In 2003 in Australia apprentice Aaron Yogovich was banned from riding for 15 years. I dare say he’s looking forward to next year more than any one of us. His ‘crime’, and it should be a crime, though in truth all he did was to break the rules of Australian racing, was to use in races both whips and spurs embedded with nails and to using ‘a battery’, which is an electrified whip and something I wrote about in a piece about Edgar Britt, a top Australian jockey who was riding in the forties and fifties and a device I never thought I need mention again. Yogovich was not riding at any of the top metropolitan courses but 400-miles north of Perth at a country track called Kalgoorlie Boulder Racing Club. I doubt if he reapplies for his licence he has a cat’s chance in hell of being successful. At least I hope not.
The point is he was not banned for using spurs as in Australia spurs can still be used by jockeys and a campaign to get them banned is meeting the same opposition as the proposed ban on whips in this country. Contrary to sense, at least from our prospective, there are restrictions on use of the whip in Australia – no more than 5 strokes before the 100-metre pole – yet spurs are considered, at least by jockeys, as an important part of their riding armoury, with the mentality, perhaps amongst the strident minority, of ‘can’t go to war without a gun’ pervading.
When you consider how short the modern jockey rides, with their heels resting on the flaps of the saddle, one wonders how useful the spur can be in encouraging a horse to go forward more quickly, though perhaps a jockey will drop his irons when it is believed a horse is in need of such an ‘attitude adjustor’. Whether the argument that when used resting against the flap of the saddle no pain is inflicted is cause for allowing their use is open to debate, but it is the same argument that is applied to the whip debate in this country.
In the time of Fred Archer jockeys rode with a long length of leg and in those less enlightened times not only were spurs allowed but rowels also. (Rowels are the rotating stars you associate with a cowboy’s spurs). Archer, I have seen it written, rarely resorted to the spur even though he was known to be ‘forceful to the point of cruel in his desire to win at all costs’. When not on horseback Archer had a kind disposition and perhaps in his time, when people still travelled as much by horse-power as any other means, the whip and spur were seen as ordinary and as necessary as a hat and coat. Though quite what did constitute animal cruelty in his day beggars belief. I am sure if it was commented upon how Archer rarely resorted to the spur then other jockeys must have been less reticent in its use.
I have no problem conceding that neither the use of spurs nor the whip cause pain to the horse and both are used to effect the natural flight inclination of the horse. But flight from a predator is a cause of anxiety and fear – fear of death – and to use this natural response is by definition to cause anxiety and fear which must be classified as causing mental anguish. The horse can see back to its tail and when a jockey brandishes the whip, or simply waves his arm, the horse will naturally go forward. It will also go forward if pain from the whip or spur is applied as that pain mimics the claws or teeth of the predator.
I am certain that in the foreseeable future Australia, and in other countries where the spur is still allowed, will follow our lead and ban the use of the spur. The big question, though, is when the powers-that-be here cave in and start the process of reducing use of the whip to preventative measures only?
As sure as spring follows winter further restriction on the whip will be imposed. It is a natural progression that is in line with the change in social awareness. In times past there were no holds barred races (jostle and cross), spurs and rowels were legal, then spurs, then whips were shortened and padded and at the moment restrictions on its use are imposed.
Tom Kerr was perfectly right when he proposed this debate. It would allow a better perception of our sport if we jumped on this issue rather than to be held to ransom and finally pushed by legislation that could only infer cruelty on our part over many centuries. Our racing did not suffer when spurs were banned; it improved if anything when restrictions on the size and use of the whip were imposed. No one can say it will suffer if all races were hand and heel affairs only.
By experiment and trial is the road we must start to tread as it is only by embracing the possibility of change that we can ensure control of our wonderful, historic sport.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.