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
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”.
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.
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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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