Over the years as a horse rider I have used the whip as a tool for abuse, as well as the bit and spurs. Not intentionally. But that was what I was doing. Because I didn’t understand its purpose. I used it for what I thought as discipline, as punishment for my horse not doing what I asked without questioning if it understood, if it could do what I asked or even if it was unhappy about how I was riding.
Over the years as a horse riding instructor I have had students not want to use the whip for these exact reasons. They see it as a tool for punishment. They think that using the whip will always hurt the horse. They think that they are a bad person or rider for having to carry or use the whip. (If you are one of these people I would encourage you to use the whip on yourself and get someone to use it on you as well. You actually have to use it quite hard for it to hurt even on our thin skin.)
As I worked on refining my riding and focusing on my relationship with my horse I went from one extreme to the other. Trying to find where that fine line was that was establishing clear boundaries and discipline without using it as punishment or abuse. This line is a moving target. It changes with the horse, the day and even within the training session. The most important part of using the whip humanely is your sensitivity and feel of your horse and keeping your horse sensitive to your aids IE not tuning them out and making them dull to the aids.
Why Do We Use A Whip At All?
Our why is the same as always. There are 3 things our horses want from us. They want us to stop using the aid (hassling them), they want us to stop exercising them and they want us to get off, turn them out and feed them. When we are truly honest with ourselves and have ruled out all other issues (teeth, saddle fit, pain etc.), that this is all our horses want from us, it makes training and the question “why does my horse…” super easy.
We have to work really hard to establish motivators outside of these whys. We have to show our horse that it is fun to learn, we have to show our horse it feels good to move, we have to show our horse that it feels good to be around us and we have to show our horse that NOT just behaving how they feel at any given time and controlling their behaviour is in everyone’s best interest. This is harder than just using the whip because these little wins are based on short lived happy hormones that have to do with goal achievement and discipline and not just meeting our needs for survival. Much like going to school prepares us for working for the rest of our lives, we either thrive on it or hate it - with not a lot of in between. For those of us that thrive, I think in a lot of cases we can thank our teachers for making the learning process enjoyable.
When we are handling and working with our horses, we are firstly getting them to be safe and considerate of us to reduce risk of injury. Once that is established we are trying to establish a language with them (get them to do what we want) where we can ask things of them and they understand how to safely respond. Lastly most of us would like to be able to ride our horse. So we are trying to combine the discipline of behaving themselves safely around us, with the intelligence of understanding how to communicate and the physical development of how to carry us with balance and cadence in a way that does the least damage to their body. When you break it down and figure out just how big a task we are asking of our horses you start to figure out why they want to just remain turned out to pasture with their mates.
Horses are big, strong animals with quite a thick hide. And while they are animals of prey they are capable of hurting us both accidentally and intentionally. We are small weak animals, easily broken with a thin hide. If you think about how hard horses will kick and bite each other to keep each other in line compared to how hard you can use your hand on them we quickly realise there is not a lot we can physically do to hurt our horse. So when your horse challenges you as leader, which is in their nature to do, how do you show up as a strong leader that will keep them safe first and foremost (this is your horses main concern), secondly convince them to do something they would prefer not to do and then lastly, make that thing they don’t want to do become something they do want to do?
This is where the tools of the trade alone let us down and we need to thoroughly understand our training philosophy first. Just using your stronger aids (whips, spurs, bits and nose bands) doesn’t mean your horse will any better understand what you want or any better be able to do it. So the whip is really only effective when your horse is challenging your authority. And even then isn’t effective if it is challenging your authority and doesn’t know what your want it to do - which is often a reason for a horse challenging your authority in the first place.
When the whip doesn’t work
When you become emotionally involved and taking your anger or frustration at your horse out on it
When the horse doesn’t understand the ask
When your horse can’t do the ask
When your expectation of what the horse can do is more than what it can do (even if it did it to that level another day)
When your horse is tired either physically, mentally or emotionally
When the horse doesn’t understand to seek the release of pressure
When you as the trainer don’t have a clear idea of what you’re asking the horse for, why you are using the whip and when to stop using it
When your feel is not sensitive enough to “hear” your horse trying
When the whip does work
When your horse understands that the purpose of the whip is for them to seek the behaviour that gets you to stop using it
When your horse understands the pathway of consequence (understands that the intensity of the whip aid will increase until they try something and will go away for that effort)
When you as the trainer understand that we reward for effort and keep hassling and trying for perfection
When our horse is mentally, physically and emotionally fresh
When our horse is in their working brain and able to hold that working brain for a period of time
When you as the trainer understand the intensity of aid that your horse needs, to adjust intensity based on responsivity and to be always working towards sensitising your horse to the lightest aid possible.