It starts with a helmet and a whip

The first two items parents have to buy for their kids who start horseback riding is 1) a helmet and 2) a whip. Why?

I can see why parents want to buy a helmet for their kids. Falling off of a horse or pony can be dangerous. After all, horseback riding is a high risk sport. Parents want the best for their kids. They want their kids to be as safe as possible and want to protect them the best way they can. That is why they send their kids to an instructor or riding school, who can teach them about safety and riding. The second item they buy their kids is usually a whip and after a while some proper riding boots to replace the muck boots.


Photo is used with permission from Empowered Equines

Why the whip*)? Isn’t it strange that you would give your kid a whip to do … what? Inflict pain to an already potential dangerous animal? Weird, if you think about it. But parents don’t think about it, they don’t know, so they just buy whatever they are told to buy. By the riding school or their kids. Which is perfectly understandable.

The kids have no experience either, all they know is that everybody starts with a whip right away. They want to be like everybody else. So we can’t blame them. They are just starting their wonderful adventure: connecting and riding a wonderful gentle and graceful animal, a horse or a pony.

*) or training stick in groundwork

The horse
Isn’t it strange that parents who don’t hit their kids, seems to be OK with their kids hitting an animal with a whip. An animal that is not allowed to defend himself. Picture a horse that fights back after a child had to whip it on advice of the instructor.


Cartoon is used with permission of Fed Up Fred

If you ever experienced how painful a tap with a whip or encounter with the string on a training stick is, it is unbelievable that grown-ups are OK teaching their kids to inflict that much pain on an animal.

Of course it is a taboo to speak about the serious pain one inflicts by using a whip. It is always the horses fault, he ‘deserves’ it, because he ‘didn’t listen’ or ‘he knows better’.

If we do have questions about the whip, the instructor tells us ‘it is an extension of our leg’. Or our arm, if we do groundwork. What they mean is: ‘If you can’t kick a horse hard enough to go forward you have to punish it and use your painful whip. That will make him go. You get immediate results’.

Of course you can’t sell it to the kids while their parents are watching, so they say: “The horse has to know that he has to listen” or “He has to know who’s boss” or “Don’t let him win”.

_Bond_between_child and horse_hippologic

People do want immediate results. That’s why trainers /riders stick to hitting a flight animal: it works (mostly) instantly. Immediate results give people often a feeling of control and power. Immediate results also give the impression of being an expert.

You might have to give that up if you change your ways to positive reinforcement to teach the horse what is expected of him. No immediate results, but a better relationship instead. One based on trust and rewards, a relationship in which it is OK to make mistakes and in which the learner is encouraged to grow. Wouldn’t that be valuable lessons for novice riders?

It is the other way around
Ask yourself: who is the one who’s learning? It is the child, right? I assume that the horses in riding schools are already taught what riding aids are and how to respond properly.

So why aren’t children being taught friendly ways to make the horse move? Very often the horse can’t or won’t move because the rider hasn’t learned how to move with the horse and the horse is getting mixed signals from its unbalanced rider. I have also seen unbalanced riders that are afraid to go faster and the horse picks up on that.

The instructor is a powerful person and tells the unbalanced, frightened rider to use the whip. So the rider does, because he is more afraid for the instructor or doing something wrong. After all, what would happen to the rider if (s)he doesn’t listen ….. Horses are punished with a kick or a whip. What kind of message does that send to the kid?

Not that I was thinking of that consciously, I just felt fear for my instructor as she shouted at me to use the whip. At the same time I felt very sorry for the horse, so I often slapped my boot. That scared the horse and made it move faster. The sad thing was that I made the instructor proud, because she thought I was hitting the horse hard enough to make it move.

I was torn. I liked riding and being around horses so much, I didn’t want to give it up. So I stayed and kept on riding. I often asked myself why girls in books could ride their (rescue) horses always in a friendly way…

Carrying (and using) a whip is often played down with the phrase: The whip is just an extension of the arm.

I was very afraid of most of my riding instructors. I was there to learn how to ride. I didn’t know that they would teach me negative reinforcement methods and punishment ‘to make the horse listen’. In my memory there was always more attention for the horse ‘being wrong/stubborn/lazy’ than for my mistakes (my unbalanced seat) or my lack of communication tools and knowledge.

