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Does whip equal abuse?

From: Anonymous

Dear Jessica,

You are, bar none, the most knowledgeable horseperson Iíve ever encountered, so, on behalf of horses and horse and non-horse people alike, I would ask you a favor: please explain how to handle a situation you feel constitutes ďhorse abuse.Ē I ask because Iíve recently been called a ďhorse abuser,Ē and it has just about torn out my heart.

Please understand, my horse is healthy, happy, well-loved, and kept at a nice place. The problems began when I started bringing him back after an injury he sustained in the pasture. I train in a different discipline than most of the people at my barn, and some of them see my and my trainerís methods as, to put it mildly, incorrect. Specifically, I use a whip while I ride ≠ not to beat my horse, but as a reinforcement of my leg, to ask him to step a bit more with his hind end. But Iím told that because I use a whip instead of kick, Kick, KICKING to make him trot, Iím a horse abuser. In my heart, I know Iím not, but it hurts so much I donít even want to go to the barn anymore.

Frankly, Iíve always thought that anything can be *either* a weapon or a tool: the only difference is how you use it. For example, if you use a cotton lead rope to beat a horse, itís a weapon, but if youíre just leading the horse around, obviously, itís a tool. That goes for specific equipment, too ≠ very skilled and tactful trainers can use specialized equipment to improve a horseís way of going, but that same equipment could do great harm in the hands of someone less-skilled.

Of course, everyone, regardless of their skill level, makes mistakes or is just plain wrong sometimes, but carelessly throwing around the term ďhorse abuserĒ seems like one of the biggest mistakes of them all. Certainly, itís one thing to willfully and maliciously mistreat or neglect a horse, and itís another to do something foolish out of ignorance. But just because someone is not doing things ďyour wayĒ is not instant and necessary cause for using such strong language.

But you know what? I appreciate that someone would care so much about my ≠ or any ≠ horse that they would have the courage to speak out against what they honestly think is a dangerous or harmful practice. In fact, I *hope* that someone will help and correct me when they see me doing something that could hurt my horse, or ask me about it if they see me doing something they donít understand. Weíre all here, horse and human alike, to learn from each other, right? I guess I just wish theyíd take the attitude of seeking and sharing information, instead of jumping to conclusions and hurling epithets.

However, if Iím wrong, please correct me. :)

Thank you so much (again), Anonymous


Hi Anonymous! ;-) Thank you for the kind words.

The only real abuse I can see in the above account is the verbal abuse perpetrated by the person who called you a horse abuser - and the abuse perpetrated on the horse(s) being constantly kicked.

The use of a whip does not, per se, constitute abuse - provided that it's used correctly as a training aid, and not as a means of punishing or pestering the horse.

If you want to be absolutely certain that your use of the whip is correct, ask yourself these questions: First and foremost: Do I EVER use the whip to hit my horse in anger? (Hint: the answer to THIS one should be "no".)

Then, ask yourself:

If you can say "yes" to all of those questions, that's good - and now, here's the LAST question to ask yourself:

The NEXT time I use my light leg aid, does my horse respond quickly and with energy?

If the answer to this question is "yes", then relax. Your use of the leg aid is correct, your use of the whip is correct, your horse understands what you want, and your training is effective.

That said, you must be honest with yourself... if you use the whip every time you use your leg, without giving your horse a chance to respond to the leg alone, you're not using the whip correctly. If you use the whip on an area that doesn't correspond to forward movement (on the horse's shoulder, for instance), you're not using the whip correctly. If you use the whip repeatedly, you're not using it correctly - whether you're using it so gently that it does nothing but tickle and annoy the horse, or whether you're behaving as though the horse is a dusty carpet in need of a good beating. And finally, if you find that you need to use the whip MORE often during each successive ride, something is wrong. As your horse's training and rehabilitation progress, and his muscles, responses, and habits become strong again, you should be using it less and less.

The entire point of the whip is not to teach the horse to respond to the whip, it's to teach the horse to respond TO THE RDER'S LEG. Correct use of the whip is not abusive. Correct use would be once, behind your leg, immediately following your SECOND signal to move forward from your leg.

In your case, the dialogue (and it IS a dialogue) would go something like this.

