Cheltenham Revives the Carrot Stick and Whip Debate


The annual Cheltenham festival produced another debate on the use of the whip in horse racing. Does it have anything to offer on the question of carrots, sticks, and motivational leadership for humans?

The Cheltenham festival is one of the year’s racing highlights in the UK. It is sometimes described as Ireland’s greatest racing event, so powerful an influence is exercised there from horses, trainers, and above all punters, from across the Irish Sea. It tends to coincide with parliamentary matters, and MPs often wrestle with split loyalties attracting their attention.

This year the festival suffered from the storms sweeping the South of England. Wednesday’s racing was completely postponed, which at least helped politicians keep their minds on Alistair Darling’s budget, about which enough has already been said.

Katchitt’s Triumph

One the previous day, Katchitt won the Champion Hurdle, a rare British success in recent years in a race where has been a frequent success for the Irish in recent times. Much scatological mirth over name. General agreement that the horse needed ‘firm’ handling. The controversial Robert Thornton was considered the ideal jockey for such a horse. Katchitt, and jockey Robert Thornton are pivotal figures in our story.

The race was described in The Times on line

Tom Scudamore had set a strong pace on Osana … under pressure a long way out but rallied to all his jockey’s urgings and was closing again at the line. Katchit, though, is an implacable opponent and, understandably, has a special place in his jockey’s heart. “He’s not the classiest horse in the world but he gives you everything,” Thornton said. “If they were all like him, this would be an easy job.”

Thornton was leading jockey here last year and is repeating his routine of refusing to have his long fair hair cut until after the meeting. His liaison with King is now one of the strongest in racing and the trainer insists that he “would not swap him for any other stable jockey”. Things, though, have not always been so cordial. Both previously worked for the late David Nicholson, where King was an authoritarian assistant and Thornton a rebellious young conditional jockey. “I was a snotty-nosed kid,” Thornton conceded, with King adding: “We didn’t speak much in those days but I think we have both grown up for the better.”

The Guardian [Wednesday march 12th, 2008] picked up on the debate on use of the whip:

Robert Thornton rode two winners at Cheltenham … and received two consecutive four and three-day bans for his excessive use of the whip only hours after a top-level summit aimed at stamping out the practice … New shock-absorbing crops are in use but it was conceded that horses can still be harmed if the whip is abused, and there appears to be a real desire across racing to improve the sport’s animal-welfare image … [although] the disqualification of horses was ruled out as a possible punishment by the representatives of the racing fraternity who attended yesterday’s meeting, and Thornton’s status as a double winner still stood despite his breach of the rules.

I had trouble finding it mentioned at all in most accounts in the sports and racing press. The issue warranted two lines in The Scotsman’s report

…Thornton’s battling display did not go unnoticed by the stewards, who suspended him for three days for using his whip in the incorrect place

The Times article above was as concise on the matter:

Thornton acquired whip bans, totalling seven days, on both his winners yesterday, though neither horse was needlessly berated.

The Great Whip Debate

It turns out that a debate is developing again around the use of the whip in horse-racing. I came across this topic some years ago through the contributions of champion jockey Kelly Marks and her company Intelligent Horsemanship, and her mentor Monty Roberts at Manchester Business School. These were influential to us in the development of a managerial concept of Trust based Leadership, in which a leader operates ‘by invitation’.

Trust-based leadership has elements of earlier concepts such as people-centred leadership. It adds a notion of influence through invitational means, rather than transactional ones such as sticks and carrots. The connection to the horse-whip debate is clear.

A recent textbook account can be found in Dilemmas of Leadership.

The debate is a highly emotive one. In her books, Kelly Marks tells of prejudice against the idea of whipless horse-training, as much as the idea of female jockeys like herself competing against men.

The charismatic Monty Roberts is much in demand around the world for help with thoroughbreds showing remedial tendencies. But owners and others still see him as something of a curiosity for such bizarre ideas by owners and riders. His reputation as a horse-whisperer works both for him and against him in the campaign for pain-free horse training.

At Cheltenham, the debate was rekindled with advocates of banning the whip including former champion jockey Johnnie Francome, now a racing pundit and best-selling author who probably dislikes being described as a sort of Dick Francis. Francome argued that a month’s trial would demonstrate that racing could be as exciting, as demanding of skill, as fast, and less stressful to the horses. He also admits that as a jockey ten years ago he would have been opposed to it, and that almost all the jockeys will go on opposing it until they tried out racing without whips. He mutters darkly about the dinosaurs in charge of the sport.

