Use of force is a necessary option – but Russell's method was wrong
Former stable groom Kate Tracey on the fine line between correction and abuse
It is well documented that racehorses are given five-star treatment at their training bases and at the racecourse, but recent events have sparked discussion about how horses should be handled in the modern day.
Following the controversial Davy Russell incident, many people have been asking where the line is between teaching a horse a lesson and abuse. Of course, in racing we want the public to see our sport in a positive light when it comes to the horse's welfare, but we also want greater education on when and why it is acceptable to be forceful, sometimes when disciplining a horse for the reasons of safety.
Racehorses are glorious animals who demand respect, and the majority are only too willing to please and will gladly do as their handler or rider asks. However, as in every walk of life, there are exceptions.
Many horses require a firmer hand if they are to do their work properly or behave appropriately. Often this may be to do with a horse's breeding – some sires or dams are known for producing temperamental offspring. Therefore, it may be in a horse's genes to be headstrong and stubborn, and it is these horses who require a different approach to training.
You may find a horse to be stubborn when it comes to the gallops to exercise, possibly napping away from their work. This is a difficult situation and it is up to the rider to judge the tricky line between a horse trying to get out of exercise and a horse who is not enjoying its work and may even be in pain. It takes a competent rider with empathy to make this judgement – the matter of animal cruelty may be at stake.
In the past I have on occasion seen horses treated in a way that has made me very uncomfortable as the methods, such as striking a horse with a sweeping brush, are fundamentally wrong. Obviously, no-one goes out with the intention of performing these types of acts, but sometimes frustration can get the better of all of us.
However, when a horse is really testing its rider and all other approaches of patience, understanding and encouragement have failed, there are firmer options that may need to be employed in the interest of the safety of horse and rider.
Racehorses are big animals who are capable of doing a lot of damage if not managed appropriately. We are talking about half a ton of animal with four legs powerful enough to break bones and a full set of teeth that can penetrate skin easily. They have a full arsenal at their disposal if they choose to use it, and they need masterful handling from the day they are born.
People often forget these athletes are not pets or your standard cob from the local riding school. They need knowledgeable handlers around them to ensure they are the placid, obedient and controlled animals they appear to be at home and at the races.
The stricter methods commonly employed may include a smack of the hand or with a whip on the horse’s body, but never on a horse's face. You are taught from a young age never to strike a horse in the face and for good reason – the horse may become head shy, which creates a whole host of other issues for the future. A horse's head is also sensitive, which is why some people may be tempted to strike it out of frustration as it will have the most shocking impact on the horse.
There is a fine line between being aggressive to a bolshy horse to gain its respect and assaulting a horse. I believe a hand or whip to smack the horse is appropriate in certain situations, but anything more than that – such as a kick to the ribs or a strike to the horse’s face – is stepping into abuse territory.
Some question why horses need correcting in the first place and may ask why, if a horse doesn't want to co-operate, should it do so?
This argument can be taken back to a horse's instinct of being a herd animal with most wanting to be followers. Horses use abrasive behaviour to figure out the hierarchy – if a horse is able to push their handler around then they automatically consider themselves the boss.
Being authoritative is a way of gaining a horse's respect and, therefore, becoming a partnership. Authority doesn't necessarily mean being assertive with a horse, it can come in all different forms: from being kind to the horse and giving them feed, to just simply spending time with them.
The Russell incident has gained so much publicity due to the nature of his correcting. Of course, as Russell has stated himself since, it is never acceptable to punch a horse and, regardless of whether television cameras are on you or not, fairer methods of punishment should be used.
However, I believe Russell was right to admonish the horse. Kings Dolly appears to be one of those more challenging horses previously mentioned. At Tramore she looked to be either worked up by the raceday preliminaries or was simply being very difficult.
She all but ran away with Russell on the way to the start, a tough feat for any horse in the hands of a jockey of such experience, and then made the situation worse by attempting to climb the show hurdle, causing danger to herself and her jockey.
In the interest of safety Russell was right to correct the mare as a much more serious situation may have played out otherwise. However, this punishment should have been the slap to the crest of the neck that Russell said he had intended, rather than what looked to be a punch to the back of the head.
Some would argue, however, that there is no difference between a jockey smacking a horse with a stick or punching them and it is unlikely there would be any difference in the impact felt by the horse. The issue is where the horse is hit and, also, how it looks to the general public who are accustomed to the use of a whip as a disciplinary act.
The improved education on whips has resulted in a more informed public opinion. Racing whips are padded to create as little pain or sting for the horse as physically possible – it is the noise and sensation more than anything that encourages the horse to go forwards.
However, the public are – rightly so – very uncomfortable with the sight of a horse being punched. A punch is a violent action, regardless of whether it causes actual hurt to the horse or not – it does not portray a very tolerant image.
The public perception of our sport is often discussed within the racing world. It could be considered this general perception has been tarnished by the Russell incident, although it should be remembered that the horse was unharmed.
What the incident has emphasised is the importance of jockeys being aware that all of their actions are being watched. Whether through frustration or not, it is never acceptable to punch a horse. The racing world prides itself on the high standards of animal welfare and we need to ensure the horse's wellbeing is always paramount.
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