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Debunking Myths: ‘The Whip is only an Extension of my Arm’

There are so many myths in the horse world it is hard to choose where to start debunking them. Since I have seen several advertisements on Facebook with videos of horses at liberty and instructors talking about ‘freedom’, ‘connection’, ‘positive training’ or ‘friendship’ while carrying a whip directing a horse with a swishing tail and a lot of tension in its body, I will start with the whip (it-is-an-extension-of-my-arm) myth.

‘The Whip is only an Extension of My Arm’

Equestrians say this and often they add ‘… but I don’t use it.’ Or they add ‘… I don’t use it to hit my horse‘ or ‘I only use it to get his attention‘ or ‘It is a useful tool in the right hands‘. We have all heard this and maybe even said it! I know I have said it many times and believed it too.

Motivation

Ní Dhuinn ImageryThat was before I understood the principles of motivation and learning.

There are only 2 ways all living beings are being motivated. 1) we are motivated to avoid pain/discomfort/unpleasant things (these are called ‘aversives’) and 2) we are motivated to get pleasure/wonderful things/things that make us feel good (these are called ‘appetitives’)

Your horses’ point of view

Unfortunately the horse just sees a whip. Or the stick.

Your horse has made an association with this tool based on his experience.

That is his motivation. I think I it is safe to generalize here and say the majority of horses have aversive associations with whips and training sticks. In other words: they have learned that they cause pain and want to avoid it by anticipating their behaviour. That is the real reason horses often do better when there is a whip nearby. They have learned how to avoid it.

_carrot_or_stick_hippologic

Your point of view

You can call it ‘carrot’ stick, but to the horse who knows perfectly what a carrot looks like, tastes like and smells like, your carrot stick is just a stick. With a string. And it is (or has been!) used to touch the horse, not only in a good, friendly way (to give scratches) but also often in aversive ways. That last part is the part we tend to forget when we say ‘It’s only an extension of my arm.’ That is the part that makes us feel uncomfortable as horse lovers: that we do use aversives to get our way.

Negative reinforcement

That is what negative reinforcement training is: taking away an aversive in order to strengthen a behaviour. The whip or stick is meant to (and used) to apply aversives with.

Aversive: something an animal actively wants to avoid or escape from

 

The Magic of Work at Liberty

Who hasn’t seen wonderful clinicians that work at liberty with one or more horses. Their horses seem to do everything s/he wants. They have that magical bond and offer to teach this to you too! If you look closely you see they are carrying a whip or a some kind of stick. Sometimes it is really thin or white. It is designed to be almost invisible to human eyes. Not to horses! They learned to watch those tools very closely and pay attention to those ‘extensions of arms’. Why? Because in training sessions they are often applied to give aversives with and the horse remembers! If you watch the body language of those horses closely you can see that it is that tool that gives the commands (‘Do this, or else…’) instead of giving cues with (‘Please do this, so you could earn an appetitive’)

Whips are made to use as aversive

Most horses have the experience that a whip is (has been) used (in the past) to apply aversives with. Yes, I mean inflicting pain or discomfort (No, I really mean pain. Whip yourself and you know what I am talking about).

By waving your whip or ‘just carrying’ it, your horse will anticipate this behaviour because of his learning curve, the association with the whip is based on his experience in the past: Whips can hurt. This is why riders can’t and won’t ride without it: they simply don’t get the same results.

Sorry to burst your bubble

Now you know why… I am so sorry to burst your bubble. When it happened to me I felt really guilty, but when you know better you can do better. I know you can do it, I could too.

Ní Dhuinn Imagery

Image by Ní Dhuinn Imagery

This is exactly why clinicians who work at liberty carry one or two whips in their hands while working at liberty with their horses. It is not magic and it is certainly not positive reinforcement: the horse can tell what is coming next if he does not obey the commands. There is no magic in at liberty work in natural horsemanship! It is science and it is based on negative reinforcement training.

Don’t let your other senses fool you

You are being fooled by the beautiful, emotional music in the videos/performances, your eyes are distracted by what your ears hear.

The music is purposely chosen to trigger wonderful emotions in you and is meant to distract your eyes from what they see: a horse that displays tension in the muscles, swishing its tail, stressed expression in their eyes. or horses that vent their tension on the horse next to them.

Tip

Watch your favorite video without sound and pay attention 
to the horses. What do you see? Does the horse look happy or tense? 
If you mimic his body language how does that make you feel?

 

Then there is often a voice-over or words to read in the video (also meant to distract your eyes from what the horses’ body language is telling). They use beautiful words like ‘connection’ or ‘harmony’, ‘partnership’, ‘friendship’, ‘love’ and so on. Words that play with our emotions and make us long for what we want: be accepted by our horse.

