The Whip: Friend or Foe?

In the pub the other night a friend and colleague mentioned how much she despises whips which got me thinking.

Coincidentally, I’d been listening to a Monty Roberts interview earlier that day when he also said that he despises whips and that how his goal is to remove it from the Number One spot of Things Most Often Bought in a Tack Shop.

Now I’m not going to advocate that we all start beating the horses, but rather think about why the whip has come to be so popular.

In my daily life I use the lunge whip. It has two uses for me.
A) it means I can work horses on the lunge much more efficiently and correctly as it’s an extension of my arm, and a wave of it backs up my voice aid so the horses become more attuned to my commands. This passes on into my teaching.
B) when you are teaching little children who’s legs aren’t strong, long, or coordinated enough, me standing in the middle of the school holding a lunge whip mimics the lunging process and so the pony is more attuned to me and my voice, more forwards for the child so they can practice their up-downs, and the ponies stay round the outside track. As I’m slightly further away from the kids I can evaluate and teach them better.
So for me the lunge whip is a useful ally, making my life a lot easier, just by having it in my hand. There is always the danger of tripping myself up however.
I can totally see how the lunge whip can be misused and cause abuse. How many times have I seen an amateur whip holder waving it around and it snakes towards the horses heads? Perhaps there should be enforced lessons where a would-be whip holder practices using the whip effectively without a horse. I.e. Keeping it below hock level and not cracking it.

Next we have the short whip, or jumping stick. When competing I barely use it, just a press on the shoulder and Otis knows I means business and that scary jump has to be leapt. I carry one when hacking, again a useful extension of my arm, and may come in necessary with a scary object. Light tap and we mean business!
For my clients I often get them to carry them. Changing the whip over when changing the rein improves their balance and rein contact and leg aids – have you seen people change their whip, drop their reins, give a big wobble and stop? It doesn’t take long to improve coordination.
Again, with kids, holding the whip usually inspires the ponies to be more forward going and we have fewer impressions of windmills from the riders. I always explain that the whip backs up their legs, and if their pony ignores them they can give a little tap. I’d much rather see the odd tap than messy riders who can’t keep rising because they have to do huge kicks with the leg. Kids who get too whip-happy have the whip removed. The ultimate telling off.
Again, I think the whip here is an ally. But all too often clients don’t correlate hitting the pony with the whip to smacking them with their hand. In which case surely it goes back to the instructor who first gave them the whip to explain it’s importance and use. I also think that whips are one of the most reasonably priced piece if rider equipment and comes in such a variety of colours that it is attractive for parents to gift to their child.
I remember my four year old brother bought a seven year old me a red whip for Christmas one year. To prove how little I used it I still had it, fully functional, when I left home aged nineteen.

The Schooling Whip. Now this is the most misused whip, I would say, only because it is often given to novices instead of a short whip, and people don’t understand it’s strength. Because it’s still thin, but much longer than a short whip, it makes a sharper movement and cracks the horse more harshly. Personally, I carry a schooling whip when schooling my horses, but the moment it’s placed against their sides they move forwards. It’s the same reaction Carl Hester gets from Valegro and Uthopia, which makes me feel much better about my tactics.
All to often though, clients and riders are seen applying the same hand-off-rein-tap-behind-saddle technique to a schooling whip, ignorant to the extra forces involved and the fact it evolved to help make horses lighter to the leg aids and help ride and teach more complicated movements.

So to answer the initial question, are whips a friend or foe, I think they are to be treated with respect and understanding, just like the horses themselves. You shouldn’t rule them out as they can be a necessity or a safety net. New whip holders should be taught the correct basic principles for each whip and use it as an aid as opposed to a force. Perhaps the reason whips are so commonly used is due to poor training of the horse, or horses that have worked too hard or monotonously, and the fact they are widely available at a reasonable cost in every colour under the sun. They are the riding school clients ultimate accessory.

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6 thoughts on “The Whip: Friend or Foe?

