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Whether you think you can or think you can't - you are right.
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Henry Ford


Question from a Jockey

I recently recieved this question from a jockey and thought I would share my thoughts on the question.




As a licensed jockey, I have been trained to always carry a whip with me at all times. Although I pride myself on being very sparse with the use of my whip ( I have videos of races where I have won when I have used the whip just once and there was one particular horse that I used to ride all the time that we NEVER used a whip on) even I have of course used the whip on several occasions over the eleven years of my daily association with horses.  Being a senior rider I often find myself on unruly and badly behaved horses and while I always ensure that every horse is given every opportunity, sometimes it becomes essential to use the whip as an aid, and the intensity varies depending upon the situation.  For example a lazy horse that’s dragging his feet may get a slap on the shoulder to wake him up and make up pick his feet up to prevent him from stumbling.  A horse that is running sideways towards a fence because he's too fixated at something on the opposite side may need something a little more substantial to snap him out of his lapse of concentration.  Would you in your experience acknowledge that the use of the whip is sometimes necessary while dealing with highly strung race horses?  Please bear in mind that we ride sometimes up to twenty horses a day and a gallop usually lasts a coupe of minutes.  Many of these horses we’ve never ridden before or after. We do not have the luxury of days and weeks of bonding and patient education that other disciples of riding take for granted.  

Your thoughts?


Dear Sir,

Thank you for your interesting and challenging question regarding whips.

I think that Jockeys such as yourself are in a very difficult position, as you point out you are often only on a horse for a few minutes and it is perhaps not your job to or given the limited time available possible to provide the young racehorse with the help it needs to reach its potential as a horse as well as a race horse.


It s interesting that you are well aware of the effects of the whip and that you use it carefully and even NEVER with horses that respond adversely to it. That is part of the problem, if all horses responded in a aversive or aggressive manor to the whip we probably wouldn’t use the whip at all, unfortunately for horses they are usually easy to force to do something and can be controlled by pain and discomfort without visible signs of distress always being present, but this is the nature of the horse, in truth they can kick harder than us, run faster, bite harder and in truth are much stronger than we small humans, yet they allow them selves to be controlled by us. Their true nature is to try and be compliant and to do what we want, if it wasn’t, we would never have been able to domesticate them and restrict them in their nature and environment as we do. What has all this to do with the use of a whip?


Well a whip is a tool and is only as effective as the hands that hold it. The use of punishment, if used scientifically correctly, does only one thing, and that is to stop the behaviour it is meant to affect. To be effective it must be at the time of the event it is meant to affect, with the correct motivation and be aversive enough for the horse to want to avoid it. There are however, some unwanted side effects of punishment, such as fear, reduced learning, avoidance behaviours, even aggression.


As to your examples of the need to use the whip

 For example a lazy horse that is dragging his feet may get a slap on the shoulder to wake him up and make up pick his feet up to prevent him from stumbling.

Why is the horse lazy? Is the stumble related to conformation problems or pain caused by injury, races horses are not lazy by nature as the slow poor competitors have been removed from the breeding lines. The pain in the shoulder may however, cause a release of chemicals, that will either help mask any pain or may induce a flight or fight response which caused the horse to become more elevated. But it is unlikely that you have punished his “laziness”


A horse that is running sideways towards a fence because he's too fixated at something on the opposite side may need something a little more substantial to snap him out of his lapse of concentration


This is an interesting one, because the safety of both horse and rider and indeed other horses and riders may be at risk. In the heat of a flat out gallop it is easy to see how the use of the whip in the way you describe is seen as the only way to “snap him out of his lapse of concentration.” It may of course cause him to feel totally worried about the object he was fixated on as now that object is paired with pain and cause him to be more fixated. The pain inflicted may well draw his attention away from the object and cause him to fixate on the fear of pain.


Interestingly racehorses still seem to run even though they are whipped regularly over the closing part of nearly every race, perhaps the question might be asked as to how much better they would run if they weren’t whipped to go faster and how much better would our race horse breed programmes be if we selected for horses that ran fast without the need for the whip to carry them to the line.


As a trainer I try to avoid the use of punishment 99.9 % of the time because of the side effects. However it is not my job to tell other people what they should do, but only educate to the correct use of the science of behaviour so that punishment if chosen is used correctly. Always ask why is a horse behaving the way they are, if punishment doesn’t work first time don’t escalate it with bigger and bigger punishments. Always rule out the possibility of pain as the cause of a behaviour before using punishment. Use it correctly and try to be very specific about what you are punishing, reward the horse for the correct and desired behaviours. Ask if there are other ways you might get the “lazy” horse to pick up its feet?


Ultimately, I can see why you would need to carry a whip to perhaps use in dangerous situations, however I do not see the need to whip a horse to get it to win, just to satisfy the punter and the bookmaker. How you use the whip is very important and if used whip anger, frustration or ego it will never be used well.


It really is the high time the race horse breeders and trainers started putting time and effort into properly preparing young race horses for their careers. Not physically but mentally. If young horses where better trained and given an opportunity to learn about how to behave before they ever came into training then perhaps you as a jockey would not “often find myself on unruly and badly behaved horses”  Race horse owners know that what makes a great horse is their mental attitude and their heart to win and this often beaten out of them. As a jockey you will do what you have to do to stay safe and keep those around you safe and use your own conscience to decide if the use of the whip is really necessary.


I am sorry not to be able to help you more fully with your moral dilemma, but I must say that I am impressed that a jockey such as yourself is asking these questions and taking the time to ask others, it shows you must care and be looking for a better way.


I will leave you with a quote about horsemanship from Xenophon

‘Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful. If a dancer were forced to dance by whips and spurs, he would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar conditions.

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