Racing cracks down on use of whips


With the Belmont Stakes being run on Saturday, horse racing is again in the public eye. The use of whips has long been controversial. Now, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved new rules that limit the use of the whip, five days after the California Horse Racing Board adopted the most stringent whip-use regulations in the United States.

The new rules would limit riders to six uses of the whip after the first furlong is run, with no more than two strikes in succession without giving the horse an opportunity to respond. The rules also would allow riders to use the whip “to avoid a dangerous situation that may harm another rider or horse,” with stewards being given the discretion to determine whether the jockeys’ use of the whip in those instances was justified. Current rules do not have numerical limits on the number of times a jockey can strikea horse with a whip, but do have some rules limiting the manner in which a whip can be used.

The new rules prohibit using a crop on a horse’s head, flanks or any parts of its body other than shoulders or hindquarters. The crop could only be used when necessary to control the horse for its safety or that of the rider. While the California rules limit all six uses to under-handed strikes, the rules in Kentucky allow jockeys to use different motions, provided the rider does not lift their wrist above the helmet.

In recent years, there’s been more attention paid to what appears to be excessive use of the whip. One of the most notable instances being the 2009 Woodward stakes, won by Rachel Alexandra. Calvin Borel went to his whip at the three-sixteenth pole, hitting her three times right handed, five times left handed, and then back to his right hand during the final stretch run when Macho Again tried to run her down.

At the three-sixteenths pole, Borel went to his whip. He smacked Rachel three times right-handed, switched over to his left hand, whipped her five times, and then went back to his right for a final surge as Macho Again drew nearly even — 15 pops in the last 150 yards, and a few taps on the shoulder. Rachel Alexandra won by a head. But, the response from racing fans was instant and almost universally negative. For a sport struggling with its image, whip use reinforces the public’s impression that racing is bad for horses.

What fans didn’t realize was that Calvin Borel was using a low-impact whip tipped with a long, padded popper. It puts an entirely different complexion on his actions.

Calvin Borel was called out by fans for overusing his whip. Most people didn’t know he was using a low-impact whip with a padded popper, which makes a lot of noise but doesn’t hurt much.

Another controversial race was the 2015 Kentucky Derby, in which jockey Victor Espinoza used his whip 32 times down the stretch while urging American Pharoah to victory. Espinoza was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Derby but a month earlier had been fined $300 by California racing officials for breaking the skin of Stellar Wind in the Santa Anita Oaks. After the race, Espinoza said it was mostly flagging and the softer whip is much less harsh to begin with. It’s used to direct the horse, prompt him forward, and the noise of the whip alone signals the horse, urges him on.

Victor Espinoza was investigated for excessive use of the whip in the 2015 Kentucky Derby. The jockey admitted he had to ride American Pharoah “harder than ever” during the stretch drive.

In Kentucky, jockeys also will be able to use the whip for the first eighth-mile of a race in order to establish control of their mounts during what is typically the roughest part of a race, with none of those uses counting against the six uses during the remainder of the race. Jockeys also will be able to tap the horse’s shoulder or neck as long as both hands are on the reins.

Violations of the rules will draw fines and suspensions, with the severity of the punishments progressively increasing with the amount of strikes that a rider uses over and above the maximum. Under the rules, horses would not face disqualifications for violations of the rules, but under the most severe penalties, a jockey could lose the entirety of the rider’s share of the purse.

In California rule would provide for a maximum fine of just $1,000. In both jurisdictions, after two successive strikes, riders would be required to allow horses a chance to respond before wielding the whip again. The rule language before the CHRB would restrict appropriate whip use to the horse’s shoulder and hindquarters only (not the more sensitive flank just behind the girth), and no more than twice in succession without waiting for a response, and no more than six times total. Jockeys will be penalized for using the whip on a horse that is clearly out of the race or is not responding. Whip use is not permitted in training except for safety or correction.

The 360 GT whip, created by retired jockey Ramon Dominguez is a dense foam material that cushions the blow.

The CHRB had two items related to the whip to consider at its Thursday meeting: one to modify the size, shape and other specifications of whips that are permitted in races, and one to modify appropriate use of those whips. The first rule, while not specifically naming any one product, essentially allows riders to use only the 360 GT whip engineered by retired rider Ramon Dominguez. The 360 GT features a round, cylindrical end made of a dense foam material designed to absorb shock and essentially bounce back from the horse, eliminating the sting from the popper but making a loud sound which helps encourage the horse. Independent testing conducted by Chesapeake Testing in May did show a measurable impact force reduction as compared to standard whips of the same length and weight.

“As a jockey, you really have no control as to how the popper is positioned, whether it’s on the flat side or if it’s on the edge. If it is on the edge, clearly the impact can be greater than the flat side and can possibly hurt the horse,” Dominguez explained. “That was really the one key factor that brought me to start thinking about how we could minimize the edges.”

The Jockeys’ Guild opposed the adoption of that rule and later issued a statement saying the regulations were “unsafe” and that the rules “would jeopardize the integrity of the sport.” The Jockeys’ Guild emphasized its belief that riding crops are “still necessary for encouragement, communication and control.” The Guild believes that a whip can have an important role in keeping the horse and rider safe when it is used to get a horse’s attention to steer it away from danger. That’s an entirely different argument from encouraging or making a horse run faster.

What would racing look like without whips? You have only to look at Norway, which banned the whipping of horses in 1982. Jockeys are allowed to carry whips in 2-year-old races, but they are not allowed to use them in an attempt to make the horse go faster. They can only be used to make sure that green horses mind their business and keep a straight course.

What do you think about the use of whips?

