Horse welfare charity head says racing faces 'very difficult problem' over whip

Use of the whip is “a very difficult problem” for racing to solve, according to the body in charge of the welfare strategy for racehorses.

Barry Johnson, the chair of the Horse Welfare Board which heads the independent body responsible for shaping racing’s welfare strategy, was among the guest speakers at an event hosted by World Horse Welfare (WHW) following publication of a survey by the charity into public perceptions of the treatment of horses in racing and other equestrian disciplines.

The results of a wide-ranging consultation by racing into the whip are expected this summer, ahead of implementation in the autumn, and Johnson said the outcome of the review was eagerly anticipated.

“[The whip is] a very difficult problem and the consultation is still ongoing about the use of the whip in racing,” he told viewers of a panel discussion on Tuesday on the ‘social licence’ of using horses for sport.

“Over the next few weeks and couple of months the result of that consultation, which has included people within the industry and outside of the industry so the perception can be addressed as well as the reality, will be published. 

“The fact there’s very little research being done into the use of the whip and the effect of the whip makes it increasingly difficult, but we wait with interest to see what the results of this consultation will recommend.”

Three-time Olympic medal-winner Pippa Funnell said that “common sense” was needed when assessing the whip’s place in horse sport, while also outlining how social media meant everyone involved in equine activities was “more put in the limelight with people and the general public”.

Funnell’s comments come as 16 per cent of the 2,057 people surveyed by WHW stated that their confidence in how horses were protected had dropped due to media coverage in the last three years.

During that time, images and videos appeared on social media that led to trainer Gordon Elliott and jockey Rob James being suspended for sitting on dead horses, while Sir Mark Todd was suspended after being filmed hitting a horse with a branch. A BBC Panorama investigation also highlighted ex-racehorses, including Grade 2 winner Vyta Du Roc, being sent to abattoirs. 

The survey also found that 40 per cent of the public only supported the continued use of horses for sport “if their welfare is improved”, 60 per cent said there “should be more safety and welfare measures in place” and 52 per cent felt welfare should be “prioritised” in communication.

Steps taken by racing, such as National Racehorse Week, were praised by the panel and Roly Owers, WHW chief executive, said confronting the perceptions of horse welfare head-on were best for all equine sports.

“We are not creating a problem by talking about social licence,” he said. “Society’s concerns are real and growing and they will only escalate further if we are not addressing them.

“This is the first survey we have undertaken on this important subject and the findings should be a wake-up call to everyone involved in equestrian sports that they are not as trusted with horse welfare as they need to be to maintain public support.

“Horse sport can rebuild that trust with the public and maintain support — its social licence to operate — and have a bright future, but only if it opens itself to change. We look forward to having these conversations and importantly, seeing action.”