For those that oppose racing, there are any number of things about the sport that they find cruel and barbaric. Whilst some of the objections have some merit, not all of them do. Yet the one thing that even those with only a passing interest in horse racing will often wonder is why it is that jockeys are allow to ‘hit’ the horses with the whip so regularly. This is not a topic that is so easily dismissed by those that support the horse racing industry, not least of all because the rules over the use of the whip have changed regularly over the years.
One of the obvious questions is why it is that jockeys use the whip, given that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals believes that being struck by a whip will cause the horse pain. There are strict controls on the use of the whip, which has to be foam padded, but for some neither the padding nor these controls go far enough in protecting horses from suffering pain as a result of the use of a whip. It will remain a controversial topic for as long as whips can be used, but what are the actual facts on the issue?
What The Rules Say
In February of 2020, the Horse Welfare Board released a document entitled ‘A Life Well Lived – A new strategic plan for the welfare of horses bred for racing, 2020-2024’. As part of that plan, a recommendation was made that the British Horseracing Authority should carry out a public consultation over the use of the whip in the sport. The Review Group defined certain conditions in which the whip could be used in what was termed an ‘acceptable’ manner. According to said review, the following are acceptable uses:
- A manner in which the jockey feels it is justified in the context of the race
- To encourage a horse to perform at its best when the horse is in content to win, is able to respond and is given time to respond by the jockey
- It is not to be used solely to make the horse run faster, but to concentrate and perform to the best of its ability
- It can only be used on the horse’s body where it will not cause pain
- The whip’s use must be limited and can only happen a certain number of times
- It must be an energy absorbing whip that will not cause pain when used properly
The rules as they currently stand say that seven uses of the whip are acceptable on the flat, which increase eight for jump racing. Hands and heels should be used for encouragement first, whilst whips shouldn’t be used if the horse is out of contention or clearly winning the race. Whips can’t be used over shoulder height and can only be used on the hindquarters or on the horse’s shoulder if it is in the backhand position.
What Punishment Do Jockeys Suffer?
In 2020, there were eight offences in Group 1 and Grade 1 races. This might seem like an acceptable number, but when you consider that there were 297 offences across the entire sport, that then seems much less acceptable.
Across 73,872 runners, 297 suspensions were issued. Of those, 26 were for seven days or more, which was a 13% increase when compared to the number from a decade earlier. The total offences, though, were down by 67% on the 2010 figures, so there is an argument that the use of the whip has become much more palatable for many.
In terms of what happens to jockeys that over-use the whip, the punishment depends on the severity of the offence. Punishments were increased following the delayed review published by the BHA in 2022. The latest rules and punishments are as follows:
- Only the ProCush whip can be used – originally this was supposed to be only in the backhand position but this forehand usage is now still allowed following a jockey backlash.
- Horses will now be disqualified for using the whip four more times than allowed (if applied for the 2022 Grand National the winner Noble Yeats would have been disqualified)
- Suspensions start from 3 days (up from 2) with increased amateur rider fines
- Double suspensions for rule breaches in major Class 1 and Class 2 races
- Suspensions following disqualification is a minimum 14 days for a standard race (increased from 7) or 28 days for a major race (increase from 9)
Financial penalties are introduced when the prize money crosses a certain threshold, whilst jockeys that frequently pick up bans, such as five or more ‘lower level’ offences across six months, may receive longer suspensions.
The BHA updated some of the rules in May 2023 following feedback from jockeys. If a whip offence is incurred due to a ‘double tap’ – this is when a jockey inadvertently hits the horse twice in the same motion – then jockeys will no longer face an automatic 4 day suspension. Instead riders can now opt to take part in a day of coaching and training instead.
There is also an update to ‘wealing’ offences. This is when a horse becomes marked on the skin by the use of the whip. Now if a there is a wealing offence but no other riding offence has taken place, e.g. the jockey has not overused the whip, then a lower penalty is issued.
There are three ratings for wealing offences, severe, moderate and minor. Now if there is no whip use offence associated the penalty is reduced from 28 days to 14 days (severe), 14 days to 7 days (moderate) and 7 days to 4 days (minor).
Does It Cause Horses Pain To Be Whipped?
One of the most controversial aspects of the use of the whip is the idea that it doesn’t cause the horses any pain. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals believes that it time that the BHA started to follow the science, which says that it is likely to cause pain in most instances. A study by McGreevy et al in 2012 used high-speed videography of races to show that skin and muscle was deformed when struck with a whip. Studies on other animals, including humans, showed that such deformation caused pain.
Though the whips have been designed in association with the RSPCA, close to two-thirds of strikes with a whip make contact with the unpadded part of them. This makes the padded part of the whip redundant, whilst the science shows that the idea that horses have thicker skin than humans and therefore feel the blows less is fanciful. The epidermal layer of the skin, which is where the pain receptors are located, are of an equivalent thickness to that of humans, making the idea of thick-skinned horses that can’t feel the blows of the whip a myth.
Does It Make A Difference To Performance?
Given the fact that the use of a whip causes pain to a horse, there seems to be little justification for its use. This is especially true when you consider the fact that they seem to make little difference to an actual race. Between January of 2017 and December of 2019, comparable races took place at the same racecourse and over the same distance both using and not using a whip. Upon reflection after the fact, there were no significant differences in the race reports of stewards for the two different race types.
That is to say, there was no evidence to suggest that using a whip helps with improving steering, reducing interference or increases the safety of the horses. Not only that, but there was also no improvement on finishing times whether a whip was used or otherwise. There is a desire to see more races run without a whip in order to provide a larger sample size, but the evidence appears to be mounting that the use of whips for ‘encouragement’ could be stopped altogether without any major difference being noticed in the sport, which will only encourage critics of the whip.