An Argument Against the Whip.

WMWhipThere is a time-worn adage about whips. Just like bits or spurs, whips are only as cruel or kind as the rider using them. Maybe.

My mentor rarely rode with a whip, but if she did, she carried two. The most challenging horses loved her. Her corrections were impossibly quick and always fair. She was twice as quick to reward. The conversation with her hands, on the bridle and whip, were eloquent and resistance-free. Riding is an art.

My bad attitude about whips this week is a hold-over from the Belmont. Watching the favorite get wailed on -long and hard on the home stretch- wore me down. Maybe I’m getting old. It’s certainly true that I don’t understand racing. I’ve seen jockeys go to the whip with grace and rhythm, it can be a positive aid. What I saw looked different. To my eye it looked brutal. The crowd cheered, the favorite didn’t win and I gave up watching racing for the hundredth time.

In Dressage, whips are allowed at lower levels and the assumption is that all of our aids improve as we go up the levels. We ride on the bit, meaning with our hands in contact with the horse’s mouth, metal on bone. If there is anything that takes more sensitivity and focus on the part of the rider, please tell me.

I’m waiting… No, I didn’t think so.

Learning good contact is hard and our horses are patient with us in that process. We should return the favor.

The inside hand is the worst culprit, it works exactly like a parking brake. We all know that good riders use their outside rein, but in the beginning it requires a suspension of disbelief to even give it a try. We humans overvalue our opposable thumbs. We think control of a thousand pound horse is done with our tiny little hand.

Here is how it starts. The horse walks forward and if he feels resistance on the bit, he answers with resistance. He begins to lose forward and his rhythm is compromised. So the rider starts kicking. Now the horse is getting a double message, forward from the rider’s leg and halt from her hands. The more we nag with our legs and hold the bit, the more dead to the aids he becomes. So we pick up a whip. Using our previous technique, we train nagging dullness to the whip in no time. In the very worst case scenario, the inside rein gets pulled back to make sharper contact with the whip. Is there a more confusing double message than that? Is it time to bring out the spurs now?

The emotional arc of this same scenario starts with nagging a repetitive cue. No releases, no rewards, just pressure and soon nagging turns to frustration in both partners. More aggressive cues fuel a grudge and the frustration grows an edge of resentment. The next stop is anger. Is it possible that your horse is as resistant to your attitude as he is your aids?

Asking the same thing louder doesn’t t make it any more clear. If we inadvertently cue the resistance and the horse loses rhythm in the process, there is some rider fault. And if your hands aren’t great in the first place, carrying a whip won’t improve them.

What I dislike about using a whip the most in this situation is that it dumbs down the conversation instead of enlightening it. The horse gets rushed. If you aren’t getting the answer you want, rather than getting adversarial, why not ask a different question? Set him up to succeed and demonstrate some cooperation. Encourage your horse by letting the reward be bigger than the ask.

My experience being on the ground teaching is that when I ask the rider to drop the whip, most horses go forward better almost immediately. Either the rider braces less or the horse flinches less, but the result is good.

Instead of an escalation to using more force, how about a smaller cue? I know, it’s counter-intuitive, but so much of riding is just that. If resistance trains resistance, then try a softening of the rein as the ask. Think of a small release as the cue. If you are riding on contact, an inch of rein is plenty. Demonstrate softness and not restriction. Your horse will thank you.

Tune up the leg aid and then discipline yourself to keep your leg quiet in between cues. Know that feeling a need to cue every stride is different from following your horse with your seat. It’s a flank-deadening nag. Sorry to be blunt.

Let the whip be the last resort. If you are thinking you need a whip, here is the test. Do less; use a neck ring. It can be an old rein or a simple rope. Leave your reins long and use the ring to steer your horse. My rule of thumb says the more frustrated the rider is with the ring, the more she over-controls with her hands. And just to be clear, if the horse improves on a long rein and gets worse when you pick up, it’s probably a contact issue. The use of a whip doesn’t help your hands.  Again, sorry, I work for your horse.

Is your horse fully warmed up? If a sound horse doesn’t want to move forward, he often improves with a more thoughtful mental and physical warm up. This is my annual reminder that dressage and massage rhyme for a reason, (read about it here.)

Whips and spurs are not inherently evil but aids really do work at each rider’s level of skill. Make sure the ones you use elevate the conversation and positively affirm your destination.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

19 thoughts on “An Argument Against the Whip.

  1. terrybg

    Thank your for this. I am curious what you think of bit-less bridles. Would you teach a beginner rider with one so that while they learn balance, etc, they’re not bothering the horses mouth? Of course, the bit-less bridle has it’s own way of pressuring the horse – on the poll and squeezing the head – so it is not as neutral as people make it out to be. Still, for beginners? What do you think?

    1. I like some bitless bridles, I ride with one. Several of my clients do as well. Their horses will tell you that pulling is still pulling, but yes, I see a place for them. I hope they become legal at some point. Still, as cruel or kind as the hands that use them.

  2. Too good to be true! Your post, I mean 🙂 I will keep it in mind and hand it over to people who complain about their dull horses.
    I attended a clinic of Leslie Desmond lately and a few days ago I was a spectator at a clinic of Christopher Dahlgren (Academic Art of Riding). Though they come from completely different backgrounds (horsemanship and baroque school of riding), they have something in common that relates to your blog post: Leslie releases her horses to go, with the release being the cue to move and not pressure of the leg. Christopher too wants his horse to go where he opens up (legs and hands again). So the horses fills the void, searches for the feel instead of yielding to pressure. To me that feels very in tune with what you are writing. Sorry, I am lacking words to express more clearly what I mean. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Always a pleasure reading!

