When Nice People Carry Whips.

“I just carry the whip. I don’t use it.” “I do liberty with my horse, it’s just an extension of my arm.” “I only hold one, it’s just part of the outfit.” “I would never hurt my horse.”

Other riders see carrying a whip as an evil thing. A sign of human cruelty. Fine, claim the high moral ground, but if your horse isn’t responsive to your requests and shows anxiety, then not using a whip hasn’t helped that horse be a solid citizen either. If we’re honest, there has probably been a time each of us has been frustrated enough to want a whip. On a bad day when nothing is working, even the idea of a whip can look like a beacon of white light in the fog of confusion.

We just want our horse to listen but the more we want it, the less they appear to do it. So, we escalate. It isn’t that we go crazy flailing a whip and draw blood. Never. But our anxiety rises, our ego or feelings of failure grow and impact the horse. Whether we use a whip or just ask louder because it’s what we’ve been taught, we do it because it is human nature to want our way. Maybe you don’t use a whip but instead, swing a rope. Still, you are kind, so you never touch your horse. You tap the whip on the ground or swing the rope close to the horse. Or maybe your voice tightens. It’s meant to be a threat; if the horse doesn’t respond, then a little more, and a little closer. A whip is a threat, but we can threaten without one just as well. Threats create a feeling of dread and insecurity. It’s stalking them like a coyote.

Sometimes I think the relentless waving and flapping we do, the continual threat a horse feels when a human is adversarial emotionally, is its own kind of cruelty. We get relentless and our cues are like run-on sentences with no punctuation. We ask, ask, ask. It’s pressure, whether we are waving aids around, or just nagging the old-fashioned way.

Whatever name you call the whip, and about twenty different names come to mind, what is it the horse thinks? We’ve all seen horses who are terrified by whips. We make judgments about his past, and how cruel training has ruined him. If only he had been loved. As if some version of love can’t be the base of wicked behaviors. Seeing a horse react fearfully is obvious, but that isn’t how the majority respond.

Most horses respond to loudness and training aggression by getting quiet. It’s a calming signal when a horse looks away or goes still, trying to let us know that they are not a threat. We ratchet up our training aid or our anxiety just a degree at a time, and the horse continues with his calming signals, hoping we will settle. The horse is answering our emotion, while we think he’s ignoring a task. Calming signals frequently look like training resistance, but we are so distracted by our desire for a certain answer from our horses that we miss the one they give us. We don’t want to dominate, but it feels like the horse isn’t listening to us. And the horse, eloquent in his calming signals, doesn’t think we are listening either.

Is it even possible for a horse to ignore a predator standing next to them? Can a prey animal ever forget his nature? Of course not, so the horse pulls inside himself more, and it looks like dull, flat resistance. Soul-killing for a human who loves horses and then feelings of inadequacy fill our body language, insecurity is internal pollution that impacts the horse’s confidence in us and himself. Would it be possible for a horse to read our white-hot, try-too-hard passion and love, our immense desire to do the right thing, as intimidating as a whip? If what we think is a positive message can be read by a horse as cruel noise, then what?

Overwhelm. Does it feel like everything a horse does is the rider’s fault? Placing blame, on either you or the horse, is a failure of leadership. Just stop taking it personally. Blame is about the least inspiring idea ever. At the same time, it’s always you that must change to get a different answer from a horse. We will never be able to control them, but if we can control ourselves, fundamental change is possible. Try to not see it as your fault, but rather your opportunity.

It starts with becoming aware. For now, don’t change anything. Just notice. Do you nag before he has a chance to answer? Do you cluck again and again without result? Does your lunge whip ever give a release/reward or is it wiggling in the air constantly, or is your rope always swinging? Can you feel the constant barrage of activity that shuts your horse down? As an exercise, give yourself a running commentary with each statement starting with the phrase, “I notice…” It’s easy to look at the horse’s behavior; he’s tense in the poll, he isn’t forward, he is over bent… but isn’t that the training equivalent of casting the first stone?

