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I have been holding off on writing about this topic as what with all the drama on social media this week around the topic I didn’t want to get caught up in the arguments. However, with the BHS announcing that they will be taking the issue further with the FEI, I now feel like this is a good time to share my thoughts on eventing whip rules.
So what am I talking about?
I’m sure the vast majority of you will have heard that Oliver Townend was given an official warning at Badminton Horse Trials for his overuse of the whip on both his horses in the cross country phase. I obviously do not agree with how he chose to ride both his horses across country, but this post is not going to be about him or how he was wrong. Instead I will focus on the current rules in place to protect horse welfare and what can be learnt from this incident and other industries.
The current FEI whip rules
My biggest issue with what happened at Badminton was the lack of response from the ground jury/stewards. I couldn’t help but feel that more should have have been done. This lead me to research the current FEI Eventing rules which are related to this incident.
526: Abuse of the horse
526.1 : Definition
c) Excessive pressing of a tired Horse.
e) Excessive use of whip, bit and/or spurs.
Watching back the footage I personally feel that his riding broke all of the above rules. However, when you look into more detail of what the rulebook defines as excessive use of the whip, it’s hard to say whether he broke these rules without being able to watch the entire round and examine the horse.
526: Abuse of the horse
526.3 Use of the whip
Excessive and/or misuse of the whip maybe considered abuse of Horse and will be reviewed case by case by the Ground Jury according to the following principles:
a) The whip is not to be used to vent an Athlete temper.
b) The whip is not to be used after elimination.
c) The whip is not to be used after a Horse has jumped the last fence on a course.
d) The whip is not to be used overhand, (i.e. a whip in the right hand being used on the left flank).
e) The whip is not to be used on a Horse head.
f) The whip is not to be used more than three times for any one incident.
g) If a Horse skin is broken the use of the whip is always excessive
From what I have seen, I am not sure if I could say if any of these rules were broken for sure at Badminton. Possibly f or g, but I’m not convinced. So while it could be argued that in this case no rules were broken, I find it shocking that the rules do not cover that type of behaviour!
Current FEI actions for overuse of the whip
For any abuse of the horse during competition there are a series of actions which can be taken. Before any action can be taken the ground jury has to establish that abuse has taken place, but they do have procedures in place for ‘punishing’ the rider.
526: Abuse of the horse
526.2 Warning and Penalties
a) Recorded Verbal Warning.
b) Yellow Warning Card.
Looking at the various levels of discipline the officials had at their disposal at Badminton, I can’t say I agree with their choice of a written warning. I agree with BHS in saying that I feel there needed to be a stricter punishment, such as a Yellow Card, Fine or Elimination from the rest of the event.
Whip use in Racing
Many of you will know that I am a big racing fan and one thing the racing industry is really hot on is whip use. They now use specially designed whips which make a loud noise but make less of an impact on the horse.
There are also really strict rules around how the whip can be used throughout the race. Currently jockeys are limited to using the whip 7 times flat racing and 8 for jump racing throughout the race. Alongside this, a maximum of 5 strokes can be given in the final furlong or from the final obstacle.
For breaking these rules jockeys will receive a fine and/or a riding ban. The fine will typically be the fee (wage) for that ride plus their percentage of any winnings from that race. So for breaking these rules the jockey will lose money, either by fine or by loss of earning through a ban. This works as an incentive to use the whip less.
Could Eventing Learn from Racing?
While I’m not sure limiting the number of times a whip could be used throughout a cross country course would work for eventing, I do think that there is room in the rules to do more to protect horse welfare. Perhaps a limit on how many times a horse could be smacked when not approaching a jump throughout the course?
I also think that eventing would benefit from the officials not being scared of handing out harsher penalties for this type of riding. Especially when show jumping disqualified Bertram Allen a few years ago for spur marks on his horse after he rode a really nice round. The marks on the horse were enough to warrant disqualification, despite the rider not excessively pushing the horse. Whereas, in this case, I believe there was excessive pushing of the horse, but apparently not enough physical damage for that kind of punishment.
I think there will always be a place in eventing for whips and spurs. However, I feel that this incident at Badminton highlighted a weakness in the rules which needs to be addressed in order to protect horse welfare.