Whip use in Thoroughbred racing: Is it necessary?

New research into this training tool brings insight—and controversy
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Jan 01, 2012

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:

  • In the U.S., variable regulations exist among jurisdictions with ARCI guidelines. Whip use is monitored by various track racing stewards.
  • In August 2011, jockeys at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC), in conjunction with DMTC president and general manager Joe Harper, executive vice president Craig Fravel and Bo Derek, member of the California Horse Racing Board, instituted a rule deciding to use a softer equine-friendly riding crop.
  • In Canada, whips must conform to the ARCI model rules. Jockeys cannot whip horses more than three successive times, with a break for at least one stride—preferably two or three. When striking the horses, jockeys cannot raise their arms above the shoulder. The whip is not to be used when a horse is not responding or is not in race contention.
  • In England, a whip's contact area must be covered by shock-absorbing material. Jockeys cannot whip horses by raising their arms above the shoulder or whip more than once per stride. The whip cannot be used except to strike the quarters backhanded or forehanded and the shoulder only in the backhand position.
  • In France, a rider may not whip the horse more than eight times within a race. If so, that rider will be suspended or fined, or both. Jockeys may be sanctioned for excessive force and are not to whip a 2-year-old.
  • In Australia, leather pads on the whip are not permitted. Foam in the padded segment must be at least 0.28 inches thick. Jockeys are limited to seven forehand strikes in the last 100 meters of a race. Before the 100 meter mark, a jockey cannot use the whip forehanded in consecutive strides and not more than five times.
  • In Hong Kong, stewards may punish a jockey if they feel the whip has been used in excess or improperly. After a race, the horses are examined for whip marks, with a possible suspension or fine, or both.