David Muir, the RSPCA consultant who works closely with racing on behalf of the charity, has been in the news lately. David very kindly gave me twenty minutes of his time yesterday to record the following interview.
“Recent media coverage seems to have given the impression that excessive whip use has suddenly become an issue because of the Grand National and Jason Maguire’s suspension. The fact is the RSPCA and myself have been concerned about incorrect use of the whip in racing for a long time, and I have done a lot of work on the issue with a number of people.
“Although the RSPCA have always taken a pragmatic view on the whip, and indeed on racing, things are now getting out of hand. Unless something is done about excessive use of the whip, I can see it being banned completely and that is something I don’t want to see. The whip is needed for safety and discipline in races but how do you quantify encouragement? That’s the area that needs addressing.
“I’ve read Mark Johnston’s piece where he says that horses need to feel the whip as they tire towards the finish, for their own safety, to keep them running straight in a balanced fashion. To a degree Mark has a point but what you can’t do is defend the indefensible. If the application of pain is a necessary ingredient for racing, then I see racing going into an area that’s problematic.
“The whip is a work in progress. The one used now in racing bears no comparison whatever to the whip used five years ago. If I’d have hit myself hard on the back of the hand with a whip from five years ago, I’d break all four fingers. I could do it with the current whip and not even leave a mark.
“The current whip has a cylindrical core covered with foam. As it tapers down to the part which strikes the horse, it flattens out into a foam covered paddle which gives on contact with the horse and the reduction in pain, compared with the old whip, is dramatic.
“Used in the backhand style, the whip is perfectly acceptable, it’s when jockeys change to the forehand there is an implication that they want to apply as much pain as possible, and that’s where I fall out.
“We need to make sure that the correct balance is reached in whip design and in its use by jockeys. Doubling the foam-covering for example would make the whip useless for correction and discipline purposes. But used in the backhand position, I can never see a point in the future where I, or the RSPCA, would have a problem with the whip and that is the way I think the BHA will go with this.
“The only alternative I can see to that is that the whip is to be carried for safety and correction only, as in the current hands and heels races.
“The whole point of me, and the RSPCA working side by side with racing is to try to help understand both sides of the issues as we work to improve the welfare of horses. It’s alright standing outside and criticising racing but when you are working with racecourse management and the BHA, as we do, you see the problems they face.
“For example, I’m working closely at the moment on a hurdle design project with students at Southampton University, which is due to finish next month. For a year we’ve been looking at hurdle design. Along with four graduates, we’ve been examining design to see if we can improve safety in hurdling and reduce fatalities. I’m not in racing simply to criticise, I’m there to work with those involved to try to improve things”.
On the question of disqualification of a horse if its jockey is found guilty of improper use of the whip, David said:
“The Jockey should be disqualified, not the horse. Disqualifying the horse affects many other people; owners, trainers, punters, the whole system of betting. Just imagine a jockey who wants to actually lose a race, he knows excessive use will get the horse disqualified”.
I asked David if he was involved in the decision to ask jockeys to dismount immediately after the Grand National. He said:
“This is another issue that’s been taken completely out of context. I’ve been involved with the National now for fourteen years. When I first went there I fought like billy-o to get loads of water and I’ve got it now, about a hundred buckets and big tanks full of water with ice-bags in them.
“When the horses come in after four and a half miles, they’re very hot. Tim Morris (equine science and welfare director for the BHA) gave an instruction this year to jockeys to get off as soon they got in, get the saddles off and get water on the horses to cool them down. It wasn’t just the winner that got the treatment, I must have thrown water over twenty or thirty horses. It’s a welfare issue and a good thing for racing to do”.
Asked about the image the hurried scrambling with water gave to the public, David said, “I think there was a major PA problem there. They should have explained what was going on. It’s a bit like when the screens go up on the course; everybody just assumes it’s a dead horse but that’s not always the case.
“Racing needs to take another step forward in explaining things. The whip is a classic example. Most people don’t know about the structure of a whip and how it behaves in use. We need to be more open and help people understand things much better”.
We touched on the situation in Australia where the RSPCA were instrumental in getting NH racing banned in all but two states. David made the point that there’s almost no resemblance to jump racing there and in the UK, in the quality and type of horses used. He said:
“I can never see a situation where the RSPCA would support a call for the banning of National Hunt racing in Britain. Remember, what we are about is the prevention of cruelty and the definition of cruelty is ‘the gratuitous application of pain for the enjoyment of the person who’s doing it’. Now where in racing does the term ‘cruel’ fit? Tragic? Yes. Cruel? I can’t see that. The RSPCA does not try to justify the deaths of racehorses, but we will work tirelessly to reduce them. It’s a high risk sport and the RSPCA’s position in it is to help make it as risk-free as possible”.
On Towcester’s decision to have only ‘hands and heels’ races from October 5th onwards David said, “It’s a brave and positive way forward and I congratulate them on their courage and tenacity in the face of these recent concerns about whip use”.