Are Horse Whips Cruel

Are Horse Whips Cruel?

Picture this: You’ve arrived at the Grand National Festival, the most prestigious horse racing event in Great Britain, and have placed your bets – hoping your lucky horse wins the race. The bustling crowd and noble steeds are a sight to see and you couldn’t be more excited! Nearing the end of the nail-biting dash, you notice many jockeys drawing their whips. And the crowds are applauding.

You’re confused. It seems, judging by the crowds that this is an acceptable practice.

You begin to ask yourself; “Is it cruel to whip a horse?”

Well, I’m here to shed some light on the situation. Join me in this article, as we look at this from both sides of the coin and give clarity to this hot topic of debate.

The Use Of Horse Whips: Is It Cruel?

The short answer is, possibly.

But let me explain.

Horse whips also referred to as ‘crops’, have been part of horse riding for as long as we can remember. Whips are the trainer’s way to guide the horse into doing certain tasks, but this doesn’t mean the horse needs to be lashed!

In modern racing, there are strict rules regarding horsewhipping which we’ll jump into in this article. But first, let’s understand a bit of history and why whips have been used in the first place (and for the moment, I’ll keep my humble opinion to myself!)

The Role Of Horse Whips In Equestrian Sports

Horse (whip) history

Horse whips have been around for donkey’s years (see what I did there?) and have been used in various forms of horse riding, racing and equestrian sports.

They have always sort of been, an “extension” of the rider’s arm – an important role in the communication between steed and rider. Used for both safety and “encouragement”, riders relied on these whips. Traditionally, whips were first made from unpadded strips of leather.

They were particularly important in disciplines such as horse racing, show jumping, and dressage. Back in the day, riders were actually encouraged to carry them; to provide subtle guidance and reinforce specific manoeuvres for the horse.

Horses knew when that whip came out – it was no time for horseplay; it meant serious business!

Over time, as equestrian sports evolved, so did the debatable whip. Regulations have been introduced to govern whip usage and assure the welfare of our beloved four-legged pals. Most whips today are padded with foam and are shock-absorbing – resulting in “lighter whacks” for horses. The unpadded types from yesteryear were much harsher and caused more of a sting.

Modern horse sport regulations

Nowadays, more and more concerns about equine welfare are on the rise. As mentioned, equestrian governing bodies have stepped up to the challenge and have implemented rules and regulations centred around the prevention of animal cruelty. (Bravo!)

The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) – the international governing body for equestrian sports in Switzerland – has a code of conduct that protects horses from abuse and doping. These rules have been filtered down to other horse organisations and must be adhered to. It describes specific whip criteria, such as the length, build and design of the whip for various sporting events.

The FEI has also set a limit on the number of times a whip can be used within a certain timeframe or within a specific time of a competition. Officials, judges and stewards closely monitor these events to ensure all riders are law-abiding. This means some riders may receive penalties, point deductions or even disqualification for excessive or unnecessary whipping! (Bravo, again!)

Furthermore, there is only one type of whip that is accepted in British racing. These are foam-padded whips and are energy-absorbing – but more on this in a minute. All these regulations have been put into place, to ensure the safety of our trusted companions and maintain a fair, ethical sporting environment in equestrian sports.

British horseracing authority regulations

Here are some of the rules that apply to horse racing, set by the British Horseracing Authority:

  1. Limited number of whip strikes: In a flat race (races that have no obstacles) a whip can be used to a maximum of 6 times. In a jump race (races with obstacles), it can be used 7 times.
  2. Whip usage factors: Apart from the number of whip strikes; other factors are also considered by the committee. These include the force of the strike (above shoulder height shows more force), whether horses were given enough time to respond to cues, the purpose of whipping, whether the horse was in a winning position and what part of the horse was whipped (hindquarters are allowed, not the flanks).
  3. Penalties: If a rider is found breaking the rules, they may face suspension from racing. To add to this, if they have been suspended more than 3 times in a 6-month period – they are referred to the Judicial Panel. This panel is the disciplinary department of horse racing and can enforce added suspensions or overall disqualifications.
  4. Disqualifications: If a jockey’s whip use is seen as excessive (or abusive), both rider and horse will be disqualified from the race. This strict penalty forms part of the policy that ensures the safety of horses. No exceptions!

Some rules and regulations may differ between racing societies but the main objective is quite clear: Do not abuse horses!

Is The Win Worth The Whip?

When it comes to British racing (or any racing in fact), there are two sides to the coin. On one side, animal welfare advocates, such as PETA, debate that horse whips are a form of animal abuse. On the other side of the coin, equestrians and jockeys argue that whips are used for training and encouragement. We’ll take a look at the debate below.

