Round Table: Scandinavian Racing Let Go Of The Riding Crop; Here's What Happened Next - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Round Table: Scandinavian Racing Let Go Of The Riding Crop; Here’s What Happened Next

Dennis Madsen, Head of Racing, Swedish Horseracing Authority speaks during the Seventieth Annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing at the Saratoga City Center Sunday Aug. 14, 2022 in Saratoga Springs N.Y.

Whip use continues to be a point of debate in American racing and throughout the flat racing world. At this year's edition of The Jockey Club Round Table, attendees got to hear about the gradual trend in several Scandinavian countries that led to eliminating its use altogether.

Dennis Madsen, head of racing for the Swedish Horseracing Authority, presented an overview of the culture shift in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. As far back as 1976, Madsen said the use of the whip was a point of concern for animal rights activists and for the public, leading Norway moved to ban its use. This was accepted by harness drivers at the time, but the change prompted pushback from flat jockeys and the policy was revised to allow some limited use. In the 1990s Sweden knocked down the number of total permitted strikes from ten in a race to five (one less than the maximum now allowed by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority's national rule).

Continued public pressure resulted in Norway once again banning whip use in 2009 despite a lack of dangerous incidents involving the whip in the prior 33 years. Sweden and Denmark reduced their maximum strikes from five to three at the same time, and in 2011 the rule changed to restrict use of the crop on the horse's shoulder, too.

In more recent times, it might have been clear what animal rights activists may think of the whip — but Madsen said, industry stakeholders wanted to know what horseplayers thought about it.

In 2021, Sweden's tote authority did two sets of studies about whip use. The company found that 30% of respondents believed they had watched an incident in racing wherein a horse had been poorly treated. Of those, 91% said the incident that concerned them had involved a use of the whip which was either too hard or too frequent. In addition, 25% of respondents said they actively avoid placing money on racing taking place in countries where they have welfare concerns about the participating horses.

Stakeholders discussed two possible rule changes in response — permitting just three taps on the shoulder, or eliminating whip use completely except in emergencies. Madsen said the industry wanted to act decisively and decided to abolish it.

The process wasn't without its challenges. Madsen said that after riders were told they could no longer use whips for encouragement, regulators noticed some riders swinging the extra loop of reins around horses' heads and necks to mimic the action of a whip. In an effort to stop this, authorities wrote a rule Madsen says now was “very rigid and perhaps too narrow,” requiring riders not remove their hands from a horse's neck or withers. This eliminated their ability to steer or shake the reins in the stretch and necessitated a revision allowing this side-to-side motion of jockeys' hands, but preventing them from weaponizing the end of their rein length. Whips may be carried, but must be held in the backhand position, may not be waved, and may not be pointed at the horse's head.

Despite those initial bumps, Madsen says his data show the change was a net gain for the sport. The lists of top trainers and jockeys are unchanged from prior to the rule update. Sweden's tote provider says there has been no change in wagering activity. Race times are no slower than before the change. Madsen says he believes there has been a gradual decrease in dangerous riding incidents as whip use has become more restricted, and that minor interference incidents may also finish down this year.

“There's still a winner,” Madsen said simply of viewing a race with the whip restrictions in place. “They're still fighting for the win. And it looks acceptable in my eyes.”

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