One of the most frequent questions that Masterclass instructor Tik Maynard is asked while teaching clinics is, ‘What equipment should I use for groundwork?’ Just like saddles, bridles, or riding pants, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, Tik has some valuable information on what to consider, what to look out for, and what to stay away from, that he has acquired over his years of working with horses both on the ground and under saddle.
Don't miss Part 1 of this article, where Tik breaks down rope halters, leads and snaps.
Whips, sticks, and flags are three versions of a tool that we can use on the ground both to communicate and to motivate (mounted, we use the leg, or the spur, or the whip).
Here is Nick Rivera, founder of The Horseman’s University, with his take:
“The distinction (between a whip, stick, and flag for groundwork) is in the construction - take, for instance, the weight of the tool and how it offers a different feel to the horse. Being tapped with a dressage whip is sharp, while a horseman’s stick with its solid construction is more forceful but kind of dull… A stick and flag, at an elevated level of pressure, is actually fairly soft but has the added whoosh and visual effect so the horse may perceive it as scarier or as more pressure. But all three tools have a common theme of things you use to incentivize. How the horse ‘feels it’ relates to the horse's level of interpretation of the tool, the human’s skill/feel/timing, and maybe the complexity of the puzzle the human asking the horse to solve.”
Crops. Wands. They can be short or long. Flicky or stiff.
Whips can be used to communicate (the cue, aid or signal), but really they are designed to hit. We can say “tap” or “spank” or anything else, but they can hurt.
Horse play is a lot rougher and tougher than people play. Colts will often kick and bite and strike and paw. Some horses can be aggressive. For example, in the documentary “Cloud” about wild horses in the Pryor Mountains on the Montana/Wyoming border, a stallion kills a foal from a rival band. It is possible to work and play with horses without sticks, and some people do it very well - for example, Elsa Sinclair of “Taming Wild” fame.
I carry a whip when I ride, but I respect what it can do. I am careful how I use it. Using a whip is a lot like giving treats in that most new riders are not carefully taught why and how and when to use them effectively and as a part of the training process.
The single best thing you could do to be more fair to your horse is to not use the whip when you are scared, frustrated, angry, or annoyed. Use the whip thoughtfully and sparingly. If you are emotional, get a lesson, watch an Equestrian Masterclass, phone a professional, get a second opinion, regroup.
It is fine to use a long dressage whip or a lunge whip for groundwork. I don’t have a preference with where to buy them, but if possible I like to hold them and to feel their balance. My friend Jake Biernbaum of Pear Tree Ranch, for example, likes to have at least three sticks on hand when he is working with horse. “A short stick for close range and fine tuning, a medium length stick for confidence and yielding, and a long stick to help the horse at a distance,” he says.
I usually start with my horse with medium length stick, with a string attached to the end. I call this a Horseman’s stick.
Carrot sticks, slim sticks, savvy sticks, training sticks. Call them whatever you want, the important thing is how you use them. For years, I used the orange carrot sticks. Lately I have really enjoyed the feel of the “Slim Sticks” made by the Horse Education Company. I’ve heard their slogan is “Equipment by women and for women.” I won’t be excluded though, I have two.
The stick is usually 4 feet long with a 6 foot string. These sticks are pretty versatile, and they are a pretty good place to start if you are new to groundwork. They don’t “flick,” so you can rub a horse with them, or run them down the legs if a horse kicks against your hand. Once you are handy with them you can throw the string over the horses back to keep flies off of them and they can learn to trust that you aren’t going to hurt them.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this article, my number one advice is to buy from a company that specializes in this kind of equipment (this is why I recommend companies like B&H Rope Halters when buying your rope halter). The Horse Education Company is offering a discount for their “Slim Stick” if you enter the promo code “TIK” at checkout.
I consider these more advanced than the horseman’s stick. I would compare it to spurs on a rider; If your leg is not steady, and you don’t have control over both your legs independently, you are going to spur your horse by mistake. But for a more advanced rider, a spur can make things clearer.
Think of it this way: a flag can make a sharp horse quieter, and a dull horse sharper. But, in hands with the wrong timing a flag will make a sharp horse more scared, and a dull horse really dull.
With a more mature horse the flag becomes just like anything else - a way to give an aid.
Ryan Rose, a friend of mine from Wisconsin who has has started hundreds of horses, does encourage beginners to use the flag: “Under my supervision it can really help some people with their horses. Especially with a pushy horse, if the person doesn’t want to use a stick, the flag will get the horse's attention without having to hit him.”
Flags are easy to make: Simply get a plastic bag, cut it in half with a pair of scissors, and loop the long part through the handle and around the end of a horseman’s stick.
If you are looking for something fancier, buy a flag. I have two Double Diamond flags in my barn. One is stainless steel, it was more expensive and is much more durable (a horse could step right on it and it wouldn’t show a dent), and I almost never use it. The second is made with a composite fiberglass shaft that I use more often. It’s lighter and I enjoy the balance of it more.
To learn more from Tik, check out his must-watch Masterclass courses here, where you'll learn about analyzing and addressing common training problems for sport horses.
Written by Tik Maynard
Tik Maynard is a highly sought-after clinician, event rider, and trainer due to his depth of horsemanship and horse behavior knowledge. He is an Equestrian Masterclass instructor and his courses may be found at www.masterclass.noellefloyd.com