“I don’t want to use a whip” is a phrase often heard by new riders who embrace our philosophy. As much as it can be frustrating as an instructor to have to repeat yourself about your teaching methods, I greatly appreciate the rider who can approach me with a question of “why?” What I hear when a rider tells me that they do not want to use a whip is that they have had bad experiences with riders using whips, schools telling them to smack their pony into submission and riding horses that are so numb to aids, that they completely lose life in their eyes. What I hear is a rider who wants more, who seeks understanding and who wants more effective ways of communicating with their horse. A great amount of time is spent explaining the function of auxiliary aids in riding and it is absolutely true that none of them should be necessary. Unfortunately there are very few riders who have invested the amount of time needed in order to create a safe, mutually understanding relationship with their horse, to the point of being able to do complete liberty work.
There are two distinct schools of thinking when it comes to the use of a whip in schooling or riding. The one group believes that whips are evil and should be avoided at all costs. The other believes that whips are there to assist trainers in getting exactly what they want from the horse (forcing them to do what the trainer wants). There is a third truth. Try to imagine the whip as being an umbrella. Sure, you don’t have to use it if you’re using a raincoat, but you could also use it to stab your enemies if you were that way inclined. The thinking that does not wish to use the umbrella is able to do so because they have another way to keep themselves dry. The more violent (and hopefully unlikely) way of thinking has misinterpreted the core function of the whip completely. The same applies to the use of the whip. If you have different tools in your toolbox, it is possible under certain circumstances to work without a whip. Then again, it is also easy to abuse the horse through the incorrect use of the whip.
I find the whip useful in some instances. Firstly, I would rather have a whip while riding than wear long or sharp spurs, in case the horse spooks, or I have my legs in an incorrect position for example. This does not mean that spurs do not have their place as aids for refinement of later work, but I personally have not had many instances where I have needed to ride with spurs. Secondly, horses respond differently to me as a trainer, depending on how high or low my energy level is, how tired I am, what I have eaten during the day or who I have interacted with. I use different whips in ground work and lunging for different horses, as an extension of my arm, to point, ask, touch, direct or create energy. I liken whips more to magic wands than methods of punishment – and this is also how I use them – with magic gently billowing or ferociously propelling out of each end, depending of course on the desired effect. Sometimes, they wave like the soft coils of smoke gently escaping the sweetest incense – this is when they draw and invite. Other times, they shatter, like a massive glass window exploding in a fire, causing even the most challenging personalities to stand at attention or give a snort of confusion; “Oh my! This creature said something. The ground trembled when it spoke. It spoke in energy – I understand that! Perhaps I should look to see if it will happen again.”
Thirdly, when I train horses, it is as part of a comprehensive, holistic program suited to every individual horse, including every aspect of their needs, wants, talents, challenges, as well as their environment. A whip does not replace good training, just like it cannot fix bad training. When I ask a horse to do something, I have taken into consideration all of the above, as well as their current state, so that when I ask them for something, I know that they are capable of the work required. I then check that they understand the work that’s required and then I ask. If they do not respond, the whip is there to back up my question. If I have asked the question correctly and taken my horse into consideration and they still do not respond, even with the help of auxiliary aids, it is my responsibility to ask the question “why?” Ninety nine percent of the time, the reason a horse does not do what it is asked to do is because the trainer has it wrong. This is an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we will often find the route cause of resistance has nothing to do with a horse’s willingness, but everything to do with us.
I personally prefer not to work in extremes. Tools are only as useful as the person using them. This rings true for whips as well. I cannot judge the choices people make in terms of using various tools. All that I can offer is some food for thought – if you are to use anything, make sure you understand the how and always make sure that you remind yourself (and review, critically if you will), the why.