Happy new year you bunch of cute pony lovers!
So, time for all sorts of resolutions and whatnot. I am going to ask you to try something. For one month. And after that month, I hope you will have learned some things, have greater understanding, new insights- all that jazz.
I want you… To get rid of your whip for one month. 30 consecutive days.
Now, if you already ride without a whip, frickin’ A! But if you carry a whip- even if you don’t ever use it, then this challenge is for you- Pre-empting all the people who are going to say ‘I live in an area populated by wolves and wild dogs and I need to carry something to PROTECT ME AND MY HORSE’ Carry something else for a month. Get a tazer. Get a plastic sword. Get a feather duster. Get anything that IS NOT A WHIP.
Now, you might be thinking ‘I don’t use my whip, why should I get rid of it?’ Good question.
I’ll tell you why. If you don’t use it, why do you carry it? I’m guessing because if you don’t carry it, sooner or later, your horses behaviour starts to change in ways you don’t like, but when you carry the whip, he never refuses the jump, he doesn’t nap, he responds to transition cues quickly etc. If you don’t carry it, sooner or later he starts to try to run home, becomes a bit sluggish etc. I used to work at a riding school, I have seen many, many horse who behave dramatically differently when their rider carried a whip-EVEN WHEN THEY DIDN’T USE IT.
The issue here, is that we are carrying a threat. When we don’t carry that threat, a horse might feel more scared of going out alone than they do of reprisal, so they express that fear by napping, trying to run home. When we carry a whip, if their behaviour changes, that shows us that the threat the whip entails is scarier to the horse than their fear of going out alone, going over the big jump, getting in the trailer. We are overriding fear with a greater fear. That’s kinda mean. In fact, I would go so far to say it’s a rather selfish move- rather than looking to help, we are looking to induce more fear in this situation. BUT ONLY IF WE PERSIST IN DOING THIS WHEN WE UNDERSTAND WHAT WE ARE DOING.
I know we are all taught from a young age to do this, and for many years I just ‘did’ without thinking about the Why. I am sure this applies to a lot of you as well. I’m not having a go at you, I’m not calling you bad/nasty/abusive. I’m simply trying to point something out that you may not have considered before. You might read this, think ‘I hadn’t thought of that, but, I care more about doing what I want to do than looking at how my horse actually feels about things’. That’s possible. Some people do love riding more than horses.
By removing the whip for an entire month, we enable our horses to realise the threat is lifted, and for them to gain the confidence to express to us with their behavioural changes how they feel about things truly when they are not feeling threatened. That then gives us the opportunity to help out horses feel more confident, safer and happier with these things rather than just scare them into doing what we want.
Maybe your horse will express mild concern about a certain bridle path, maybe your horse will flat refuse to jump over 1 ft, maybe they will say NOPE to being mounted. Maybe, your horse has never actually had a whip used on them, and to them a whip is just this thing you carry around and their behaviour won’t change in the slightest (that’s nice!) .
So, you may learn things you don’t like. You may be inspired to help your horse feel more confident, you may be horrified to think you’ve been carrying a threat with you at all times- I was- I never used to think about WHY horse behaved differently, I just knew it suited me better when they behaved better. I never gave any thought to how they felt. Until I did, and I felt so disgusted with my selfishness and laziness- it’s a lot easier to intimidate a horse into a behaviour than it is to gradually build up the confidence needed for them to do something freely and happily that they were previously worried about. Like my pony Jango for example, separation anxiety, Couldn’t get him out of the gate without his buddy Cato. Would have been so easy to have a pitched battle with him with me holding a whip to force him to go, then all I’d need to do in future would be hold a whip when I wanted him to do something without Cato, maybe give him a tap to ‘remind him’. He wouldn’t be happy, he’d be doubly terrified, it would feel AWFUL for him. Thankfully, i’d realised that before I got Jango so that never.ever happened. But, that is pretty standard. We are taught to think about what we want, what is convenient and more enjoyable for us, not consider how our actions are making our horses feel.
