The long awaited report from the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) on the use of the whip represents a lost opportunity for rebuilding trust and bringing back enthusiastic crowds to British racetracks.

Despite its 95 pages, the report overlooks almost the entirety of the peer reviewed literature, which has pretty much exhausted the research avenues for non-invasive (ethical) research.

The authors then call for more research while the sector continues to deny researchers access to conduct thermography studies which would shed definitive light on whether whipping causes inflammation – and therefore pain. 

Our investigation of the 2019 Melbourne Cup showed that painful whip welts can occur without there being any breaches of the existing rules, and veterinarians could easily monitor horses during their post-race inspection using thermography – a tool that is used routinely in other horse sports, such as showjumping to deter riders from cheating by hypersensitising their horse’s limbs.

In terms of research have been histology studies, surveys of jockeys, analyses of stewards reports, whip rule breaches and pressure detectors on simulators. Of great concern is that the latter showed that backhand strikes when the jockey uses their dominant hand, strikes with a higher force than the soon-to-be-banned forehand strikes. There is also evidence that whipping doesn’t make horses run faster, is associated with fractures and may actually make racing less safe. 

And the above represents just a fraction of the research available.

Well aware of the public’s disapproval of whipping racehorses, World Horse Welfare was quick to distance themselves from the BHA’s recommendations, issuing a press release on the same day, clearly stating the organisation does not support whipping horses for ‘encouragement’.

WHW Chief Executive Roly Owers was the only welfare representative invited to be part of the BHA’s steering committee, and the only ‘outsider’ not directly connected with racing.

The report does however, get one thing right.

Whipping is indeed “a perception issue”. Every racing insider knows that whipping must continue for the punters’ optics. Time and again, within racing circles, the threat of losing bettors is the fear that drives and stalls all whip-related discussions – worldwide. 

During 2021, all three of New Jersey’s major racetracks completed an entire season of whipping-free racing. Jockeys were allowed to carry a whip and use it for safety (e.g. in cases of lugging or interference with other horses), but were not allowed to whip the horses to the finish line. 

You may not be surprised to learn that a horse won in every race, but there were also no safety incidents directly attributed to the whipping restrictions during three months of racing over turf and dirt. There were no whip rule breaches either. 

The one thing that did happen in this American experiment was a decrease in the daily ‘handle’ (gambling revenue). Revenue dropped from US$3.8 million a day in 2019, to US$3.1 million in 2022 as punters, most of whom bet remotely, had the choice of placing their bets on races in other US states, where whipping is still permitted. 

This result confirms the racing industry’s greatest fears – that punters perceive whipping as proof that races are run with ‘integrity’; that jockeys tried to win for them. But in doing so, it also raises the question of whether we can trust that decisions and recommendations are prioritising safety and welfare, or it is profits winning the race.

The pressure is on for racing to show and not just tell that padded whips don’t hurt. In thermography, racecourse veterinarians have a simple, non-invasive tool that could help demonstrate that the current rules are not harming the horses. 

Until that time, and relying on basic physics and common sense, we can only assume they do. As veteran sports journalist Patrick Smith said: “if whips didn’t cause pain, there would be no use to them“.  

Overall, the BHA’s whip report is a demonstration that racing is not prepared to give any meaningful ground despite overwhelming evidence that Western societies no longer consider whipping acceptable (ethical), and despite knowing that horses can and will win races without whipping.

Given that of the many welfare issues plaguing the industry whipping is most easily solved, it seems that participants are prepared to adopt last stand tactics. From outside of racing but sitting firmly inside horse sports, it seems reckless to continue defending the right to whip tired horses despite the growing threat to racing’s social licence to operate. 

Plus, without the wider public’s support and acceptance, how long will it take before we are unable to celebrate fully the wins and extraordinary achievements of our greatest horses and jockeys?  

Read about a racing enthusiast who can no longer enjoy the Melbourne Cup. 

Read World Horse Welfare’s official response to the whip report here. 

Read World Horse Welfare’s summary of whip-related research here.

Read 10 reasons to stop whipping racehorses.

Download the BHA Whip Report