I thought horses liked to be ridden… I honestly thought that riding aids ought to be invisible and as small as possible. (I still believe that.) I thought I would learn to ride with my mind, like telepathically or at most very subtle aids.

After seven years at the riding school I quit my riding lessons. I realized that I would never get to that point of using lighter aids or learn to develop a meaningful bond with a horse. On the contrary: if you where ‘good enough’ you were rewarded by riding the more ‘advanced’ horses. The horses who needed to be ridden with spurs. Literally you had to earn your spurs at this riding school.

Let me tell you, by the time I was 15 years old I realized that spurs were not meant as “more subtle” aids. I already noticed that they made it easier for the rider to kick the horse forward. Not what I had in mind when I started my lessons.


Cartoon is used with permission of Fed Up Fred

It is just so sad and unnecessary that many young boys and girls learn to ride this way. That they are told to ‘dominate’ the horse instead of ways to show them how they could cooperate with the horse. That they are not told how they can motivate the horse with rewards and that they are not shown how they really can build a wonderful relationship and even a friendship with a horse.


I think children need that bond with animals, especially teenage girls. My dream is of a future in which all children and adults are taught how they can respect the horses’ point of view, their needs and how to motivate them in friendly ways.

It is my dream that people learn to ride on well trained horses that don’t need to be kicked or whipped to move. It is my dream that people learn to ride without fear and it is my dream to have horses that enjoy teaching people how to ride. I know there are already people who teach this. All I want to say is: keep up the good work!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I connect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.
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Natural Horsemanship vs Clicker Training

Keeping an Open Mind is a Challenge

Recipe for a Magical Bond


9 thoughts on “It starts with a helmet and a whip

  1. I love, love, love this post! I ran a riding school years ago and the first thing I did was take the shiny new whips off of the clients. It is beyond my comprehension why people think it is acceptable to hit horses with a whip! I had a 5 year old client who came to me from another riding school. I sat him on one of my kindest ponies. I asked him how we ask a pony to move forwards and his response was, “We hit her with the whip and kick as hard as we can.” I was horrified! Why are we still teaching children this nonsense? I sometimes feel like we are fighting an upward battle in the journey to convince people that horses are more than just riding machines. We have so much to learn from horses, far more than society at large realises. Keep up the good work. I look forward to getting your posts in my inbox. Maria Glenn

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you The Multipassionista for commenting. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to hear from someone like you.
      Yes, it sometimes feel like an upward battle. Therefor it is important to support all the people fighting it. Your comment makes me feel supported (positive reinforced, lol ). I hope people will share this so it will become a topic.


  2. I was lucky in having a very nice riding-childhood, I only got a helmet. I had riding lessons but can’t remember much whipping. Except Ronald, a shaggy black Shetland pony, but I always considered that one of Ronalds teaching methods: he would stop in the middle of the arena, you would give him a floppy slap on the back, he would move on. He did that several times a lesson. I never felt I was ”in control” of Ronald or any other horse anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Do you remember the Tarq ”communicating” with me when I was on crutches and you were helping me out doing some Parelli work with him? I have to admit it was extremely well aimed and measured…. The bloody git!

    I must have been really lucky, I was always taught that spurs are for tickling the horse, to be used as a different cue than your legs, and that’s why they should have small wheels, so they would glide over the coat and brush the hairs. And only very advanced riders could wear spurs because you needed to have perfect control over your legs so you would not touch the horse unintentionally with your spurs.
    I haven’t reached that level yet.


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  7. Thank u for this blog – it needs to be talked about! I have a Neighbour who’s kid hits and hits her horse (amazing horse – if it was me I would buck!) I am looking for advice on how to approach the situation as this subject is not talked about enough. Whipping a horse is so unnecessary and bad riding if u ask me. Kids should learn to move their horses forward without having to hit them, as u stated above. But how to we encourage this culture in our neighborhoods? Ps I don’t feel comfortable enough to say how I feel to the adult and don’t spend any time with the kid :/


    • Asking lots and lots of questions and don’t feel attached to the outcome.
      That sounds weird , but know that you can’t change someone, people can only change themselves.

      Questions are the best way to lead to knowledge.
      Things you can ask are:
      Do you love your horse?
      Do you think you have a good relationship?
      If your horse is your friend, how would you ask your horse a questions? etc


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