Cheltenham Revives the Carrot Stick and Whip Debate

March 14, 2008

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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

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.