The racing public's perception of a jockey's use of a whip in Thoroughbred racing is a growing controversy, not only in the United States but around the world. Jockey whip use is hard to parse out in black and white. Some horses seem to respond positively to a few taps, while others may shy from the whip.
Horses may need correction running down the stretch, requiring jockeys to maneuver in and out of traffic. Some horses may need encouragement within a furlong of the finish to do their best or keep from lugging out in fatigue. A jockey might only need to show a horse the whip or only have to give the horse a slight tap of encouragement on the shoulder or hindquarters. Other horses on an uncontested lead win easily with the jockey never needing a whip.
Some people feel the whip should be banned as ineffective and a perceived detriment to the sport. Is the whip a necessary riding aid? Does it make the horse run faster? Are there concerns for abuse? Equine practitioners have a stake in voicing their feelings as to the whip's benefit as a useful riding tool and to their concerns as to the well-being and safety of the horse and rider.
Recent changes to whip design and use
In response to public and industry sentiment as to whip use, the Jockey Club and the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) have released model rules regarding whip design, though it is up to the various U.S. racing jurisdictions to set basic whip guidelines.
The ARCI standards require whips to weigh no more than 8 oz, be less than 10 inches long and have a shaft at least 0.5 inches in diameter, with a flap or popper between 0.8 and 1.6 inches wide. New whips are made with a four- or five-foot tapered fiberglass rod, which is cut to whip length, and then wound with duct tape to achieve the desired width. The tape is covered with fabric, and a rubber handle is placed over the fabric. The popper is then added and glued in place at the end.
Various rules and regulations at racetracks within the U.S. and around the world include:
Concerns and questions
The response of horses to being whipped is not well understood. Whether frequency, intensity and location of whip strike on the shoulder or on the hindquarters are beneficial to increase acceleration and affect the race outcome is unclear.
Although the whip is a standard tool of communication, there are other ways to let a horse know it's time to pick up or sustain the pace. If a jockey is trying to encourage a horse to go forward, not only the whip but also postural changes, shaking the reins, nudging at the withers and vocalization (a cluck or chirp) may be used to encourage the horse to move faster.
"Many of these more subtle techniques are just so much more respectful—a more refined level of communication with the horse," says Sue McDonnell, PhD, a behaviorist at New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine. "Talking with several world-class jockeys, many of them will say 'I just use the whip as a guiding or communicating tool to let the horse know it's time to go.' I reply, 'Then why don't you use more subtle signals?' The common answer is that they do not normally exercise those horses, so unless everyone gave up their whips and went to fairly standard alternative signals, you'd never know whether you're getting the most out of the horse in a given race—getting the message to the horse."
There are different styles of using the whip on racehorses to encourage them, some of which are more aggressive. Jockeys who use the whip from side to side and cross over the neck might hit the horse in the eye, which is an infraction.
"When I look at jockeys going crazy with the whip, I can't help but wonder if it is really more for the rider than it is for the horse, because at that point—down the stretch—the adrenaline is so high that it is likely not really that effective," says McDonnell. "Going through a race in slow motion, frame-by-frame, you'll see that in many cases the whip seems to be more of a distraction to the horse. The horse's ears are coming back—they have to orient to that whip."
A recent study in Australia was aimed at examining whip use and racing performance.1 The study measured whip strikes and sectional times during the final three 200 meter sections of five different races. The researchers concluded that "under an ethical framework that considers costs paid by horses against benefits accrued by humans, these data make whipping tired horses in the name of sport very difficult to justify." It was suggested that "Thoroughbred racehorses are capable of producing their highest speeds in the last 600 meters of a race without whipping." In addition, "urging by the rider had no detectable effect on the average velocity. However, rider urging did cause a significant increase in stride frequency and a decrease in stride length."1
The study results showed that "jockeys in more advanced placings at the 400 and 200 meter positions before the post in races whip their horses more frequently."1 To get an advantageous placing at 400 meter positions, no horses were whipped, and when horses were between the 400 and 200 meter positions, only half were whipped. On average, the horses achieved highest speeds when there was no whip use, and the increased whip use was most frequent in fatigued horses. The researchers concluded that "whip use was not associated with significant maintenance of velocity as a predictor of superior race placing at the finish of the race."1
Strong reactions to the study
Reactions to the findings in this study have garnered some criticism from the equine community.
