There 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.

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Comment by Anna Blake on June 14, 2014 at 11:44pm

I've used that noise cue... And I do think hands can get good enough, but in the end, at championships and upper levels, whips are not legal. Gotta love that.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on June 13, 2014 at 11:42am

The horses I ride now have convinced me that a stroke of the whip SLOWS them down.  So nowadays when I use my whip most of the time I am hitting MY lower leg, and that works so much better.  The horses respond promptly, there is no resentment from the horse, and the horse does not suck back.  I hit my leg sort of hard, enough to make a sharp noise, much harder than I ever use a whip on the horse's skin.

I also do not use the whip (unless it is on the shoulder) until I have transfered my rein to the other hand.  I could never figure out how to use a dressage whip without it affecting my contact with that rein.  Yes, I am an uncoordinated klutz, but I really doubt that people who use a dressage whip while keeping contact manage to avoid moving the bit in the horse's mouth the same time.

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