The Whip Hand
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The Whip Hand

As animal rights protestors become ever more vocal at equestrian competitions, the welfare of the sporting horse has never been so closely scrutinized. Whip rules are tightly managed in UK racing who changed theirs in 2017 but now another sporting discipline has chosen to follow suit and introduced new regulations to take effect from the 1st January 2020.

British Show Jumping – BS – has announced that with effect from next year, only one type of whip will be permitted in their competitions and this is the cushion-type whip. BS have been strongly influenced by racing and the move was made after debate between the working groups in the sport and the BS national sport committee.

The move is a proactive welfare step as proclaimed by BS Chief Executive, Iain Graham. The new rules stipulate not only the type of whip that should be carried but how it should be held in the hand and what part of the whip should be in the hand. This effectively bans riders from turning the whip upside down and using it as a club – the handle must remain uppermost at all times.

British Racing has already performed comprehensive tests on these whips and scientific data demonstrates that the welfare of the horse is not compromised if a cushioned whip is used correctly. The current design of the racing whip was created with input from the RSPCA. The whips are foam-padded and described as ‘energy-absorbing’. They have a spine with a polymer surround which is then encased in a thick layer of foam. Whips are routinely inspected at UK racecourses by the Clerk of the Scales when the jockeys weigh in to ensure they are in good condition and of the requisite type.

The new whip rules are comprehensively detailed by BS on their website including all the permitted dimensions allowed. There have also been updates to the regulations surrounding spurs.

The "whip of choice"

The whip used in racing was developed by Mill Saddlery in Ireland and is commonly found worldwide for both flat and jump racing. Mill Saddlery hold the UK patent for this whip and the surrounding technology. It has a padded end designed not to inflict pain on the horse and has long been the whip of choice for some show jumpers and event riders. The special wrapped handle offers the rider a secure and comfortable grip and the stem of the whip comes in a huge range of colours to suit even the most matchy-matchy of riders. Their whip comes with a British Horseracing Authority – BHA – approved disc.

But this move is not just about prescribed whip or spur design, this is also about controlling how riders use whips and spurs as well, irrespective of their type. The BHA has already introduced tougher penalties for misuse and overuse of the whip which may well be followed by other equestrian sports. Some racing pundits say the industry is preparing for a possible ban on the whip within the next two to three years driven by external political pressure. It just shows that despite all the data proving that the horse is not harmed with the use of an air-cushioned whip, there is a still a generally negative perception over the use of the whip in racing in general. In broad terms, people just don’t like to see a horse or any animal hit with a whip whatever the circumstances and whatever the sport.

Where racing leads other sports may follow as in the case with British Show Jumping.Check your discipline rulebook for the facts and figures on whips and spurs and keep an eye on their websites where rule changes tend to appear first. Some people protest that use of the whip is hardly the most significant welfare issue in show jumping and other equestrian sports; the level of fatalities at this year’s Cheltenham Festival is of far more concern in equine welfare terms.

But in the 21st century, it is becoming harder and harder to endorse the use of the whip as either a punishment tool or an aid for encouragement. Whatever riders think, one thing is clear, equestrian sports across the board are going to come under increasing scrutiny from welfare groups. Some extreme views disagree fundamentally with the use of the horse in any sport at all so it really is a question of watch this space.

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