The British Horseracing Authority has made clear its concern that use of the whip for encouragement could be banned by a future government, issuing a swift response on Wednesday to a Labour Party “animal welfare manifesto” published 24 hours earlier which called for an “independent review” to establish if whipping for encouragement can be “justified”.
In a detailed response, the BHA emphasises its belief that “with the appropriate design and strict controls in place, the whip does not compromise the welfare of horses during races”. It also states that only one horse has been marked by the whip or “wealed” in the last two seasons, and none at all in 2017, from a total of 225,000 runners in that time.
Britain’s whip rules allow jockeys to use the whip a maximum of seven times in a race on the Flat and eight times over jumps. The maximum permitted level of use is the same in Ireland, while in France, the limit has recently been reduced to just five strokes.
The whip has been a controversial issue in the sport for many years, despite regular reductions in the number of times it can be used, how it can be used and also significant improvements in whip design to produce a foam-padded design that all jockeys are required to use. The whip is designed to produce noise rather than inflict any pain on a horse, and stimulate a flight response to ensure that it runs to the line.
The number of breaches of the whip rules has declined in recent years but can still prove highly controversial, in particular if these occur at the end of a major race such as the Derby or Grand National. While jockeys who break the rules are penalised with suspensions from racing, the winners still keep the race and owners, trainers and jockeys receive the appropriate prize money – even if their jockey has broken the rules.
Apart from possible welfare concerns, the visual impact of a jockey being seen to whip a horse for encouragement in the closing stages of a race has also been seen as a possible deterrent to new fans of the sport, and younger racegoers in particular.
The whip is clearly an issue that is unlikely to go away and the BHA’s statement on Wednesday sets out the framework on which it will base its defence of its use for encouragement.
It points out that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently stated that it is “satisfied that the rules in place are sufficient to restrict and limit the use of the whip in horse racing”, while the BHA has also recently established an independent Horse Welfare Board, chaired by a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, to “develop a new welfare strategy for the industry”.
It also states that “the thresholds for use are set well below the point at which its use might compromise the welfare of a horse”, which could prove to be a point of fierce debate if or when the Labour Party institutes its “independent review”.
“We respect the right of politicians to ask questions of our sport and we can and do reassure them of the high standards of welfare in British racing, and the steps we are taking to enhance our welfare record and reputation,” Will Lambe, the BHA’s executive director, said on Wednesday.
“We have had constructive engagement with Labour’s shadow Defra team to date, and will respond in a measured and united way as a sport to ensure that the appropriate facts and information are set out confidently and fairly.”