Do you wince every time a jockey goes to his whip while urging his horse to run a little faster down the stretch and towards wire? Well, now you can take a deep breath, sit back and let out a sigh of relief. For several years now, just about every track in North America, including Assiniboia Downs, has mandated the use of equine-friendly (soft) whips.
One of the most valuable tools in a jockey's tack box, the whip has evolved over the past several years, and to borrow a much-used phrase, "its bark is worse than its bite."
The problem with the older whips was that they often left welts or cuts on the horses' flanks, but the equine-friendly whips have all but eliminated such injuries. It's the popping sound it makes, not the biting crack, that encourages a horse to run a little harder.
'This one makes a lot of noise. The other ones were hurting the horse, so if you had a lazy horse, one of those old whips would help a lot. But now the horses are getting used to that loud noise, and they are still responding about the same'
While specifications governing the equine-friendly whip may vary from track to track, the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission Rules of Flat Racing 2013, which governs thoroughbred racing at ASD, states in rule 28 (8) a): "No whip shall be used unless it is affixed to the end of a padded "popper" which is no shorter than 6.6 inches in length, and not less than 7/8ths of an inch in width. The popper shall consist of two layers sewn down each side with no sewing at the top half-inch of the popper. The outer covering shall consist of a material approved by the stewards that does not harden over time. Material such as Claiino, Vinal, Nogohide, or Leather, will not be allowed.
"The inner layer shall consist of memory foam or closed cell foam .015-.025 inches in thickness, folded over and sewn down each side, with the outer covering to form a hollow channel. No whip shall exceed 29 inches in length."
In addition, all whips in use at ASD must be supplied by the MHRC, meet all the requirements of the rule and are subject to inspection and approval by the board of stewards.
Dr. Joseph Meek, MHRC veterinarian, says jockeys at ASD have been using the new whips about four years now.
"Some of the jockeys preferred a longer whip and had their own style of whipping, and there was some concern that it could be harmful to the horse, so the decision was made to go to a shorter, uniform whip," Meek said. "The popper on the end is soft, and it won't damage the horse the way it is designed now.
"I think that if the whip is used primarily to get a horses attention, it wouldn't matter if it was short, long or what. But if a whip was used to abuse the horse or sting the horse, I don't think that the whip they use now is a problem at all."
Jim Meyaard, a trainer and owner, by his own admission is "not a stick guy," but he does agree that if used properly in the right hands at the right times, it is acceptable.
"This is my attitude: A stick should be used at the right time; if they respond from it fine, beat them up for it, no," he said. "I tell my riders, 'Ask them to run, and if you don't gotta use a stick, don't use it at all. If you ask them without a stick and there's nothing, and then you ask them with a stick and there is still nothing, then it's not your fault. The horse didn't show up, or the trainer didn't do his job. One or the other.' "
Asked if he has seen fewer injuries to his horses since the new whips have come into use, Meyaard replied, "I guess not, because like I say, my horses don't get the stick very often. I have seen some brutal stuff over my time, and I've been in this business for 15 years, but if anybody carves one of my horses up, they'll never ride again, I don't care who they are."
Jockeys Paul Nolan and Adolfo Morales say it took a little while to get used to the new whip, but now they like it.
"This one makes a lot of noise," said Morales. "The other ones were hurting the horse, so if you had a lazy horse, one of those old whips would help a lot. But now the horses are getting used to that loud noise, and they are still responding about the same."
Said Nolan: "I've been using it for something like four years.
"The first time, it was a windy day at Canterbury Downs, and when I went to hit the horse, the wind nearly blew the thing out of my hand.
"When you hit a horse with it, it makes a big, slappy noise, and that makes them run faster and you don't bruise or injure the horse. Now that we've been using them for a couple of years, the horses are used to these kinds of whips and they are going to run for it."
"With 90 per cent of the horses that try hard, the whips don't really do much of anything," said Blair Miller, owner/trainer and president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "But, you know what? You never see welts on horses any more, which is good.