Meanwhile, at the Jurassic headquarters of horse racing, plans are being examined for whips that can not cause such evident after-effects on horses. (‘Pain-free whips’?).


Implications for organizational leaders are clear. Our posts have suggested how bullying by dictatorial methods can be one way to produce nodding donkeys in organisations or in political cadres.

The same level of intensity of debate whirls around issues of bullying, and the rights of parents to smack children (abuse, or a valuable aid to discipline and development?).

Francome’s suggestion of a trial period of whip-free racing seems sensible, but probably too dangerous a threat to established thinking to be a favourite runner at the moment.

14 Responses to Cheltenham Revives the Carrot Stick and Whip Debate

  1. E. Boddeus says:

    Since whipping is such an important part of horse racing, I suggest to give jockeys who do not win the race a good whipping afterwards. That should teach them to do better next time.

  2. Liza Lambertini says:

    What has anyone have to lose to try a different method without the whip? Positive incentives will be productive, for horse and rider. Give it a chance. Is it so much to ask anyone to try?

  3. simon baguley says:

    the great whip debate,being an ex-jockey from australia,where our rules on the use of the whip are far less stringent than the u.k or u.s,i believe it will only be a matter of time before the whip is removed from personal belief is that the whip debate is a very small part of the overall picture when it comes to the welfare of horses in racing and competition,the use of the whip is a very visual aspect,so it evockes a response,some of the more pressing issues do not recieve any attention because they are less visual,the very act of confining a horse in a 10 x 10 stable is every bit as cruel as using a whip during competition,yet people accept it.the whip is far less important in racing than in the past,as our jockeys in the modern era are far more refined and athletic,with a greater apprecition of balance and co-hesivness.look at the great jockeys of the past and present,there beautifull balance,patience and above all else respect for the amazing animal that is the horse.thanks to gentlemen such as monty roberts,horseman such as myself,who had always believed there was a better way,are no longer ridiculed,the world is becoming a better place for all horses,but lets look at the overall picture of horse welfare,the use of the whip in racing is just a part

  4. Vicci Holbrook-Hughes says:

    Simon Baguley is right, there are many more welfare issues to consider when exploring how racehorses are managed/trained. He is also right the that whip receives attention because it is the publicly visible act of violence. The problem about debating the wider issues of racehorses is that the yards (out of apparent necessity) are such a closely guarded terrain that very few people actually knows what goes on in them so can only comment about what they see (I acknowledge that many people seem to be able to talk endlessly about things they know nothing about but that is a different matter!)

    Regarding the use of the whip or any form of violent action – it simply has no justification. The whip is a habit and a tradition that jockeys/trainers/owners cling on to because of (a) a false belief in its effectiveness and (b) I suspect they would feel ‘naked’ without it. If horseracing was ‘invented’ today any suggestion of the use of a whip as additonal incentive to run would be laughable. The very fact that there are ‘rules’ governing its use and attempts to develop a ‘kinder’ alternative only demonstrates that everyone recognises that it causes unnecessary pain. On that basis alone the practice should be stopped. If the racing fraternity can set the example, many others will follow and maybe the whip will be relegated to its rightful place in history as a reminder of our journey towards more enlightened practice based on researched evidence not antiquated traditions.

  5. Cynthia Frusha says:

    Some people seem to have a brick for a brain. It has been proven repeatedly throughout history that prey animals have incredible memories. Why use a whipped when a voice que or body que by the rider has been proven tme and time again to be incredibly effective down through the ages. Using a whip to beat a horse to go faster is equivalent to using a bomb to open a can of soup. And as with soup the aftermath is another huge problem to contend with. EXCEPT in the case of the horse a beautiful creature that is eagerly trying to perform its task has been taught that his/her que to go faster is to be beaten. HOW INCREDIBLY SAD!!!!!!

  6. Peggy Lyons says:

    I have not been had much exposure to the training of race horses; however, I trained Flame, my 6 yr. old, 1/2 Arab, 1/2 Quarter mare during my formative years.

    She knew how to lunge, but that was it. She had never been ridden, mainly because she would throw every rider that attempted to “break” her. It’s sad and ironic that the woman I purchased her from was my 4-H leader. She reluctantly sold her to me, stating that she didn’t think I’d be able train her, and definitely didn’t think she’d be ready for the Fair that year. After much pleading and begging, and assurance from my father that he would not hold her responsible if I failed, she agreed.

