A View From The Outside

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA), which is the governing body for racing in Britain, unintentionally threw the British (and Irish to a lesser extent) racing industry into turmoil last September when it implemented changes to the use of the whip in race riding.  These changes were implemented as a result of feedback from a review group comprising industry stakeholders and welfare representatives established by the Authority.  Originally implemented to address a perceived welfare issue it was stated that the Review would lead to a significant tightening of the rules and penalties relating to the use of the whip by jockeys, as well as a renewed focus on jockey training, to ensure that the best equine welfare standards were maintained throughout the sport.  (BHA, 2011)

While this was the theory, in practice the implementation of these whip rule changes became unworkable.  The most contentious issue within the review was the number of times a jockey could use the whip before incurring an automatic penalty and the severity of the punishment which accompanied such an infringement. (Carnaby, I., 2012)

When first introduced a jockey could only use the whip 7 times in any flat race and 8 time in any jump race (and only five times in the last furlong/after the last obstacle). (BHA, 2011).  As a result many jockeys fell foul of the stewards and incurred heavy penalties, two of the most high profile cases being that of Richard Hughes (who resigned in protest at the new rules) and Christoper Soumillon (who lost his lucrative Ascot riding fee when penalised under the new rules by the stewards on the day as   well as receiving a riding ban) .  Widespread opposition to the whip  rule changes from leading stakeholders within the racing industry has meant that the BHA has been forced to review them on a number of occasions.

This week the latest changes to the use of the whip were published by the BHA and with them will hopefully come an end to what has been a very difficult issue and a public relations disaster for the Authority.  The original reason for the changes was lost in the ensuing blame game at what was considered the wider damage to the perception of the Sport of Kings among the general public.  The  revised rules give jockeys the opportunity to use the whip sensibly, and the stewards now have discretion when reviewing a rider’s use of the whip. Their focus will be on the manner in which the whip is used. (Stier, J, 2011)    Unfortunately this decision to introduce the latest change to the use of the whip has not been welcomed by many welfare groups,including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who contributed to the original review and would see this move as a watering down of the original proposals recommended by the Review group. 

Paul Bittar, Chief Executive of the BHA, said:

“As has been evident in recent months, the subject of the whip and how its use is regulated remains an emotive subject; not only for those who make their living from the sport but also for the public who come racing and those who watch our sport on television. For the future long-term health of British Racing it is vital that our sport’s customers and viewers have confidence that the welfare of racehorses is not being put at risk by a rider’s use of the whip. I am confident in our ability as a sport to manage welfare issues and I believe that taking account of the design together with the lower thresholds for use of the whip we have effectively removed the potential for use of the whip to be a welfare problem.

While the original intentions of the BHA were admirably, there are, in my opinion, lessons to be learnt from this unfortunate incident.  Firstly that  while  we all agree that welfare of both the rider and horse is of paramount importance interested members of the public and welfare groups, no matter how well intentioned,realise that today’s “energy -absorbing whip should be considered an acceptable and important tool of a jockey’s trade” (Bittar,P., 2012).  Industry stakeholders must also realise that people, no matter how little involvement they may have with horses or the industry in general will have an opinion on the industry and on such matters as the use of the whip in race riding and other equestrian activities.  Instead of being indignant at this we should consider it an opportunity and be more proactive than ever in going out and moulding public opinion so that it is favourable to our industry.  This should be done by giving people the facts and putting them in context rather than allowing a vacuum to be created which may be filled by those with very extreme views on animal welfare and who refuse to engage with the industry in a proactive manner.  Finally the implementation of changes to important issues which affect so many within the industry, for example, whip rule changes, should always be on a trial basis.  This will ensure that any proposed changes  could be reviewed and evaluated and allow for further input from all involved, including welfare groups and members of the public, so that the final solution is acceptable to all.  This would also hopefully avoid the kind of long running saga which we have just witnessed and which has been detrimental to the public perception of the racing industry and has also damaged the trust among industry stakeholders and engaged welfare groups who contributed to the BHA’s Review Group.