So, I know there are some people right now cursing me out : YoU knoW NotHInG ABouT hOrSES! uhuh, sure I don’t.
I did show jumping as a kid, I was a riding instructor, now I have my own horses and coach fully force free methods and I practise what I preach. I’ve been on both sides of this fence. I’ve FIRMLY picked my side now.
I don’t want to hear about ‘extension of my arm’ or ‘but it’s dangerous’ if it’s dangerous, why are you on the horse in the first place? Seriously, if you need an item to inflict pain on an animal to make it ‘safe’ maybe you should get some help there!
If you use a recycled whip as a target, or a whip for any purpose other than ‘as a whip’ I still want you to ditch it. I use a fly swat as a target, it’s great. Super light, super cheap, not mistaken by a whip, and also handy for getting rid of flies! What can you use instead of a whip as a target or whatever? I do think a plastic sword would be fun. Feather duster, dog ball chucker, lot’s of ideas for things that your horse won’t view as a whip. The reason I am so firm on the NO WHIPS AT ALL is Cato can recognise recycled whips- even with a tennis ball stuck on the end, he knows what they are and his behaviour will subtly change. I don’t ever want him to feel threatened by me or anything I carry, so I stick to my obviously non-whip targets.
So, If you think your horse isn’t bothered by your whip, you have nothing to loose by this experiment, what are you waiting for? If you are worried to do it because you know you need your whip to influence your horses behaviour, consider getting help from a force- free coach who can help you learn other ways to change behaviours which are much kinder to you horse- and, let’s face it, kinder for you as well. I can’t imagine you enjoy hitting your horse and would actually enjoy feeling safe around him without having to carry a threat.
And also, have you considered bitless…?
Addition 1) I am NOT in any way, shape or form suggesting kicking your horse as an alternative to using a whip. I do not condone the use of ANY violence towards animals. As someone said, :When you take your dog for a walk, do you need to whip it or kick it to make it go? No, he likes going for a walk….
How can you help your horse LIKE to do things rather than do them to avoid ‘the whip’? That is a whole other discussion. Today, I am just saying how about you find out IF your horse does things because he is happy to do them, or because he’s worried about that thing in your hand.
Addition 2) “But what about para riders that can’t use their lower legs properly?” I asked my buddy Sadie from Sparkle Pony to address this for me as she IS a para rider:
Hello, that’s me, your friendly neighbourhood para rider! I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and my body is a bit rubbish, but especially my left leg. I do not ride with a whip, I ride with a target! Vocal cues, visual cues, and even the odd tactile cue are actually much more effective than my leg ever was – even when it worked! What do you use that lower leg for? Moving forwards? Easy, switch to seat or vocal cues! Moving sideways? Vocal or visual cues, or the target. Basically, you can easily replace a whip with a target and achieve the same, or even better results! Give it a try!
If there are any other thoughts that I think need addressing, I will add more additions here.
Now, in all seriousness, this isn’t to try to make people feel bad, it’s to try to get people to look from a different perspective. We often do things the same way because that’s how we were taught, and we don’t think about WHY these things work. Sometimes when we understand a bit more, we are inclined to change our approach, Not always, but we can’t even think about changing our perceptions until we are presented with a different evidence, or a different way of thinking/looking at things.
A lot of people will have a knee jerk, angry reaction to this, that’s also normal, that’s cognitive dissonance because I am presenting information which conflicts with their view of themselves. By suggesting that horses are influenced by the mere presence of w hip, says that the horse is scared of the whip. For someone who loves their horse but hasn’t considered this, that can make them feel very upset, angry and hurt. Who wants to think they are doing something that scares something they truly care about? It’s human nature to DENY and lash out in this situation. I hope that rather than doing this, if you feel yourself feeling this way, you might think about why you are feeling this and maybe seek a way to change how you feel. Calling me names won’t change anything.