Rider: "More energy from behind, please!" (signal: soft, brief leg squeeze) Horse: "Right, here it is!" (moving forward with greater impulsion) Rider: "Thank you."

There's no whip used - and none needed - in the above exchange. But if the horse doesn't respond to the leg:

Rider: "More energy from behind, please!" (signal: soft, brief leg squeeze) Horse: "Huh? Did you want something? I wasn't paying attention." (response: no change in gait or movement)

Rider: "More energy from behind, please!" (signal: another soft, brief leg squeeze - NOT a harder or longer squeeze - followed immediately by a sharp smack of the whip behind the rider's leg - or on the rider's own boot) Horse: "RIGHT! Here it is!" (response: moving forward with greater impulsion) Rider: "Thank you."

In the second example, the whip IS needed, and is used appropriately. It would NOT be appropriate to use more leg pressure or hold the pressure longer - the whole point of teaching the horse to respond to the leg is to be able to offer a very quiet, gentle, almost whispered signal and have the horse respond immediately and energetically, with what amounts to a shout!

You are using the whip exactly as it is meant to be used - to reinforce the leg. Riders who use the whip correctly are actually much kinder to their horses than riders who insist that they could "never use anything unkind like a whip", but who think nothing of squeezing their horses constantly with their legs, or kicking them repeatedly to get them to move forward. This sort of thinking is based on a fundamental lack of understanding of horses, training, and riding.

The horse needs to learn - that is to say, needs to be TAUGHT - that it should reach forward with more energy in response to a brief, light pressure from the rider's leg. In the early stages, when the horse is first learning what the rider wants, the whip may be used more often. Once the horse has developed the habit of responding to a light leg aid with enthusiasm, energy, and a more active use of the hind leg on that side, you may need the whip only at long intervals, as a reminder to listen to the LEG.

If the whip is being used in place of the leg, it's not really an appropriate use under most circumstances, but if a rider cannot use her legs and has learned to use a whip or whips consistently, lightly, and clearly, even that is not necessarily abusive. I know of one rider who has artificial legs and cannot give signals with his lower legs, so he carries two whips and his horse has been taught to respond to taps from the whips. You might also want to consider Liz Hartel, a Danish dressage rider who walked with crutches after suffering with polio. She had to use two whips to signal her horse, as her legs, although physically present, were barely functional... and she won silver at the 1952 Olympics.

You're quite right, misuse can turn an ordinary tool into a weapon. Beating a horse with a leadrope would be obvious abuse - leading the horse and jerking on the rope every two steps would be less obvious abuse. An even more subtle form of abuse would be leading the horse with a tight grip on the leadrope, too near the horse's head, so that it couldn't walk comfortably or with a normal stride. This sort of misuse/abuse is very common, even with riders who would never deliberately harm their horses. The too-high bit, the too-tight noseband, the too-tight girth, the broken-mouth curb used because the rider believes it to be a snaffle (which it isn't) and therefore "gentle", the saddle that doesn't fit, the saddle that's placed too far forward - all of these are painful for the horse. But it's very easy, and very common, for someone to say "SHE uses a whip (or spurs), THEREFORE she is abusive, and I don't, therefore I am not abusive." Deliberate abuse is a bad thing - but so is ignorant abuse, and so are complacency and smugness. At the end of the day, what matters is the effect on the horse, and (because it will affect this horse and others in future) the change (or not) in the rider.

A whip is a very basic riding tool, and is no more than an extension of the rider's body. That's how a good rider uses the whip - and it's also how a well-trained horse interprets the whip. There's nothing inherently evil about a whip - it's a signaling device. The bit is a communication device, and the reins permit a connection between the rider's hands and the horse's mouth - but even mild bits can become torture devices if riders jerk the reins constantly or put constant hard pressure on the bit, and even bridle reins are sometimes used to hit the horse...

The whip, as a reinforcer of the leg, is an aid that the horse understands very readily. One smart smack with a whip, administered at the right time and in the right place, won't damage or frighten the horse. It doesn't even have to cause any pain at all - most horses will respond to the SOUND of a sharply-applied whip, and if the horse already understands the whip use and you are using a single smack as a reminder, you can smack the side of your own boot. If you're using a dressage whip (best for training because it's long enough for you to use correctly without getting out of position or making movements with your arm), a "whack" on your own boot will be accompanied by a slight tickle of the whip's end on the horse's croup or hip - useless on its own, but effective when accompanied by the sound of whip on boot.

