The Cushion Crop

January 1, 2020

The cushion crop! What is a cushion crop? I’m glad that you asked. The cushion crop could be described as an instrument of correction, encouragement, guidance, safety, protection. Formerly known as a riding crop or whip, we now must refer to it as a cushion crop in order to appease the new age of political correctness that has declared war on horse racing. 

The cushion crop is the latest point of contention between racing’s administrators, horsemen’s groups and horse racing detractors. It has become an extraordinarily polarizing issue that pits perception against reality. The perception being the cushion crop is a torturous tool for flogging horses that are sore, weary and abused for the financial gain of a greedy and myopic coterie of heartless homo sapiens. The reality, I would venture to suggest is a little more complex and intricate. 

Horse racing is a unique sport due to the fact that is driven by gambling. Gambling conducted as business. A business that provides the livelihood for thousands of individuals in multiple capacities. In addition, there is substantial tax dollars raised through the conduct of this business. Horses race at speeds of 35-40 mph, around an oval shaped track under the guidance of sublimely courageous and talented jockeys. Make no mistake, horse racing is a full contact sport, with the potential to thrill but with an inherent under current of danger. I have been riding racehorses for most of my life. When I was young, I was convinced that riding a horse was not only a challenging and specific skill but I always believed those who rode horses were complete horse people. I admired the courage and daring required to guide a horse from the saddle, and of course had particular admiration for steeplechase riders. Those who ride horses are in that unique position to understand how a horse feels underneath and reacts to various stimuli it encounters. 

It is in this regard that education and transparency is absolutely imperative. Eliminating the cushion crop in order to placate hostile organizations is nothing but a knee jerk reaction and will only result in further concessions by racing administrators that will ultimately manifest as the end of horse racing. Which seems all to real in the current climate. The cushion crop has both a purpose and place in a horse race. I agree horse racing must implement guidelines and rules for the correct usage of the cushion crop but they must be implemented by knowledgeable horsemen and women with experience and implicit understanding of the dynamics involved in riding horses. Rules that inform and educate the public. For instance, when the cushion crop is carried in an underhand as opposed to a forehand position, it has a functional purpose to maintain the forward propulsion of a horse. Tapping the horse on the shoulder while continuing to have a “hold” of the horse’s head keeps the animal balanced. If in a race, a horse hesitates or balks in the midst of other horses while traveling at speeds of 35 mph’s, this presents a dilemma for other horses and jockeys racing behind or alongside and can easily be averted with the tap of a cushion crop in the downward position. While in the forehand position the number of taps can be limited to allow horses an opportunity to respond, as the jockey gathers the horse through his hands and legs to continue forward progress. 

It also might behoove the sport to impose restrictions on the placement of cushion crop taps. It certainly is counterproductive to strike a horse beneath it’s belly or down the flank. This has been a rule in Great Britain for several years. The rules should also include provisions as to the force of a tap. Raising the cushion crop above one’s shoulder produces unnecessary force and should be curtailed. I also believe there should be differentiations between age groups, or more specifically in two year old races. Perhaps the cushion crop should be utilized in the downward position for the first two starts of a young horse’s career, thereby teaching the horse to propel forward without the risk of sudden swerves that may occur if a young horse is suddenly tapped in a forehand position. The specifics of the rules can be debated but should be adjudicated in a proactive fashion by those qualified within the sport. 

It is with great disdain that I have read the calls for the banishment of the cushion crop by individuals and groups that have never sat on a racehorse. In addition, those who have never ventured to understand the power and fortitude of a racehorse and a jockey. In my view this is pure posterizing and completely dismissive of the skill and challenges involved in racing horses. The calls within and surrounding racing are to improve the perception of the sport. Perception is a curious determinant for something that is intrinsically necessary for both the safety and outcome of an event wagered upon by the public. It would appear counterintuitive to expunge an instrument that serves as an adjunct to the safety, guidance and outcome of a sporting event simply to assuage opponents. Alas, logic has never been utilized by racing’s deriders. Inconvenient truths and honesty are a detriment to the self aggrandizement of these ignorant aspersions cast upon racing. 

As a result, we must be exceptionally focused and methodical in our actions to improve the sport of horse racing. We are literally at the point of no return. Horse racing is under siege from a myriad of individuals and groups, each with their own agenda for securing and facilitating the demise of horse racing. The principle of Sun Tzu, to divide and conquer, has been deployed by racing’s detractors, and we as a sport have conveniently continued to squabble, thereby securing the very real possibility of an end to our beloved sport and our livelihood. 

In my estimation, to disregard the opinions of jockeys and trainers, and exercise riders who earn their livelihood in horser-acing with respect to the cushion crop is not only ignorant but exemplifies an apathy toward and negligence to the safety and well being of both the equine and human athletes. 

Contributing Authors

Keith O’Brien

Keith Leo O’Brien was born into the world of horse racing. His Father, Leo, was a steeplechase jockey based in New York during the 1960’s...

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