What’s the crack with the whip?

One of the main arguments against horse racing is the use of whips. It’s a contentious issue with an emotional undertone; however, before taking a strong position for or against whip use, let’s understand the variables involved.

What is a racing whip?

There is one style of whip permitted in horse racing, and they must adhere to a tight specification – you can see the exact specification permitted here.

In summary, they must be padded with a minimum of 18cm of foam at the end, and that must be over 7mm thick, and 2.5cm wide.

There are currently nine approved manufacturers, and whilst they are all made slightly differently, they look broadly the same.

Here’s a picture of the most commonly used brand:

The evolution of the whip

Historically, whips were made longer, more flexible and with harder, leather ends. They could easily mark a horse and could be used without any limitation. Rightly, the old type of whip has been deemed unsuitable for modern racing, while its use and purpose has been majorly reformed.

Today’s whips are designed not to inflict pain but to make a ‘popping’ sound on impact with the rump (the large body of muscles that powers the horse’s hind legs).

If you stand near the finish of a race, you can hear these ‘pops’ as jockeys encourage their mounts to give every effort.

The rules

Apart from the rules which govern manufacturing, there are also strict rules around their use.

In Australia, jockeys are allowed to use their whip on the horse’s rump five times prior to the final 100 metres in a race, and never in consecutive strides.

Within the final 100 metres the whip use is at the rider’s discretion. There is no distinction in the rules between which way a jockey holds the whip in their hand.

The rules are constantly being reviewed, with a possible adaption suggested by Racing Victoria that jockeys would only be allowed to use the whip on a maximum number of occasions – between five and eight – throughout the entire race and never in consecutive strides. Jockeys would be allowed to continue to carry the whip but they should only be used when necessary to protect the safety of horses and riders.

Jockey safety

Encouragement aside, the most important reason a jockey carries a whip is safety. Horses are animals that can be spooked or distracted, even when travelling at top speed. This can endanger the horse itself, the jockey, and the other horses and jockeys around them.

A horse veering violently or suddenly off course can suffer and cause serious injury, so jockeys can use their whips by slapping the horse down the shoulder to bring their attention back to the jockey and keep control over the horse.

Again, this isn’t done to inflict pain, but rather to create a sound and turn the horse’s attention back to the rider.

Since a jockey doesn’t have the use of leg aids to apply pressure on a horse’s side or girth, the whip can assist to change position if required in an emergency by waving it in the direction of the horse’s vision.

When it goes wrong

As in all sports, rules can be broken from time to time, and given jockeys operate in the heat of competition – racing is no exception. Whilst the whip rules are set nationally by the governing body Racing Australia, the penalties are different in each state.

Overuse, or misuse of the whip will result in fines and/or suspensions for the jockey. As an example, in Victoria if a jockey uses their whip nine times before the final 100 metres and then a further four times after that, they will receive a minimum seven-meeting suspension and a fine. 

We know what you’re thinking – if a jockey is at the business end of the biggest race of their career, why wouldn’t they get carried away? After all, there’s a lot of prizemoney and prestige at stake. Just like AFL footballers on Grand Final day, stewards warn the jockeys that transgressing the rules on the biggest days will result in much heftier fines than usual.

And this is exactly what has happened in a number of cases. The biggest of those came in 2020, jockey Kerrin McEvoy was fined $50,000 and suspended for 13 meetings for excessive use of the whip after he finished 2nd in the Melbourne Cup.

What is the purpose of suspending a jockey from riding in race meetings? Along with a fine, a suspension’s purpose is to act as a deterrent to other riders on the matter in contention as it removes the jockey from his livelihood – not something many people have to think about in their day to day work life!

Are they needed?

Do we really need whips at all? This is the question that Racing Victoria is grappling with in the wake of a study from the UK which showed that whip use provided no benefit to steering, avoiding interference between horses and, perhaps most importantly, to race finishing times.

Like the team behind Kick Up, Racing Victoria believes that whips don’t threaten horse welfare, but the contentious issue is over public perception. It’s impossible to educate every single person who watches racing on whips and whip rules, especially on Melbourne Cup when many people who don’t normally watch racing will suddenly tune in.

The perception of jockeys hitting horses with whips, with so much prizemoney on the line, will inevitably lead to many drawing incorrect conclusions about how those in the racing industry treat their equine athletes.

Therefore, given that the benefits of using whips are questioned by the science, Racing Victoria has called for reform of the rules, with the aim of working towards whips being used only for safety purposes.

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