Instead of focusing on his actions, notice your own. It might go like this: “I notice I’m not breathing. I notice I feel tight in my chest. I notice my hands are busy. I notice I think too much about what my horse is doing to notice my own actions. I notice I need to start again.”

Yay. Because when we go into training mode, we need to think less in our brains and be more alive in our physical body. It’s staying energetically with our horse, who lives in the physical realm of calming signals. It doesn’t mean that we act out a frantic lap dance in the saddle. Horses never like the volume turned up too high. A horse rides the waves of our body language, where all truth about us is revealed. If our own energy is low and flat, usually from thinking too hard, we don’t need a whip. We need to inhabit our own bodies with the affirmative energy we hope to see in theirs. Like their calming signals model behavior they’d like to see in us, we can use our energy as a message back to them. One that they understand for its familiarity.

A whip is a way to win a debate, it cuts conversations short, but more than that, allows your body to have no authentic energy of its own. It’s your choice. Use the stick or don’t use a stick, but stop with the constant threats. Living under threat creates a culture of distrust.

Instead, challenge yourself to only say yes. Notice the focus needed to just be lighthearted. Fill your lungs with air spent in praise. Inspire active peace and energetic confidence with your body language. Controlling yourself will set your horse free. Then he can follow you by choice.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

Anna Blake

40 thoughts on “When Nice People Carry Whips.”

  1. Anna,
    Just leaving for the barn but read this with tea! Thank you for an always informative and thought-provoking essay.

    We just need to listen to our horses and pay attention to our own instincts. If someone is riding and scrolling on their phone, why would the horse enjoy that? Let him know you are there.

    With bitless bridle, minimal touch of the foot (feather light squeeze), never heals, and the lightest aids with voice, generally and yes – I keep telling myself to keep my hands still — sometimes I use a little tap at the third request, if no response. Or, I use an extended (dressage) whip to squat a black fly). We need to rename ‘whip’ — I have rarely ever seen a rider abuse a horse (although some may) on my watch. Three-quarters of the riders at my current barn use no crop/whip. But I have seen heals kicking and spurs used too strongly times. For the most part, I don’t see any abuse.

    I only tap the shoulders lightly with a feather touch, at times, if needed. A good voice is usually all that is needed.
    When I use word ‘Now, please’ with my thoroughbred, he understands. Yes, there are days when a little more discipline is needed (for various reasons, sometimes even reassurance if there is something behind the trees that worries him).

    In all cases, forward motion in such situations. A kind tap or touch of the whip beats a rough spur or kicking in all cases, unless as you observe, the horse has a fear of same.

    On a funny note, my thoroughbred knows it’s just a little tool to remind him. If I leave the whip with my helmet on the mounting block, while I am securing the girth, he will often pick the whip up in his mouth and play with it, while I secure the saddle and check the bridle. One day, he lightly tapped my on the posterior with it — you have to admit that shows a great sense of humor.
    My riding companions couldn’t believe he did that.

    Nuala

  2. I love the summary of that last paragraph especially. I am so glad to have discovered your writing and I do enjoy learning to look at time with my late in life horse in such a way. Without a real background in horses, just a lifelong love, I think I still come across as too loud much of the time, but I am trying to listen and I think he knows that. Thank you!

  3. Very well written and, I think, you are saying more about our intention, emotions, and mental approach, and levels of awareness than you are saying about whips? A whip is just an object. We give it meaning. We give it malice. We give it usefulness. Or not. If we are aware, embodied, soft, emotionally balanced, centered, harmonious within ourselves, coherent and congruent, a whip can become an extension of this. It could be replaced with a long delicate feather. If we are tense, goal oriented, driven, forceful, callous, unaware – the whip can become an extension of this. I have devoted every day for the past nearly seven years to learning about myself through horses – becoming more aware, more soft, more attuned, more gentle, more present, less goal oriented, etc. At points along the way I’ve been in various stages of questioning whether I have a continued interest in training horses because, the more I learn from them, the more interested and aware I become of what I perceive as their interests and likes and dislikes. The less I want a slave master relationship. The more I become part of an interspecies relationship and dialogue. At this moment in time, I perceive some of the horses in my life seem to enjoy some of the things I want to do. Others do not, and I look for what seems mutually agreeable. For the horses who seem to enjoy learning about things like collection, seem to enjoy going for a ride, seem to enjoy discovering how to use their bodies in different ways – I have not found a better alternative to a whip for the purposes of communicating (during in hand work for example) my suggestions for focusing on various body parts, etc. What I am very interested in is whether there is a way to achieve collection for the purposes of a horse learning to use his or her body in ways that make riding easier on them – without the use of a whip as a tool of communication. Not exactly what you are talking about with this great post perhaps, but for me relevant to the discussion of whips