  1. fulltilthorsemanship May 17, 2014 / 7:10 am

    I definitely agree that whips can be necessary due to poor training of the horse. I also, however, must point out that as we learn to ride from our seat with proper balance and leg aids, sometimes the tools such as whips and spurs can become crutches. For instance, my general rule is if your horse doesn’t do what you want, check and make sure you’re asking right. So, if the student is asking the horse in the wrong way but they have a tool such as a whip that can encourage the horse to react despite the rider not really hitting the mark, the student then can learn to go to the tool (whip) to achieve the goal rather than using their seat, rein or leg properly.
    It certainly can be frustrating to try to teach a child (especially a small child) to ride when the horse decides to ignore them. They get frustrated easily and lose focus faster. However, I focus on small victories and really praise and encourage them when they are being patient with the horse and continuously asking properly, and this teaches the student that “winning” doesn’t mean achieving the goal one way or the other; sometimes you win just by being “calm and assertive, patient but persistent” even when your horse is giving you a challenge, whether or not you end up getting the effect that you were hoping for.

    • therubbercurrycomb May 17, 2014 / 6:30 pm

      Thanks for your comment; it makes a lot of sense. If my clients flap uselessly I usually suggest they correct their position, i.e. the lower leg as it`s usually too far forward and therefore not coming into contact with the horse`s sides. They are surprised when they adjust themselves slightly and suddenly are more effective. But it takes time to train the muscles into the correct place.
      In a riding school we`re always battling against the economics, so you need to teach people to ride and for them to want to come again, so they need to feel an improvement, no matter how small, each lesson. So if they struggle on one movement or technique and we spend all lesson working on it and they manage to perfect it on both reins then they go away happy 🙂

  2. firnhyde May 17, 2014 / 11:47 am

    I also use all three types of whip, but never as an automatic accessory to riding, as I think one very easily gets so used to having a whip that one eventually can’t ride properly without it. When working with a new horse I start off without a whip (or any training aids at all) and only add it if it proves necessary. Some horses don’t even need a whip to be lunged – my very fiery OTTB will respond instantly to voice commands or, if he’s feeling really lazy, a wave of the arm.
    Still, a whip can be most invaluable when you need one and I far prefer the schooling or dressage whip over the short jumping crop, mostly because you can tap a horse on its bottom without having to change your hands’ position. (I feel that a tap on the backside is clearer to the horse than one on the shoulder or even behind the leg). Some green horses either don’t understand or don’t feel like obeying leg aids, and I find that sorting it out quickly with a schooling whip (even if they need a quite severe crack with it before realising you mean business) saves them a lot of being kicked over and over again in the guts or ribs. I guess it’s like anything, down to the mildest snaffle bit, training aid or even bitless bridle – only as harsh as the hands that use it!

    • therubbercurrycomb May 17, 2014 / 6:26 pm

      Well said; it`s only as severe as the hands who use it 🙂 It`s an accessory to help the rider and ensure the horse is trained correctly, even if like you said they need a sharp tap. One of our riding school mares needs a good telling at the beginning of the lesson. Use the leg, and when she ignores you give her a sharp smack just behind the leg and then she becomes super forward and responds to the slightest squeeze. She just needs to know you mean business first 😉

  3. nadja May 27, 2014 / 2:12 pm

    I agree with you – the whip is only as bad as the hand that holds it. What I miss in riding lessons is a teacher that makes clear that the whip is a means of communication, not punishment. I am not talking about definition here. It’s just so easy to get angry with a horse because he doesn’t respond like we expected and then we whack him and show him who’s in charge. I find that very few humans are so in control of themselves that they use the whip appropriately (I am not one of them).

    • therubbercurrycomb May 27, 2014 / 7:00 pm

      It can be so difficult if a client has a number of instructors at a school as one may permit excessive whip waving whilst others let them flap like chickens. I always tell people the whip is a secondary aid to the legs. If your leg doesn’t work, try again and support them with a gentle tap. Then during the lesson I try and correct their leg position with various exercises so that it becomes more effective without over tiring the client. 🙂

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