Why, Daddy?

By Steve Montemarano -- My daughter and I were watching the racing replays. To my surprise she whispered that racing was exciting and identified with the beautiful Thoroughbreds. We selected the likely winner with the time-tested technique of choosing a lucky number or favorite name. At the start there was much giggling and rooting. But, somewhere in deep stretch she just walked away. "The horses are whipped, why daddy?" she asked. With my mouth agape there was no reply. The attempt to evangelize racing to the next generation went sorely astray.

Her serious demeanor provoked thought. Frankly, it was something I did not want to address. The subject of whip use has been repressed over the years. Around the racetrack the topic is not popular. It's like a long-standing family problem that relatives choose to ignore.

The flagrant use of the whip is out of step with how society has changed over the decades. What was once tolerated may now be perceived as wrong.

The notion of using force to obtain a goal is loathed by modern day animal behaviorists who advocate positive conditioning methodology. This technique employs a reward system geared to reinforce behaviors that support high performance levels. Over time the animals' thought process becomes hard-wired to associate pleasure with certain tasks. Animals working for pleasure are more likely to perform with a good attitude.

That said, harsh whip use could be destructive if the racehorse feels punished for running. Linking pain to the racetrack may contribute to equine behavioral problems.

An ill-used whip has accounted for several one-eyed racehorses. A sideward slap as a closing horse moves alongside can be disastrous. The whip, when held upright, flexes perilously close to the horse's poll and eyes as the rider drives forward in the heat of the battle.

Some say the whip is a motivator because it mimics a primordial instinct in the equine to flee from the claws of a predator. Even if true, do we want to encourage the Thoroughbred to run out of fear? It's been discovered that people, like other animals, respond to fear motivation over the short term, then look to cut corners whenever they can.

A dilemma along these lines is found with training canine retrievers. The desire to retrieve is a natural instinct. However, widespread popularity and breeding has diluted this ability. Now, some dogs are "force fetched." That's where a small amount of pain (an ear pinch) is rendered when an object is dropped. The twinge negatively reinforces the dog to hold an item. Some fear that retrieving is being taught instead of inbred.

Unfortunately the topic of whip use is not black and white. Some horses are difficult to ride and safely train. A properly used whip can teach manners and discipline. Many a rider has avoided being bucked to the ground or run through a fence by a properly timed cropping. A judicious shoulder tap encourages a horse to change leads and improve racing momentum. Conversely, an exhausted horse being urged beyond its limit may present jeopardy to both horse and rider.

Some say a person's ability to transmit their intent, or will, is even more effective than the use of force. There are many gifted riders and trainers who successfully finesse horses to perform. Being known as a rider who can "horseback" is often the highest compliment along these lines.

For safety reasons it is impractical to suggest that the whip be eliminated. Even so, it is unsettling to see a tired Thoroughbred bearing welts on its flank while being unsaddled--regardless of race outcome.

Often lifelong interests are developed in children. When pleasure is linked to an event a tradition can be formed. Yet, the panoply of image issues has affected racing over the decades. This negative reinforcement discourages participation and must be counteracted with continued dialogue and modern regulations.

Brazen whip use is a legacy from another era. Gone too should be the jockey nicknames describing its hard use. This glorification reinforces old stereotypes that disparage the jockey, the Thoroughbred, and denigrates the sport in general.

Former backstretch worker Steve Montemarano is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.