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 to abuse my horse‘ or ‘I only use it to get his attention‘ or ‘It is a useful tool in the right hands‘.
Unfortunately the horse just sees a whip. Or a stick. And your horse has made an association with this tool based on his experience. I think I can generalize here and say most horses have aversive associations with whips and training sticks.
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 more than once in an aversive way.
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
Who hasn’t seen wonderful clinicians that work at liberty with one or more horses. Their horses seem to do everything he wants. They have that magical bond and offer to teach this to you too! But they are carrying a whip or a training stick. Sometimes it is really thin or white. It is designed to be almost invisible to human eyes. But horses watch those tools, those ‘extensions of arms’ closely. You can see that it is that tool that gives the cues what to do, or else…
A whip is (has been) used in the past to apply aversives with. Yes, I mean inflicting pain or discomfort (I mean pain). 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 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 follow the clinicians orders… There is no magic in at liberty work in natural horsemanship! It is science and it is based on negative reinforcement training.
You are being fooled by the music in the videos, 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.
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). 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.
We humans are heavily positively reinforced by the Oh’s and Ah’s and admiration from our friends at the barn, 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. And on top of that, who wants to admit that they are forcing their horse to work at ‘liberty’? ‘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. I couldn’t be further from the truth.
But 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.
Sorry, I am 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. And it is that what I am referring to: every horse in this world will encounter a whip as an aversive tool sooner or later in his life.
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!
What equestrian has never been so frustrated that they used their whip to motivate their horse into the desired behaviour? 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? Horses remember those things, even years later!
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?
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 clicker in their hand 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!
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.
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[Riding lessons] Why do kids start with a whip?