    • Yes, but one trainer to another, I’ve only seen a handful of riders use a whip well. I wonder if I can offer work in some way more pleasing to a horse. I wonder if my energy could evolve beyond and above the whip, even as a kind extension. Fun to think about, isn’t it? Thanks, Lucinda.

    • A whip in harness carriage driving, is used in a gentle swipe on the horse to replace riders seat leg aids, as well as voice, so would be inrerested in your ideas on training a carriage horse.

      • My driving training experience is mainly with donkeys…I knoe some classes require whips if you are competing, there it is. To me, it isn’t different, so I didn’t use blinders or whips. They took the cue from my breath and intention, just like horses. I understand it’s gentle… but does that make it a gentle threath then? I’m curious, I’ve used whips well and kindly, I just think the dread is still there. The more I know about horses, the more I think Less is More is the biggest thing. IMHO Thanks, Joscelyn.

  4. I carry a lunge whip as a visual cue to “give me my space”. When I am working in their paddocks and do not want equine supervision if I carry a whip they ignore me. I cannot remember ever hitting a horse with it. If they become rambunctious in my direction I might pop the end. (And then they go rambunct somewhere else.) I have gotten rolled twice (stepped on once) as an innocent bystander in equine-equine conflicts. Neither time was I carrying anything. I should probably carry the whip more than I do.
    And it is handy to use to direct the barn cats by prodding them with the tip. So there is that.

    • I confess, I have sometimes suggested that people keep themselves safe with a whip, and you’re right, it works, but it isn’t my first choice. As for directing cats, I’ve had no luck with that ever. 🙂 Thanks, Sandra. Stay safe.

    • Sandra, I too carry a stick in the paddock, use it to direct our filly, and keep her off me. It is just a long straight piece of poplar. It tells her things. Horizontal means stop, close enough; vertical with butt on the ground means come; pointing with it means go to…..and a light touch means do what I say, go. She has no fear of it, just a tool for comms. Sometimes we go with me behind her, the stick resting on her rump, maybe scratching.

  5. YES! Exactly! I cannot put it into words, but you do it for me. You inspire me to be a better horseman and a better person—as does my horse, when I listen to her. (Turns out she has a lot to say!)

  6. The feel or energy of our culture in the United States recently seems to encourage being a bully and the bigger the whip one carries, the better. Being aware of our own energy patterns when interacting with horses, and other humans would surely benefit us all. Thank you for this writing.

  7. “Fill your lungs with air spent in praise.” Wow. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use this idea throughout our day with all species, including the two-leggeds?

    Thanks so much for reminding me.

  8. Thank you Anna for this timely discussion. Yesterday I “used” a whip to back up my leg. First time in a very long time. A good ride turned into a horrible disagreement and I deeply regretted “using” the whip from the moment I did. And why? Because I used it incorrectly- I “used” it when I should have listened, breathed and acknowledged our great ride should stop because my partner was tired. He had worked beautifully for 35 minutes… he was tired, didn’t want to respond , couldn’t respond and I “used” my whip to reinforce my leg aides. I wish I had listened instead… we then had to work for another 29 minutes, joyless ones until we found common ground again and could stop on an ok note. Should have listened. Should have stopped while we still felt the joy. I am not going to carry a whip again. Ever. Not because the whip is wrong. But because I proved that I am not able to listen while I hold it.

