Working towards whip-free horse racing

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It’s a familiar sight in Australia: the jockeys in their bright colours riding beautiful and athletic horses around a racetrack. Amidst all the colour and movement, it’s easy to overlook the black whip that’s held in every jockey’s hand. But it’s this inconspicuous whip that’s attracting a great deal of controversy and criticism of the industry.

As we approach the Melbourne Cup and the Spring Racing Carnival, it’s a good time to reflect on what can be done to better align horse racing with community expectations.

The use of whips is once again in the spotlight this year. Whips of various designs have been used throughout the history of horse riding, but it is only in racing that we see horses repeatedly struck with whips in every outing, in an effort by jockeys to “encourage” their mounts to run faster.

However, public concern over whip use has continued to escalate in recent years. In fact, data released this week from an independent poll commissioned by the RSPCA in Victoria found 69% of Victorians feel that horses should not be hit with a whip in the normal course of a race, and 71% of Victorians who attend or bet on horse races would be undeterred if whips were banned and would continue to participate in horse racing events and activities.

The majority feel that whipping horses causes pain, is inhumane and is unnecessary. It’s clearer than ever that the horse-loving public – including regular punters – don’t want to see horses routinely hit with whips.

Why whip use is a problem

Whip use has been steadily reformed and reduced in recent years, as public concern has increased and knowledge about the effects of the whip has improved.

For example, there are limits on how often a jockey can use a whip per race, and since 2009, all jockeys in thoroughbred racing in Australia have been required to use a padded whip.

However, Racing Australia’s Rules of Racing set no limit on the number of whip strikes in the final 100 metres. Horses are whipped most when approaching the finish line where there is a greater incentive for the jockey to make the horse run faster; but this also means that horses are being hit with the whip when they’re fatigued and least able to respond.

The introduction of padded whips was a positive step. But unfortunately, data shows it’s often the hard, unpadded shaft of the whip that comes into contact with the horse. Images have previously shown welts and visible markings left on the skin by the whip.

There’s also no evidence that whipping really affects a horse’s performance. For example, one study found that whipping a horse does not increase its chances of finishing first, second or third, and also that 98% of horses were being whipped with no effect on the race outcome.

So what’s the alternative? 

The good news is that reform is possible. In the US, New Jersey – a big horse racing state – has recently banned the use of the whip except for safety reasons, and California’s racing board has also introduced a new rule limiting the number of times jockeys can whip a horse during a race.

In Norway, whips are only carried for safety purposes in juvenile races, while whip-free ‘hands and heels’ races for apprentice jockeys are regularly held in the UK.

Closer to home, ahead of the Spring Racing Carnival, Racing Victoria has called for the use of whips to be reduced and reformed at the national level.

It’s possible that jockeys may still need to carry a whip for use in urgent and emergency circumstances. There’s little argument against that.

But while ensuring safety for riders and horses is always important, there’s no evidence in favour of continued whip use. Moreover, a phase-out of whip use is clearly what the public wants to see.

The solution – ending the use of whips in racing – is a key step necessary to improve the welfare of racing horses and to move toward a more sustainable future for racing as well.

This article was originally published in Australian Community Media newspapers