Magical bond

We all want that magical connection with our horses so badly that we want to see ‘the magic’, we want to believe what they are saying. We all want to hear that we too, can achieve this. We believe the ‘leadership’ and ‘friendship’ myths that they are selling us.

Then, after we bought the program, we refuse to see what it really is: negative reinforcement training. No place for the horse to have a say in their training whatsoever. If they do they get more aversives. Really sad actually because if you use positive reinforcement you can get all this and more!

Negative reinforcement for the horse is positive reinforcement for the trainer

We humans are heavily positively reinforced by the Oh’s and Ah’s and admiration from our friends at the barn or our instructor, so we carry on with it. It also gives us a powerful feeling that a horse -an animal 8-10 times our own size- obeys us.

On top of that, who wants to admit that they are forcing their horse to work at ‘liberty’?

This is what I use to say

‘No, no. It is An Extension Of My Arm’, I explained to every one when I changed my whip for a training stick. ‘I am just being a good leader’ and ‘I am mimicking the behaviour of the alpha horse or lead mare’ and so on. I believed it myself!

The more someone asked critical questions the more I repeated the marketing nonsense I bought into myself. That is called cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t be further from the truth.

Ní Dhuinn Imagery

Image by Ní Dhuinn Imagery

Listen to your Inner Wisdom

My heart…. my heart couldn’t be fooled by the smart marketing one-liners. It was that little voice in my heart that kept telling me ‘This is not friendship, this looks more like a dictatorship to me. It is not magic when the horse walks without tack, he really knows that if he runs away from you and your whip/stick that you will react with, more pressure, more running around than ever.’

The horse just chooses the smart choice: self-preservation. Being near the human simply means getting rid of the pressure when you work at liberty.

The myth debunked

Sorry, I was distracted and getting carried away, let’s get back to the whip myth.

I am not saying you are using it to apply aversives with, but in our world I don’t know any horse that has seen a whip but never has had an aversive encounter with it. None. Not even my own horse.

This what I am referring to: every horse in this world will encounter a whip as an aversive tool sooner or later in his life. Unless we all turn to 100% positive reinforcement! 

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

A whip is simply designed to be used as an aversive tool! It is designed to inflict a lot of pain without causing a visible injury. Every equestrian who ever accidentally (or on purpose) has been whipped by herself or someone else knows what I am talking about: it hurts! Badly!

What equestrian has never been so frustrated that they used their whip to motivate their horse into the desired behaviour? In other words: when you get desperate you use your whip to hit! What equestrian has never used a whip to flick the horse with in case of emergency or to get out of a very dangerous situation? Yes, that is totally understandable. Horses remember those things, even years later! Even when you felt guilty or felt very sorry about it, the horse simply learned a lesson and will remember.

Lose the extension!

When you know better, you do better. Loose the ‘extension’ because it doesn’t benefit your relationship with your horse.

What happens

When you don’t carry a whip around you feel suddenly less powerful and maybe even very vulnerable. I know this is how I felt, when I decided to work without a whip or a training stick. Have you tried it? It makes you think about other ways, more creative and hopefully more friendly ways to ask your requests to your horse, your friend.

The reason that a horse responds to a whip ‘as extension of your arm’ is because it has been used as an aversive in the past. And it is still carrying this value. If it hasn’t, your horse wouldn’t respond as well to it.

The riders who claim to ‘only hold it-but don’t use it’ why are you carrying it?

Why is nobody using a peacock or ostrich feather as 
'extension of their arm' in training or riding?

People who claim they ‘don’t use the whip’ are still signalling a threat to the horse ‘behave or else…’ Why else would they carry such a useless device? Isn’t that distracting and interfering with the hand-rein-connection?

_whip-as-extension-of-arm-myth_hippologic

Does it make sense to you? Does it make sense to the horse?

Secret

If you need a tool to act only as an extension of your arm why not use something that is not designed to dispense aversives? Something that makes it even impossible to inflict pain, something long and soft like a peacock or ostrich feather? I tell you why: the feather does not have the same power as a whip or stick. As soon as your horse finds out that it is useless to dispense aversives with it will lose ‘its purpose as an extension of your arm’.

It is the same with some dressage horses who will quickly learn that their rider won’t use their whip as soon as they are riding within the small white dressage ring fences. They become instantly dull to the leg aids because they know there will not be a ‘follow up’ with the whip. The rider is negatively punished by the use of the whip because it can cost points. The horse has learned that he is ‘safe from the whip’ in the dressage ring. Until that one day the rider gets so frustrated and decides to use the whip ‘really good’ to show the horse who’s boss in the ring….

