“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.