In light of the furore elicited by Tom Kerr’s Racing Post article today, and in particular Bruce Millington’s ridiculously heavy handed handling of it on the front page, I felt it would be useful to jot down my thoughts in a format that allows rather more than 140 characters. Let me start by pointing out that I am a qualified vet and animal lover first and foremost, who decided, after falling in love with the racing way of life during work experience in my school holidays, that being a racehorse trainer was to be my ultimate aim. I loved (and still love) the majesty and beauty of the horses I was dealing with, along with the raw power and excitement of seeing them gallop at home, and race on the track. Back then, it has to be said, there were occasions when a horse came back after a race with weal marks where a jockey had been over zealous with a whip – which in those days was very much that, a whip intended to cause a stinging pain as well as make a noise – where I would feel distinctly uncomfortable. Thankfully, much has changed in the intervening 30 years, and the whip is now a cushioned piece of foam that is capable of making quite a noise when brought down onto a horse’s rump, but absolutely incapable of causing it any pain, or marking its skin. If people cared to take the time or interest to examine one of these whips, they would see what I am talking about.
So, if it is incapable of causing pain, some people are wondering why it is still used? The same reason it has always been used, but thankfully now without the added pain stimulus – it elicits an almighty “thwack” that encourages some, but not all horses to just try to run that little bit faster. But isn’t that in itself cruel, people cry. Well no, in my view absolutely not. In any athletic pursuit, there comes a point at the business end where the athlete (be that human, equine or other) will need to push on through when the lactic acid starts to build up in the muscles. If I was in a gym (very unlikely), this is the point where I would give up, unless I had a personal trainer (even more unlikely) encouraging me to keep going. And this is exactly the effect that the added stimulus of the modern whip can elicit. Now some people would still tell their personal trainer to sod off, and some horses will take no notice of the whip, or even go backwards upon its use. And some horses will have no need of any added stimulus as they possess an intractable will to get to the front of the herd anyway. But some horses will undoubtably respond, and for those horses it can easily be the difference between winning and losing. And this is where the oft touted line of “but they don’t choose to do it” is spouted time and again. Well I’m sorry, these horses are born and bred to be athletes, they have the highest welfare standards throughout their racing lives of any breed of horse, and are looked after and loved like no other by their adoring grooms. So if this means that in the final two furlongs of a race, some horses need to be encouraged to give their all by the use of a padded piece of foam, I’m in. And I think if you could ask them, so would they be.
There is also the fact that very often a whip is a necessary tool for a jockey to use in a corrective capacity, but this appears to be accepted in the RP article (even though, presumably, it will still be negatively perceived?).
So that’s the background, and I find myself wondering why it is that both Tom Kerr and Bruce Millington should find themselves so disgusted by this piece of foam that they want it’s use banned completely? But the fact is, nowhere have I seen any rational, coherent argument, even in Tom’s clearly well thought out piece, which can explain this to me. Except for one word – perception. It appears that we are now so beholden to a perception problem from without our sport, that we must immediately succumb to its terrible power, lest the hand wringers decide our sport is too awful and must be banned altogether. This, despite the fact that only a few years ago the BHA instigated a far reaching and robust whip review, which elicited several changes to address this very point. Because even back then, the only arguments really put forward were also those of perception, as it was clearly shown that the whip was not in itself a welfare issue. And as I tweeted in response to someone earlier today, if I felt the whip was in any way a welfare issue, I would be first in the queue looking to see it banned.
In respect to the offending article, I find it pretty unappetising that the writer can say in one breath that he has “no personal desire to see the whip banned, does not believe it is cruel and does not believe there is an urgent welfare reason for it to be banned” but in the next sentence says “there is no concrete evidence to support these views, except they are espoused by racing professionals whose opinions we respect and trust”. Well I’m very sorry, but if you would prefer to listen to views of non-racing professionals (whose views you may or may not respect and trust), then we have got ourselves into a pretty sorry mess. It is akin to Michael Gove telling us not to listen to experts, and look where that has got us (sorry, that’s the only political reference, I promise).
And then we come to the line that Bruce so proudly displayed on his front page – “the perception is appalling, it is of a sport that punishes its heroes, it is a perception that is all but impossible to challenge”. Though I totally disagree with the first line, the writer is entitled to voice that opinion (regardless of the fact that this opinion has no place being splashed on the front page of the newspaper). It is the second part that astonishes me, and depresses me in equal measure. What it in effect states is that our trade paper, whilst freely admitting that it does not believe that the whip is a welfare issue that requires it to be banned, has no interest whatsoever in trying to educate people about why it believes it is not a welfare issue, but would prefer to accept that the view of (mis-informed) people that do not hold this view, should be listened to and pandered to over and above the ‘respected and trusted opinions’ from within the industry.
The rest of the paragraph basically insinuates that this is because lies told on social media are so powerful that there is no point trying to stem the tide, but we must instead prostrate ourselves to it’s all consuming message – a pretty sad viewpoint to be elucidated by any newspaper I would have thought?
is justifiably proud of the fact that it leads the way on equine-related welfare issues. Why our trade paper feels the need to undermine this fact, rather than shout it from the rooftops, is beyond me.