Most people complain if they have to start carrying a whip or training stick during riding or training. Why not get rid of it if you don’t use it…

Or, admit the advantage of your whip. Not to me, to yourself. And to your horse (although your horse already knows why you really carry it). Be honest!

Visit Ní Dhuinn Imagery on Facebook, she made the beautiful drawing of the ridden horse above.

Related post:

[Riding lessons] Why do kids start with a whip?

Did this blog post stirred something in you? Was it good or bad? I hope you’re just like me and want to give horse people (and their parents) clarity and help debunk the myths that still effecting our horses in not such a great way.  How can I help you further?

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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Myth Monday: ‘With Clicker Training the Horse only does it for the Treats (not for you)’

The statement that a horse only works for ‘the treat’ and ‘not for you’ is one that I have heard many times. In fact this is one of the most common arguments used by people who use negative reinforcement to train their horses.

 What motivates the horse: you or the food

I also prefer to think in terms of ‘motivation’ when I talk about horse training and horse behaviour: is the horse motivated to move away from something or avoid something (negative reinforcement, R-) or is he motivated by desire and wants to ‘move towards _carrot_or_stick_hippologicsomething he wants’ (positive reinforcement, R+)?

When people say ‘the horse only does it for the food’ are they afraid  of not being
‘respected by the horse’ for who they are? What is respect anyway? I don’t believe a horse respects a human the way people respect people. Most ‘respectful behaviours’ horses display in the human-horse relationship are either based on fear or simply on learned behaviours, see this post about respect.

If someone states: ‘The horse only does it for the food’, you could say the same thing for negative reinforcement: ‘He only does it to avoid something unpleasant’.

This is still not an explanation that the horse follows commands just ‘for the person’.

‘For the trainer’

I wonder how you could tell for sure that your horse is doing something ‘just for you’ and not for his own benefit (too)? That is  very altruistic. Isn’t that a very cocky assumption that your horse does everything you ask, just for you and not for himself? I agree it is very tempting to tell ourselves our horse loves us so much he would do anything just for us, but it is not realistic.

Here is a video from my horse and how she reacts when I call her [for my lovely email subscribers please click in the email to go to the post to see the video]:

Is it really altruism?

Altruism is if a horse does something only to benefit another being (increasing it’s reproductive succes) and he doesn’t increases his own fitness. Example: You want to take your horse out of the pasture for a ride. If he comes to you and leaves his horsey companions without hesitation. Is it really for you as a person (and nothing else) or is there something else (too) at the root of this behaviour?

Curiosity

Maybe he is just curious and wants to check you out (that could explain the approach, but not the part where he leaves his heard and comes with you, hence the halter).

I think the more important part is the learning process that had taken place. Either the horse was positively or negatively reinforced in the past to come with you.

Positive reinforcement

If R+ is his motivation to come to and with you: he was motivated in the past by the scratches, food, attention or something else that is desirable for him. You paired pleasant experiences with coming to you and following you out of the pasture. The horse doesn’t do it for you (only).

Negative reinforcement

If he was negatively reinforced to come with you he is motivated by the aversive that was taken away to teach him to approach and follow you. For instance chasing the horse around in the pasture until he lets him catch you. After a few times the horse has learned to ‘give up’ running away from you and let you catch him. He paired stopping an unpleasant experience (being chased) with getting haltered. The horse doesn’t do it for you.

The beauty of R+

When you introduce positive reinforcement to a horse, he understands quickly that (in most cases) food is involved. Because we don’t randomly ‘throw’ treats to them, but only provide treats after the marker or bridge signal, the horse quickly learns to pay attention to the click and not to the hand reaching for a treat.

The reinforcer in positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be food, it can be anything pleasant the horse wants to work for.

There is more to clicker training than just the food reward. The marker can also become very reinforcing, training in itself (solving ‘puzzles’ when teaching new behaviours or endorfines released by physical activity or ‘the possibility of hearing a click’) can become reinforcing and also other behaviours can become reinforcers for behaviours.

So the horse doesn’t have to work for us (clicker trainers), because we know that he will pair us with positive things in training. We don’t mind that he wants to work for a decent salary paid in clicks and reinforcers. We understand this.

Safe the date: Thursday March 7, 2019

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_Kyra_en_ik_hippologic
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free and it comes with a gift) or visit HippoLogic’s website and join my online course Ultimate Horse Training Formula in which you learn the Key Lessons, Your Key to Success in Clicker Training.
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