Where the debate comes in

Animal welfare advocates

For this example, I’ll use the Grand National Festival. This long-standing horse racing event has taken place at Aintree Racecourse, outside Liverpool (in North West England), since 1839. It’s arguably the most watched horse race on the planet (and has some of the highest bets), with its marathon length of almost 6 kilometres.

Animal welfare advocates argue that the use of whips causes pain and suffering to horses. Their argument is supported by scientific evidence that shows hitting horses can result in both physical and psychological harm.

Physically, whips hurt horses. Causing pain, discomfort and potential injuries (such as welts or cuts) to the horse’s sensitive skin.

Psychologically, the use of the whip can cause fear, anxiety and heightened stress for our equine pals. The loud ‘crack’ can startle the horse, resulting in a sudden bolt which could lead to the horse hurting itself. Due to these factors, horses may associate horse racing (or riding) with pain and negativity; affecting their well-being and overall performance.

Research has shown that horses have an increased heart rate, heightened stress hormone (cortisol) levels, and signs of aversion (even phobias!) when the whip strikes. Surrounding this hot topic about whether or not horse whips are cruel, video footage has proved how jockeys can abuse the use of the whip in racing. Again, all to make the horse run faster so they can seize the title of grand winner.

They believe jockeys push horses past their natural running abilities, increasing the risk of accidents and severe exhaustion. A recent example of this, was the 2022 Grand National winner, Noble Yeats. Video footage showed the jockey’s whip aggressively lashing the horse to run faster to the finish line.

This behaviour would be called animal abuse if it happened to a dog on the street, yet it’s accepted (and applauded) in the racing industry. Sadly, horse racing is synonymous with money and winning titles, irrespective of the well-being of the poor horse. A fearful horse is likely to be more reactive, which can cause potential harm to both horse and rider.

The British Horseracing Authority has claimed that whip use is acceptable for “encouragement”. This refers to whips being used to “whip the horse into focus” and grab its attention; not for aggressive ‘beatings’.

Horse racing industry

When it comes to racing, supporters argue that the use of the whip is for training and encouragement purposes only. They believe there is a significant difference between training and abuse. Whips are (and have been) essential training aids and safety tools in equestrian sports. They serve as communication devices between the trainer and the steed.

They believe whip use is not done to intentionally hurt horses, but rather to help the horse to better understand training cues.

In competitions and/or when navigating tricky obstacles, horses run faster with all the adrenaline pumping through their veins. They may have ‘blinkers’ on – so to speak – and don’t necessarily sense any danger. This is where the whip can act as a safety tool, providing corrective cues and protecting the horse (and rider) from potential danger.

On this note, an experienced trainer or rider understands the correct way to use a whip. Whips are not intended to lash and beat horses but rather used to guide and instruct the horse respectably. The World Horse Welfare believes horse whips can be used as a ‘tickling stick’ to gently cause irritation to the horse which, in turn, gets them to effectively respond to cues.

However, they also believe that whips can be used in such a way that causes pain or inflicts fear. Research has shown us, if a horse has had a bad experience in the past, it may respond negatively to the whip – even without being whipped!

The significant difference between abuse and ‘encouragement’ lies in the hand of the rider. For the use of the whip to be acceptable, riders need to understand that horses do not think like humans. These four-legged fellas need to be properly taught how and when to respond to training cues, and ‘punishing’ them for mistakes is seen as abuse.

Riders, jockeys and equestrian enthusiasts are asked to follow the rules, set by the British Horseracing Authority and The FEI. The current rules have been put into place for a reason and if they are not adhered to, severe punishments are likely to happen for the rider!


Where are riders allowed to strike horses with a whip?

Riders are allowed to whip their horse on the hindquarters, but the strike must not be forceful. The hindquarter is the highest point of the thigh, next to the horse’s buttocks. A strike from above the rider’s shoulder is considered forceful and is not allowed.

Do horses feel pain from the use of the whip?

Yes. According to RSPCA’s report, the general public is or was under the impression that horses’ skin is thicker than humans, giving the notion that horses feel less pain. This is not true.

The pain receptors found in horses’ hindquarters are at a similar depth/thickness to that of humans; meaning that horses do in fact feel pain! Even though padded whips are used (which are meant to be energy absorbing), the unpadded parts of the whip still come into contact with the horse. This causes the horse to feel pain, much like we would.

Is whip use illegal in horse racing?

No. While many animal anti-cruelty societies would like this to be true, horsewhipping is not illegal in racing. However, there are rules and regulations regarding the jockey’s use of the whip that ensure the safety of equine welfare.

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