    Flame, was the most amazing horse I’ve ever owned. Not only did I gain her trust, but I was also able to train her in a mere three months time. I placed 4th in my halter class, and 2nd in my western pleasure class. It was 1977, and I was only 14 yrs. old. This was the single most memorable event of my life, and even though I was only a teenager I instinctively knew the best way to gain the trust of a horse is to earn it and not by forcing it.

    Although, I’ve never had the opportunity to work around a race track, I can’t imagine that race horses are any different from the rest. With Flame, I’d gotten to the point where I could ride her just as easily bareback and bridleless as I could with full gear. She responded to my weight fluctuations and voice commands. We connected so well, that she had gotten to the point of responding to my body language even before my voice commands. We had a truly simpatico relationship, which I believe was only possible because of our mutual trust. My point, horses want to please. I believe they are born trusting, and unfortunately some trainers are more apt to train by means of fear, which causes distrust, stress, confusion and a breakdown of the horse’s spirit. This is the main reason I believe whips should be outlawed.

    On a separate note, it seems to me that a truly spectacular race horse is one that wins because of their training, but more so because they love to run, not because they are forced to run.

  7. Tudor says:

    I can’t help noticing how mush of the posts could as easily be related to humans as to horses. Peggy’s point that her relationship (with Flame) was built on mutual trust..that
    horses [like humans] are ‘born trusting’ and run beause they ‘love to run not because thy are force to’.

    In the business world ,I have been arguing for the merits of the humanistic approach to relationships of Carl Rogers, who taught that the seceret of success is treating people with ‘unconditional positive regard’. He also believed that social conditioning limits and distorts relationships, demotivating, and reducing an individual’s innate capacity towards personal growth and development. Sorry if that’s not as clear as the comments from you all, but it does seem we are following the same set of moral principles for treating people and other ‘sentient creatures’ in our relationships with them

  8. Els says:

    To make racing without whips a realistic option these points should be taken in consideration:

    In order to make horses try hard they have to be motivated. Motivating them to race to the best of their ability begins in training. Good exercise riders can communicate to their rides what they are meant to do, i.e. take it easy and stay with the other horse(s) they are galloping with, or even stay well behind, of take the lead and leave the others standing. For doing what is asked they are rewarded by the appreciation of their riders. Being very sensitive creatures, horses understand and enjoy this reward. Although exercise riders will often carry whips, they are not used a lot in training to make horses go faster.
    To motivate a horse to try his best in a race, he should regularly experience “winning” and the reward it brings in training.
    Rule number one: never ask what the horse is incapable of giving, so: only ask what he is fit enough to do and give him the opportunity to win by working him with lesser horses or horses that can be controlled by their riders to let another horse run away.
    Rule number one is equally important once you start a horse taking part in racing. Only when he is well fit to do it, and in company that represents a fair challenge. Then, the jockey should be a good enough horseman to realise what is a fair question to ask the horse during the race, and reward him for whatever that turns out to be.

    This will only work, if the racing stewards look at races in the same manner. At the moment jockey’s often relentlessly hit horses although they have no chance of even a place, fearing that they might otherwise be punished for lack of trying.
    Trainers should be called upon to explain the running of a horse that looked not fit enough during a race.

  9. Akice Cohen says:

    Agree totally with jockey, Simon Baguley about the total care of the racehorses whole health, whether seen or unseen to the public eye. Jockeys and trainers also require masterful skill and hopfully all aspects of horse welfare will be transparent to the peace lover’s eyes no matter what time of day or night.
    Ban the whip in racing, and the jiggers in training, and the starting stall traumas caused through ignorance and the ongoing ulcerated stamachs of performance horses…well, research and application of our better knowledge will win out in the end. There is more awareness, more light at the end of the tunnel now. Thank you to all those who care, see and speak out.

  10. […] blog has not been afraid to espouse the unusual. In the past we have looked at Horse Whispering, Mandrill management […]

  11. […] demonstration is being conducted by Kelly Marks, another charismatic and pioneering leader, who will be encouraging the executives to consider the […]

  12. Luke says:

    I dont see the problem in whipping a horse to make it go faster.

  13. Tudor says:

    I have a good friend who is a polo player and a gentle guy off the field. He thinks pretty much the same as you. We agree to differ.

    I have probably been influenced too much by such dangerous revolutionaries as Kelly Marks and Monty Roberts.

  14. So many huge horses it is near impossible to compare. Only one matter is for sure, the powerful Arkle would have to remain head and shoulders above any Gold Cup rival.

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