Make A Difference?
When it comes to racing, jockeys are adamant that they be allowed to use a whip in order to encourage the horse. They suggest that without a whip, horses won’t be able to find that extra gear that they need as they are running up the straight towards the finish line. As long ago as 2011, a study was published that looked into the veracity of the claim. The study looked at a wealth of different distances and ignored any jockeys that used the whip more than the numbers of times that the rules allowed for, looking to see if the use of a whip seemed to make any difference.
The conclusion of the study is interesting when it comes to the conversation that we’re having here. It said, “Fundamentally, the relationship between whipping and placing seems unlikely to be causative.” The study points out that fatigue tends to occur in equine muscles after about 800 metres of galloping, resulting in the horses slowing significantly. This was in spite of the fact that the rules of Australian racing at the time, which was where the study was carried out, allowed for a free use of the whip in the final 100 metres of a race. In other words, horses were losing whether they were whipped or not.
In 2020, another study was carried out that compared races using a whip to ones that didn’t use a whip, taking place on the same track and in the same conditions, with both race class and field size also matched. The study was led by University of South Australia’s Dr Kirrilly Thompson and co-authored by the University of Sydney’s Paul McGreevy, with Thompson saying that what they learned was,
“In short, what that tells us is that whipping doesn’t work. At least, whipping doesn’t work for the things that we thought it did. We looked at the finishing times of the races and there was no statistically significant difference there either. So really we can’t find anything to recommend the use of whips.”