The important thing to remember here is that even if you do smack the horse with the whip, it's not going to cause great pain or lasting damage... unlike constant squeezing and kicking, which first de-sensitize the horse to the leg and then cause physical damage to the horse's body. "Desensitizing" doesn't mean that the horse no longer FEELS the kicks, it means that the horse no longer responds to them, as it has received so many meaningless kicks that although it definitely feels them, it acccepts them without showing a reaction. Such horses, unless they are lucky enough to be sold to a better rider, are doomed to a lifetime of abuse - not spectacular, newsworthy, "film at eleven" abuse, but abuse just the same. Sadly, there are many riders who would attempt to justify this practice because they have no experience with or knowledge of horsemanship, and imagine that the purpose of a whip is to cause pain and injury to the horse. They truly believe that constantly kicking the horse as they ride, and kicking it very hard when they want to go faster, isn't abusive - and, sadly, they truly believe that constant kicking would somehow be preferable to teaching the horse to respond to a light leg aid.

It's an unfortunate fact that the less people know about horses, riding, and training, the quicker they are to shout "Abuse!" There are people who will accuse you of abusing your horse if you keep him in a field instead of in a stall - and (with more justification) vice versa. ;-) There are people who will accuse you of abusing your horse if you don't put shoes on him - and others who will accuse you of abusing him if you DO. There are people who will accuse you of abusing your horse if you don't feed him large quantities of grain - and others (again, with more justification) who will accuse you of abusing him if you DO. One person may become angry because you don't put blankets on your outdoor horses in winter; another (or the same one!) may become angry when you put flymasks on your horses in the summer. Almost every good horse-owner has at least one such story: I've been asked what the flymask-wearing horses in the field had done, and why they were being punished by being "blindfolded". Some people are so convinced that "snaffles are gentle" that they put huge amounts of pressure on their horses' mouths, assuming that they can't possibly hurt the horses that way, but heaven forbid they should see a rider using a curb, even if the bit is more comfortable for that horse, the rider is good, and the reins are looped, as they should be. So "consider the source" - if an ignorant person accuses you of abusing your horse, you shouldn't take it seriously. You won't hear these things from people who know horses and riding, who are educated, and who have good manners.

A truly concerned individual who didn't know much about horses would ASK you what you were doing and why you were doing it - like the people who asked about the flymasks! A concerned HORSEMAN who saw you doing something that was CLEARLY wrong would try to educate you or to persuade you to do something differently, but would not accuse and attack you - for the horse's sake. Rudeness and name-calling is no way to convince anyone of anything, and if you want to make life better for someone's horse, you have to CONVINCE that person to do things differently, not try to force or humiliate that person into doing things differently. If someone is demonstrating bad riding and a lack of horsemanship, and you make that person angry, the anger is very likely to be taken out on the horse.

All that said, I like your attitude very much! If someone accuses you of something, it can't possibly hurt to take a hard look at whatever it is you are doing, just in case there is something you may have overlooked or forgotten. Willingness to learn and change are essential to horsemanship.

Meanwhile, since you need to get along with the people at your barn, something has to change. What do you think would happen if you approached one of your critics and said "It really hurts my feelings when you call me a horse-abuser, can we talk about this, please?" If there's any chance of establishing some sort of dialogue, you might be able to - eventually - manage a quiet exchange of ideas, maybe in the lounge instead of on horseback. You might also approach the barn manager and say - without necessarily naming names - that you have been accused of horse abuse, that you are upset and feel unhappy about coming out to the barn, and that you would like the barn manager's help in making the atmosphere more congenial. Perhaps you and your trainer could offer to give a little demonstration-explanation of your discipline and training methods, just to "share" with the other people at your barn. Once they understand that you don't hurt the horse with the whip, that the horse is not afraid of the whip, and that its use is limited and becoming more limited every day as the horse's understanding grows and its new habits develop, perhaps they'll be able to relax and focus on their own horses and their own riding instead of calling you names. Good luck!

Jessica

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