Scott Palmer, VMD, Dipl. ABVP, New Jersey Equine Clinic, Clarksburg, N.J., and chair of the AAEP Racing Committee: "I have a concern about the Australian paper. Personally, I do not think the study was designed appropriately to support their conclusions. Their basic conclusion was that horses that were whipped did not run faster—that whipping horses doesn't work. So, not only is it a bad thing, but what's more, it is ineffective. I believe there was a bias in the interpretation of the results that were reported. I think that the more appropriate conclusion of the study would have been that whip use in the final 200 meters of the races did not overcome the effect of fatigue at that point in a race. It is fair to say that the use of the whip did not overcome the fatigue because these horses were slowing down at the end of the race whether or not they were being whipped. That doesn't mean that using the whip during the race didn't make a difference in the outcome.
"If you were trying to accurately measure the effectiveness of whip use—that is to see if there was a direct correlation between use of the whip and velocity during the race—the best choice of study design would not be a retrospective study because there are a number of uncontrolled variables involved. A better study would be a cross-over design in which horses would be timed in efforts both with and without use of whips. In order to achieve appropriate statistical power, a large number of horses may be needed, depending upon what difference in speed you would be determining at the outset to be a significant outcome. In my opinion, that would be a more appropriate way to do the study."
Jeff Blea, DVM, Sierra Madre, Calif., a former jockey: "The Australian paper's conclusions had nothing to do with the aims of the study. I was not impressed with the study. I'm all for the whip's use; I'm completely against its abuse. I think the whip is a very vital piece of equipment, not only for training, but for racing. It needs to be used appropriately and properly. It's a mean of guidance and encouragement for the animal and keeping the rider and the horse out of trouble at times.
"I get really upset when I see horses cut in the flank because they've been hit inappropriately or in the eye when hit inappropriately or out of aggression. But I am completely in favor of the rider having the whip to use as an aid in racing and training. It is effective as an aid to encourage the horse, to ask them to switch leads. You're not going to make the horse run any faster with the whip or get any more out of a horse with a whip, but you can encourage it if it's done properly."
Scott Hay, DVM, Teigland, Franklin and Brokken, Ft. Lauderdale Fla.: "I do think there is a necessity for jockeys carrying a whip, as there is in many disciplines for riders to use some type of tool to guarantee control of the animal. There is a good case for both rider and horse safety to be able to use those types of tools.
"The things we need to watch out for are the abuses, of course. There are some abuses, and I think there has been a lot of concentration on efforts to try to control those, not only in the racing discipline, but also in the 2-year-old in training horse sales. They have made some regulations on whip use there as well. I think a discussion of whip use is worth looking at, but I don't think a ban on whip use is the answer.
"The United States and the European Union have already had some significant problems with the new rules for whip use regarding the number of times the horse can be struck. In the stress of a very competitive horse race, it is probably pretty difficult for a jockey to actually keep count of the number of times he is hitting a horse with the whip.
"I think we in the U.S. need to be sensitive to looking into the abuse of use of the whip. Stewards are probably the right people to be making those judgments. I'm not sure that counting the number of strikes is proper, but I've never been on the back of a Thoroughbred racehorse. So I think that is probably best reserved for those who are more qualified, who have done so, either exercising or riding in races—people who are more accustomed to knowing what using a whip during a race is all about."
AAEP policy and welfare thoughts
"We all agree that racing needs to be sensitive to all the issues of animal welfare," says Palmer. "The AAEP policy is that we support the recommendations by the Jockey Club and the ARCI. From a purely philosophical standpoint, one can validly argue that if you take the whips from all the jockeys, some horse is still going to win the race. I think it's fair to say that. However, there are other safety issues involved.
"If jockeys abuse whip use and rules, they should then be punished," Palmer continues. "But given everything we know about the whip construction and the way they are properly used, it is not a health issue for the horse, in my opinion. They are not harmed by it. If, on the other hand, its use is abused, then punishment such as fines and suspension are warranted."
Public perception is part of the debate. "I don't think mildly aggressive whip use in most instances hurts the horse, but it probably hurts horseracing because it seems to be perceived as disrespectful or as painful to the horses by a fair percentage of those who attend or watch horse racing—those who the industry is trying to attract," McDonnell says. "When watching races, I often hear spectators, say 'Why do they have to hit him—he was going to win the race anyway?' I think it is unnecessary. Good riders should be able to give encouragement to the horse and make it less unappealing to the viewing public."
"It's a complex issue, no question," Palmer admits. "It has many facets to it. There is no question that you cannot ignore public perception in racing. We've learned that lesson in spades over the years. However, public perception should be based on reality and not on overdramatized, inaccurate or unrealistic claims regarding whip use in racing. Public education is important and should appropriately tell a factual and realistic story."
Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. Kane is based in Seattle.
1. Evans D, McGreevy P. An investigation of racing performance and whip use by jockeys in Thoroughbred races. PLoS One 2011;6(1): e15622.