Would you believe it: I am a racing fan for over a decade and never had an actual whip in my hands! Time for a little self-experiment.
I’m not an exception. That much became pretty clear in all the recent – often heated – discussions about the new UK whip rules on Twitter.
It was a tweet from respected racing journalist Graham Cunningham that pushed my curiosity to the point where I simply had to get an answer to the “whip question” for myself: does it hurt?
As you read through the replies to Cunningham’s tweet you can’t help but notice how the vast majority of people speculate. Few speak from actual experience of real-life experience with a ProCush whip.
The ProCush Whip
So I ordered one. To be precise: the “Flexible ProCush Flat Whip with Micro Chip”. It cost about €50. Sold as “designed solely for flat racing with an 8 inch padded shock absorbing end”.
I have it here, right in front of me, as I type these words: It’s quite large – 70cm long – at the same time the whip is incredibly lightweight – about 150gr (less than half a pound). It’s certainly flexible with a somewhat “rubbery” feel when you swing it.
The end is “softish”. You can squeeze it; there is some give. It feels a bit like padded foam. However, and that is also the truth, it feels less soft than I had envisioned after watching the explainer videos recently published by the BHA.
This isn’t a pillow on a stick. It’s somewhat soft and somewhat firm at the same time, if that makes sense. Curiously, the harder I squeeze, the softer it gets.
At the bottom of the handle of my ProCush whip it states this type of whip is BHA approved. Good to know. Apparently there is a microchip somewhere in there as well. Not sure where, and even less sure why.
First impressions: I guess you can kill with this device: a fly – if you’re quick and do it the right way. Not much else could be killed with this thing. It won’t work as a torturing device.
The Whipping Experience
What happens if I smack my hand and fingers (I also smacked other parts of the body, for reference) with the most incredible force my little arms can create? Obviously, that was the key question to answer.
Time to swing the ProCush and give it a good lash. Initially I try it on my own before asking someone else to grab (enjoy?) the opportunity to hit me.
There is a loud, slapping noise….
I expected the slapping sound. It is familiar from my visits to the racecourse. Although the sound is duller than I heard it there.
It somewhat hurts for a brief moment. Hurt and the feeling of pain are relative, though. In German we have a word for this type of sensation: “zwiebeln”. “Stung” seems be to the closest description in English. Although, that feels too harsh to describe the actual feeling.
Any sensation of pain subsides rapidly. There are no lasting marks on the skin. This isn’t painful in the sense of what I have in mind when thinking about something truly “painful”. Yes, there is impact. Yes, there is a form of pain. That’s the truth. Yet, you can’t compare this to a “proper” whip in any shape or form… nor to being hit by a leather belt.
The human hands are pretty sensitive (so is my backside, which got smacked as well). Unlike, as far as I understand, the huge hindquarters of a thoroughbred – the position where they are hit with the ProCush. Obviously it’s difficult to know what a horse truly feels when hit by a jockey with force.
At the same time, my instincts tell me that in a race situation, when the whip is used, horses are full of adrenaline and will hardly feel a thing beyond the sensation that something made contact with their skin.
The smacking noise, however, as I have observed myself on the racetrack, is quite loud, and it certainly would put me in a state of alert if it suddenly appears out of nowhere.
I also feel the current instructions for use of the whip make it difficult to hurt a horse. You are not allowed to strike above shoulder height. I tried myself, and it’s not that easy to get an overly dramatic amount of leverage and force applied in this position. Granted, I am not a jockey who’s doing this for many years.
This little unscientific self-experiment taught me something: the whip debate is overblown. Most people have no clue when they talk about the ProCush. They never had one in their own hands and have no sense of how it feels to be hit with the whip.
Yes, it’s not a plush pillow by any means. But it’s not a whip in the traditional sense of a whip, either. It’s a device that elicits a sensation on the skin for sure. It creates a loud, smacking noise upon impact. It stings for a brief moment – at least on a human hand. And that’s it. It’s not a torturing device. It’s totally unusable to really hurt (i.e. injure) anyone with it.
I must say with this experience in mind, I can better appreciate why the ProCush is used as a tool to focus a horse on the job. Sudden contact of something external with the skin plus a loud noise would focus anyone and anything on the here and now. It would illicit a response of total alertness.
In that sense, I can see how it can help to galvernise a horse or keep it focused, when it matters most in the closing stages of a race.
Future of the Whip
My personal view is clear: I have no issue with the ProCush whip being used. Is it really required, though? That’s a question I find tricky to answer. I am not a horseman, never rode beside a pony on a holiday farm and therefore can only go by what I observe in racing jurisdictions that have banned the whip.
If I see races from Scandinavia, for example, I dread the time when the use of the whip for encouragement is banned in the UK. Those races don’t make for pleasant viewing. The fact jockeys have little options to re-focus their mounts in the closing stages makes these races boring. They seem to favour one particular type of horse. Therefore appear dull and one-dimensional to me.
That’s my personal view. There are plenty others who seem to be of an opposite view. That’s okay. There isn’t a right or wrong answer here. If racing in the UK, and perhaps at some point in Ireland, would go down the same route as Scandinavia, then that’s the way it is. I wouldn’t be interested in the sport much longer, though. That’s also okay.
On a final note, one thing is totally obvious: the ProCush whip is the smallest issue racing faces to ensure a sustainable future where it remains relevant as a sport with a vibrant core audience that follows with interest.
The whip debate is a distraction. Perhaps a welcoming one for the governing body in the UK. Distracting from their colossal failings to address the real issues. I fear for the future of the sport. I am saying this as a racing fan first and foremost.
No humans were harmed in the making of this article