    • I’m sorry,but I’m also laughing… that multi-tasking thing doesn’t work so well. 🙂 Great description of human logic versus horse reality. Tomorrow is another day, thanks for sharing this, and having a sense of humor. That’s an important training aid, too.

  9. Great post, Anna, your insight never fails to inspire me. I have no use at all for a riding whip, although I may use spurs to teach a horse to answer to my calf. Ask before you tell, hold and dig a little until the response. After a while they lighten to the calf. A polite invisible urge should be enough. Bullying is fruitless.

  10. When I was a kid I carried a crop. Never abused it, though I still recall the time our trainer hopped on my recalcitrant school horse and likely raised welts on his butt. Since I was all of about eight years old, I was powerless to stop it. I also still remember the one time when I was a teenager at a show and I smacked the mare I rode HARD, because I was angry and frustrated. My mother promptly removed me from the horse and I sat out the next two classes. That she’d already paid for. Never did that again and still feel guilty.

    When I was first an adult re-rider, I carried a stick (bat). Again, I never abused it. And again, I still remember the day the BO hopped on my recalcitrant mare school horse (who belonged to him) and likely raised welts on her butt. Although I was all of 42 years old, I felt powerless to stop it. His horse… his barn… I wanted to keep riding there. This red-headed mare was absolutely famous for being the most sull horse in the barn but she still didn’t deserve that treatment. (Happy to say, everyone eventually gave up trying to fit a square peg into a round hole as she CLEARLY did not want to be a Hunter/Jumper, and she was sold to a trail-riding home)

    Now I’m an adult re-rider again and I’m carrying a dressage whip, since I’m primarily doing dressage. I’d been borrowing one from my trainer for lessons but sometimes it’s hard to find one. So I sprung for one of my own, something reasonably-priced at the local tack shop. I don’t know much about them but it felt okay in my hand. The first time I carried it in a lesson, the owner of the horse I ride (she barters for lesson use) happened to be riding at the same time. So I felt like I had to do well. I was in the process of asking the horse to canter and he wasn’t listening… just trotted faster… so I gave him what I thought was a just a tap on the butt with the new whip. BOOM! He exploded forward and threw in a little crow-hop. He did NOT appreciate my new whip one bit, that was clear! I was absolutely mortified and near tears. I had no intention of causing that reaction and felt absolutely terrible that I had. Poor horse went around for the next 10 minute with his ears pinned and if he’d had a middle finger to point at me, I know he would have. 🙁 Fortunately neither my trainer nor the horse’s owner was mad… but gosh, HE sure was.

    Since then, I have not touched that new whip (I think it’s too thin, for one thing) and indeed, resist using one at all now on Dear Sweet Gelding. I agree with everything you said and have worked on educating myself to give better aids!

    • Great history shared here… all sides. Just as a dressage note, I don’t know where you live, but here you can school with a whip, but at championships, you can’t use one. Of course, at upper levels they are not allowed. One thing to consider is that when riding, if you hold a whip in one hand, it will put that hand out of balance with the other. Do as your instructor says now, but for each of the examples you gave, it created a problem. A horse trained with fear is not reliable. Thanks for commenting, glad you are still re-riding.

  11. Thank you, Anna for this post! I haven’t ridden since my 15.3 OTTB gelding left at age 35 in 2014. He was the one I think I may have told you of who came off the track at eight, crooked to the right and his neck curled up like a snail. I had no idea what to do about the curled neck, but happened on a book on bitting by an Australian writer who explained that some horses’ palates are not high enough to keep a conventional snaffle from breaking straight up into the roof of their mouth, and that this could be alleviated by using a French-link snaffle instead. He was clearly more comfortable with the changed bit, but the neck curl-up stayed relentless.

