Punishment or Encouragement? The Discussion We Must Have About Why We're Whipping Our Horses

Punishment or Encouragement? The Discussion We Must Have About Why We're Whipping Our Horses

When my father was 12 years old he snuck out of school. He and a friend had heard there were budgies (parakeets) kept a few blocks away in the lane behind someone’s house. They knew leaving the grounds was against the rules. They knew what the punishment would be.

Later my father was called into the Headmaster’s office.

“He had found out,” my father told me. “He told me to bend over. Then he gave me six of his best with his bamboo cane. That’s what it was called: six of the best.”

“Did it hurt?” I asked.

“I cried. I tried not to, but I did.”

He gazed off. “Was it worth it?” I asked.

He laughed. “I don’t remember. But it was normal, I remember that.”

Corporal punishment has become less common for two main reasons. First, we have better ways of educating, training, and inspiring. Second, the damages outweigh the benefits. In short, spanking is unnecessary.

Brooks, our three-month-old son, keeps distracting me from this article. He looks at me with big eyes and then giggles. If Brooks was hit by a teacher at school, that would be his last day at that school. That is the difference two generations can make.

The horse world is seeing a similar shift: In Norway, using the whip in most horse races is banned. In 2018, world number one eventer Oliver Townend was publicly chastised for hitting his horse multiple times on course at Badminton. Late in 2018, the Fédération Equestre Internationale eventing committee announced they are switching from allowing three hits per incident to two, and the U.S. Eventing Association (USEA) is proposing to follow suit.

Denny Emerson, an eventing gold medalist and USEA Hall of Fame member, explains the shift he has seen in his lifetime:

“I started eventing in the 1950s. I was 11 or 12 and all the adults over 50 had grown up in the 19th century. Most of them used horses for work. There was little art in the training. The mindset was almost entirely adversarial. People would say things like: ‘Show him who’s boss! Don’t let him get away with that!’ People used the whip as punishment. I think the difference today is we are using it more and more for encouragement.”

I asked him if his change in how he used the whip was a gradual one or if there was a sudden change. Emerson took time to think. “The last time I used the whip in anger was probably 30 years ago.”

"...we are using (the whip) more and more for encouragement.”

He traced that shift to the time he spent learning from renowned Walter Christensen, former coach of the Swedish dressage team. “Walter was very gentle. And it was the only time he would get mad at us, if we were cruel to the horses.” Emerson now passes on that way of doing things.

I love that, I thought. I love that sometimes it is just one person that inspires a ripple of new thinking.

Our understanding of how animals learn has increased dramatically in the last century. When my parents visit they can’t help reading some of the books I have lying around. Books like “Don’t Shoot The Dog”, and “The Revolution in Horsemanship”, and “Are we Smart Enough to Know how Smart Animals Are?” “Wow!” They say. “This is amazing! I wish I had known this when I was your age.”

Practice these three riding skills for success in any arena.

But with sport there is a constant push for more. Elsa Sinclair, a revolutionary horse trainer and founder of Freedom Based Training™, explains “The more we breed specialty horses for sport the more genetically inclined they are to perform and the less pressure they will need to motivate performance. ...a trainer who is willing to use higher pressure and bigger motivators, such as whips, will have a larger pool of horses they can compete at a high level. The kind of rider who would prefer not to use whips and heavy motivating pressure will have to search more carefully for the right horse… As long as we have horses doing jobs they are not 100 percent suited to, we will have trainers struggling to do the best they can with the tools they have to motivate.”

Of course with an under-trained or under-fit horse, the rider will also be inclined to use the whip more, but Elsa makes an excellent point.

I do choose to use a whip, and there are three influences on how I use it.

Photo by Tori Repole.

First is horsemanship. Have I prepared my horse? Does he trust me? Am I using the whip to communicate or to motivate?

Communication is about the horse understanding what I want, but what if he doesn’t want to do it? Then I have to motivate. In motivating a horse I can use more carrot (examples are play, food, curiosity, scratches on the withers) or more stick (examples such as leg, spurs, bit, whip), or some combination of the two.

In an article titled “Should The Crop Be Banned” in the Thoroughbred Daily News, animal behaviorist Pat Parelli points out, “When it comes to striking the horse it often comes down to when, how, how hard, the timing, and the placement… Is striking a horse with a whip painful to the horse? It depends on who is doing it and how.”

If I chose to never compete, this question of horsemanship would be the only one that affected my whip use.

But showmanship is second.

There is a time for training and a time for competing. It’s in the ring that we find out who is prepared, and exposes the weaknesses of those who are not. While there might be some opportunity to school during a class, it is an expensive way to do it and not one that is usually rewarded by judges. They want to see the finished product.

Showmanship does not only apply to whip use. I won the freestyle at the Thoroughbred Makeover last year, but the judges were split on my performance. One judge liked that I used carrots to motivate my horse while the other found my use of treats “distracting”.

"How we use the whip is more important than how many times, but is it realistic to expect all our volunteers, judges, and public to be so educated?"

In some countries and cultures, and even on Facebook, the general public also has an opinion. It takes only one person, or an organization, with knowledge and guts to both listen to the public and to stand up for their beliefs.

I try to be slow to judge. I have seen many people that are firmer with a whip than I, and many people that are slower to use it. Rarely do I see somebody not trying to do the right thing. I have heard that 99 percent of animal cruelty is unintentional – we are all on our own horsemanship journey.

Photo by Peter Miller/CC.

Third are the rules. I would like to think that the rules are a balanced look at both horsemanship and showmanship. However, the rules change so much from sport to sport and country to country that that seems unrealistic. Some are out of date. Some are poorly written. Others are not enforced.

How we use the whip is more important than how many times, but is it realistic to expect all our volunteers, judges, and public to be so educated? Although not ideal, there is a need for a specific number of whip uses. And that leads to my favorite argument for less whip: Why not? As long as the rules are the same for everyone there will always be a first, a last, and a bunch in the middle.

[INSIDER] A life around horses is also an opportunity for self-discovery.

For some sports, however, there is an argument that it might get dangerous without a whip. In the same Thoroughbred Daily News article, Mark Johnston, a veterinarian and British horse trainer, compares the whip at the end of a race to a boxer “about to come out for the last round of a grueling fight. The jockey’s use of the stick is like the second slapping his man’s cheek and telling him to get his wits about him, keep his chin in, and look after himself.”

I do like the comparison, but I remind myself a boxer chooses to fight, horses are not given that choice.

In racing the number of whip uses differs in different places. In show jumping it is three times in a row. In eventing it is now two. But there are also other rules surrounding the whip: if the skin is broken it is always considered excessive, and one can not use the whip on the horses head. Overhand whipping is often illegal. But the most important rule is: the whip may not be used to vent an athlete’s temper.

Horses are not people; they plainly think, feel, and play differently than we do. They learn differently than we do, and they react to a pressure differently than we do. If I use the whip, I want to know why. And I want to ask myself, could I have done this a different way? Maybe more carrot and less stick?

Although I am inspired by how fast horses can race, and how high they can jump, what really gets me excited is the relationship I have with them – and that is something that is so much stronger with less whip, rather than more.

Read this next: Weird Tack, Explained: As Seen on Today's Top Show Jumpers

Feature image by Judith Kuivenhoven. Graphic by Leslie Threlkeld.

Written by Tik Maynard

Tik Maynard was short listed for the Canadian eventing team and has twice won the Thoroughbred Makeover Freestyle. His passion is learning about how horses think, feel, and play. In 2018, he published his first book, “In the Middle Are the Horsemen.” His lives in Florida with his wife, Sinead Halpin, and their son, Brooks.