9 thoughts on “Racing cracks down on use of whips

  1. I watched today’s Royal Ascot races and a few of the jockeys had no whip whatsoever.

    Honestly, I think they should be banned altogether. A horse that needs to be ”’encouraged”…I mean, come ON…American Pharoah? with a whip is a horse that is probably not going to win anyway. Maybe that’s going out on a limb, for me. It would require research and I have no idea how to set up a study like that.

    So the end result is…what does the average viewer think? He sees a horse being whipped, a horse that is obviously trying, a horse that hasn’t stopped running. The perception is that the horse is being whipped into submission, being ‘forced’ to race. If you watched today’s belmont, there was a clip from an earlier race, (from last year? Dunno) where the jockey fell off out of the gate and the horse ran the race start to finish. You know what he was thinking…”Shoot, this is MUCH easier without that guy on my back!”
    I remember seeing Beezie Patton (nee Madden) fall off her show jumper and the horse continued on course, clearing several jumps before realizing, hey, I don’t have to jump anymore.

    NEither of those horses needed urging from his rider. He did the race or the course because he chose to.

    I won’t ride with a whip…mostly because, as with spurs, I’m more afraid of misusing it out of clumsiness. In addition, I know of at least two people who actually DID use a crop to punish a horse. In one case, she had to sell the horse! A Lipizzan, he never, ever forgave her for hitting him with a crop. Anyone else could do whatever with him, but the owner? Nope. I know, you think, no, come on, really? Yes, really.

    To add to all this, I’ve heard people who obviously know NOTHING about horses, complain about seeing a person lunging her horse, lunge whip in hand. I, personally, have never in my life actually HIT a horse with a lunge whip, nor do I know anyone who has. It’s the sound that gains the horse’s attention. But to the average “don’t know a thing about horses’ onlooker, a whip is a whip.

    If we can’t do a study, then we must go on what the racegoer feels…and in these days, when horse racing is teetering on the edge of oblivion, the slightest whiff of disapproval from the fans might mean the end of racing altogether.

    So. I say, ditch the whip. There’s no proof, in my mind, that it makes any difference whatsoever.

    1. One of the comments I read was from a jockey who rode in Norway (no whip) and Sweden (whips allowed). She mentioned a horse that everyone thought was “lazy” so was sent to Sweden to race. The whip did not make him run faster. if anything there are horses who stop trying when they are whipped.

      I often, but not always, ride with a dressage whip. Not to punish. My goodness, Zelda would have me on the ground in a nanosecond if I hit her hard. I use it to train lateral movements, like turn on the forehand/haunches and as a way to reinforce my seat, so that she understands to move forward from that. I ride with spurs most of the time (the round kind) because Zelda is a lot more obedient with them. They are not a “go faster” device. I started wearing them when she would stop and refuse to move forward and would buck if I insisted. Spurs remind her that at least temporarily, my requests are reasonable.

  2. No way did I mean to imply that a whip is used to punish (in dressage)…it’s to train lateral movements, as you said, to tell the horse “I meant this leg, please,”…I used to think of it as an extended finger. As for spurs…oh, I have worn them, once. I was riding a friends TWH. “Bucky” was lazy and wouldn’t listen. His owner ran out to the middle of the arena and buckled spurs to my heels and from that moment on, all I needed to do was touch him gently with them (and with great trepidation, I might add) and he was obedient. SO , as you say, it takes a little extra with some horses.

    As we all know, horses can take things personally, and hold grudges. As the above mentioned Lipizzan demonstrated. They must resent being whipped (while racing) when they are doing the best they can. I can’t blame them, honestly. Sometimes I think the jockey on a failing or losing racer whips more to demonstrate to the owner/trainer that HE, at least, was really trying to win. And I’ve seen many times, where the jock waves the whip alongside the horse’s face, letting him know, (I suppose) that the whip is there, and if he doesn’t speed up, he’s gonna get a taste of it.

    Still, I’d like to see jockeys go out with nothing in their hands save the reins.

    1. I race, and you are right, even i show the horse the whip, to let him know that if he doesn’t speed up, he’s going to get a taste of it hard on his butt.

    2. When I first started to ride Zelda, when she decided our ride was over, she’d try to rub me off on a tree. Being touched with a whip offended her mightily. Spurs, on the other hand, had an immediate effect. Not as a “go forward” mechanism, but as a way to remind her who is calling the shots. I don’t wear them all the time, but when she needs an attitude adjustment, they are golden. She still hates a whip/crop.

      1. All this ban the whip is stupid, I race, and some of the horses i ride do need the whip to keep them focused, especially in the final stretch i use my whip more and harder to get the best placing.

  3. I race, and i show the horse the whip, to let him know that if he doesn’t speed up, then he will get a taste of it on his butt, which i have done a few times.

  4. People who think racehorses aren’t abused are naive. Imagine trying to focus on performing your best at anything while being whipped. There needs to be a LOT more stringent rules to protect racehorses, including making it illegal to sell them to slaughter when they no longer meet your financial needs. I bet the majority of fans of the sport would be shocked at what is done to racehorses, how they are treated, and that so many end up dying horrific deaths in a slaughter house.

    1. Many tracks have already put policies in place that ban trainers that sell horses to kill buyers, which is a very good step in the right direction. In fact, 70-75% of horses shipped to slaughter are quarterhorses, rather than TBs. There are also a high number of mustangs (the BLM was paying people $1K to adopt mustangs and people were then selling them to kill buyers). The best news is that the number of horses shipped to slaughter in 2020 was down considerably, “only” 36,885 horses compared to 166,572 in 2012.

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