  3. Amen to everything you stated! My mom (who always says, “But nobody asks my opinion on these matters.”) says that horse racing should ban whips. Just see which horse naturally has a longer stride, faster gallop, etc. I like her idea.

    Also, I haven’t used a crop/whip in literally decades. My previous horse certainly didn’t need encouragement to go forward. Now that I’m riding someone else’s horse, she has me use a little crop. I hate being encumbered by it. And I think I’ve only used it to bump at the mare like once or twice. I said, “I feel too mean.” My struggle at this point is I’m only riding once a week and I KNOW what my leg is supposed to do, but I’m still a little weak and out of practice. So my trot to canter transitions are not as beautiful/correct as they could be during the second half of the lesson when I’m getting tired.

    In reality, I’m holding this awkward crop/whip thing as more of a prop. My first horse, a stubborn, too-smart Quarter Horse, was much more responsive when I carried one. Funny how that works.

  4. Love this post (as usual!). Recently brought home to me again. Watching young, sweetly trained horse get frustrated and begin to escalate under saddle with experienced rider. Next day, trainer asked me to ride horse, so she could evaluate with different rider. Immediately felt horse’s anxiety when my butt hit the leather. Instantly gave her some rein, ignored her face, used seat and core to ask. Immediate relief from horse, along with a rush of “thank you, thank you. I’ll do whatever you want!” Didn’t pick up reins in more correct frame until I was sure she’d trust me through mistakes I was pretty sure I’d make eventually. We hit it off, yep I screwed up, immediately gave (=oops, my bad! So sorry) and she gave me her trust. Worth gold!

  5. “when I ask the rider to drop the whip, most horses go forward better almost immediately” <– This is so true. My horse is non-energetic. I always carried a whip. One day I forgot it. My horse went better than she'd ever gone. From then on I've only picked up a whip if I exhausted all other avenues of getting an idea across. And as soon as we've got it, the whip goes back on its wall mount. My horse id happier, but it meant I had to be a much more accurate and effective rider (well, as much as I can be).

    Every trainer suggests spurs. Another tool I haven't needed in my daily riding. I'm not sure why I need them for shows and lessons.

  6. Awesome post, and I totally echo your sentiment. I had a (bolshy) 11 year old girl tell me two days ago that the other girl in her class should be using a whip, which made me angry (at the fact she thinks she can make suggestions on how to teach) and sad.

  7. Julia

    The horse I ride in lessons doesn’t require a whip for forward, but she’s got what we’ll call a ‘conformation problem’ that makes it way easier for her to just not cross one hind leg like she should in various positions. A teeny tap is all she needs as a reminder that she’s gotta work that hip. As time goes on and she gets more in shape, she needs less reminder. When done right, I feel that whips are just a way to bring attention to things- “oh yeah. Hip. Thanks”.

    She doesn’t seem to mind the aid, probably because when she pulls that leg in, she rounds up, and I give with the rein.

    There are boarder horses in the barn, though, who don’t regard whips as extensions of their rider. I’m just happy to learn from someone whose horses know it’s not a threat, it’s an aid.

    Anyway, whips have their place. I can’t say they’re right for everything, or wrong for everything.

  8. Letty in Phoenix

    I had the same visceral reaction to that home stretch brutalizing in the Belmont. If that horse had it to give, he’d have given it from the fist touch of the whip. I think we witnessed the lashing out of a frustrated jockey who couldn’t believe it was happening to him again.

    You are so right Anna! Asking the same question louder is just useless. It doesn’t work any better for horses than it does for people. I took some lessons from a trainer who did that to me — just shouted the same thing over and over, louder and louder at me. It didn’t help me a bit!

    I don’t use a whip or stick these days except to gently tap a hip that I couldn’t reach otherwise from the ground — just as a signal. I don’t increase the pressure of that tapping. If tapping doesn’t work I walk to the hip and make myself clearer with my fingertips and rhythmic pressure. I learned not to even twirl the end of the lead rope at my old gelding after he walked up to me and put his nose on my chest while I was trying to “train” him. He couldn’t have communicated much clearer than that if he could talk. I’m the one that had to get trained first. Then I took a completely different approach and we got it figured out.

    Always enjoy your posts Anna. Thank you for taking the time to write them. I know how hard it can be to etch that chunk of time out of a busy week!

  9. designerchick2

    Amen to all that you wrote. One of the reason I dislike horse racing (number one pet peeve is they are races way too young) is the excessive whipping.

    All to often I see rough riding in the show ring as well. Recently at a local rated show, I watched a rider consistently yank the outside reign on a lovely horse, Every two strides…yank yank.. As a youth I was taught to “check check check check” with the reins as well. Thankfully those days are long gone for me.

    I have never been a fan of the whip or spurs for that matter. My NSH mare is forward. Very, very forward. The biggest challenge has been to get her to slow down and soften. Being a sensitive mare, she will not abide by rough cures or whips or spurs. “Have a feel” is what my trainer repeats time and time again.

    Thank you for the wonderful post. Always enjoy your writing.

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