    My post here is not so much about that as just to share the joy that this little horse was ultimately able to experience when a trainer came down from Michigan who knew just how to encourage him to “stretch way out to search for the bit he’d just been playing with.” She added, “you’ll get only one possibly two steps, before he says “there, I did it” and pop right back up again, so don’t expect much more at first. This will require lots and lots of patience with him.” The good news is that ultimately the neck curl totally disappeared and when he was traveling comfortably entirely free of it, his haunches engaged, his back lifted, and he accepted and stayed comfortably on the outside rein.

    We never showed… we just continued to love what we were doing together.

    The joke on me, though, about dressage whips occurred one warm day in our lesson outside. He apparently was dreamily enjoying the day enough to not be paying much attention, and she said to me “give him just a little touch with your whip.” I’d never learned the ‘art’ of using a dressage whip, so when I obeyed and “ticked him just behind my leg” my aim must have been extraordinarily poor, because he’d been “startled somewhere” and gave a little jump about it! She was nice enough not to comment on my blooper. But she obviously enjoyed working with him, and more than once would just add “be gentle with him.”
    We never showed…there was too much joy just knowing him!

    • Not shown, but a huge win. HUGE. I love your description of his process to get straighter. We can’t make them do that, we can create a place where he can try. If dropping the reins was all it took, it would be easy. He needed time for you to prove to him that you weren’t going to do the same thing as the past. It’s why they can just do a bit of a try, it’s them deciding about trust, and that is life or death to a horse. Nothing less. Such a wonderful story, thanks for sharing it. Thanks, Barbara.

  12. I remember Rudd stating within the first ten minutes of being at his place, “You will never control that thousand pound animal, so don’t even bother trying.” He reminded us, as you have, we are predators, horses are prey animals. He never allowed whips or sticks, if you showed up with spurs you were invited to leave and never return. He had one of those little clickers, I only saw him use it once when a couple horses were have a mild disagreement and he was in the corral with them, they stopped and moved away from him. He asked us not to kick them, or slap them or whip with the reins, or yell at them, you were removed from the horse and walked away to sit and think about how much you would respond properly to being hit, kicked, or yelled at. I love seeing these lessons repeated by you, and the responses in the comments. There is a great deal to be said of being kind, quiet and gentle, paying attention to you first then the horse (dog, child, spouse, etc.).
    Rudd recounted an incident when he went to purchase a horse. He had gone to the barn and was looking over the horse, and in the alleyway there was a man being truly abusive and the horse tied on both sides with no place to go and obviously terrified. The man picked up a shovel and hit the horse on the hindquaters while yelling and cusing. Rudd walked down, picked up another shovel and whacked the man on his butt, told the man he should know what it felt like and untied the poor horse and took it to the corral. He told the owner of the place what he’d seen and how he’d responded and he wanted to buy the poor horse he’d just rescued as well as the one he’d come to see. I rose that horse, the one that had been hit by the shovel and he was one of the sweetest, gentlest geldings, but that was after Rudd had worked with him. I know one thing, I’d have done the same thing.
    Keep telling us and reminding us, Anna, I think it’s extremely important for us to learn. Thank you.

    • My dad was like that with horses, he swung a 2×4 like a baseball bat. I knew what would happen to me (again) if I stopped him. I’ve gotten into dangerous spots with angry men, so I don’t recommend we step in. Sometimes the horse gets a bigger whack if we do. But the bottom line has to be this: we are predators, we can’t help it. Horses are prey, and the same. How can we work together? Those of us humans and horses who have lost fights want another way. Those of us who have caused pain, become aware of the result, and have committed to do better, well, that’s the best. A nod to Rudd and all the true trainers down through the centuries, who kept pushing forward. Thanks, Aquila

  13. I am so appreciative of your posts. Thank you so much for your insights and hints. You are an inspiration to me and I know my horse is very appreciative, too!

  14. After reading all the comments; training aids (whips, sticks etc.) seem to remain both a confusing and hot button issue. I really value and am inspired by your asking us to notice ourselves ; “I notice I’m not breathing” , “I notice I need to start again”. Without this essential tool, even our body language can be cruel. Thanks Anna for continuing to ask us to dig deeper in seeking a fair and rewarding partnership with our horses.

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