Whips and Spurs. They are aids in dressage that I fully employ when necessary. I have definite opinions on both that I’ll share with you now. This is going to be a long one.
Before I rode dressage, I never used spurs, but almost always rode with a whip. When I started to ride Kaswyn dressage I never used a whip because he was super sensitive. My trainer eventually told me that I needed to ride with a whip and get him used to it, because the whip is an aid that I’ll need to use in the future at the upper levels. It didn’t mean I had to use the whip on him all the time, but that he needed to not be so hypersensitive to it – just respect it and react properly to it.
At the beginning it was a struggle. Any time I would use the whip, even to tap him, Kaswyn would have a total breakdown. He would get so upset and nervous that it would take like ten minutes to get him settled down and working again. Mind you, I broke this horse and had never whipped the snot out of him, so this was just him overreacting to the whip and not any past trauma. Well, there was ONE time when we were schooling trot half passes in a lesson and he wouldn’t come off my left leg…well, I got frustrated and I will say I did get aggressive with the whip. Yeah, I had a little hissy fit. I’m not proud of it, but that one incident certainly didn’t scar him for life. My trainer still makes fun of me about that incident. Truthfully he had an issue with the whip before then. Aaaannny way…
Eventually he got accustomed to it, and realized that I wasn’t going to BEAT him with the whip, and was able to tolerate the correction without melting down. But then it came time to teach him to piaffe, which involved my trainer on the ground. WITH A WHIP. Kaswyn was pretty trained at this point, but still almost turned himself inside out at the thought of my trainer lightly tapping him with a whip. We had to laugh at his extreme reaction to it, and we could just hear him saying “Why??! Why must there be so much WHIPPING???” I’m sure even today if my trainer would pick up a whip while I was riding Kaswyn and walk towards us, he would immediately preprare to piaffe.
I also began to wear spurs, and for years I would wear spurs and carry a whip as my regular riding gear. I didn’t need to spur the snot out of Kaswyn, but just like the whip, my spurs are an aid. If my light leg is ignored, I apply a little spur. Or if I really need more push in a situation (like a canter pirouette that is losing impulsion in the middle of it) I’ll use the spur. The whip is like an extension of my leg. If my leg is ignored, I apply the whip. I’ll even apply it firmly if a light tap is ignored. My goal is to get reaction, and with spurs and whips the reaction from the horse should be "Sorry I ignored your initial aid. I'll try hard to do as you ask".
What I DON’T do is use my whip or spurs as a punishment. THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN!! Like, really NEVER EVER. There is no need to spank your horse for misbehaving. There are so many other tools at your disposal. It’s amazing to me how many people I see using the whip as a punishment. In the past I have helped people with their horses and they always seem surprised when I say “No, no. Don’t spank your horse. Your whip is not for punishment. It’s an aid.”
So let’s say your horse does something naughty that you think needs to be punished. Like, say, breaks from the canter to the trot. So you think you should get angry and whip the horse for this, right? Teach him not to break? Let’s think about it. Why do you think he broke in the first place? Not enough impulsion at the canter? That’s something you could have fixed three strides before he broke. Not really his fault. What about lack of balance? Again, something you could have helped with. It could have been a change in dept of footing, or muscle fatigue, or pain in a joint or his back. Was he really trying to be naughty? Or was he a victim of the situation that you possibly put him in?
Or maybe he spooked? Bad pony… or was he? Horses are prey animals. They’re not very good in an up close fight with their flat teeth and now claws, so their best defense is to RUN AWAY. Four legs make that really easy. And because of the way the horse’s head is shaped, with the eyes on the side, and the vision overlapping in the middle of their face, it’s possible for them to see something out of only one eye, and then turn to look and see it out of both eyes. In this case the Monster Thing jumps from one-eyed flat vision to a 3D version of the Thing, which makes the Thing appear to jump out at them. It’s self preservation, really. And instinct.
I can’t say this enough. To beat a horse that is truly scared is the worst thing you can do for a horse. You will then have a horse that gets scared, and then gets beaten for being afraid. In very short order you will have a horse that is AFRAID OF BEING AFRAID. Just like Phil. And like a lot of Arabian horses. This is why they get such a bad reputation. Learn some other tactics to deal with spooking horses. Beating them is never the answer.
The spurs are exactly like a whip – to be used when your other aids are not working. It’s not necessary to rake your spurs across your horse’s sides. Sure, sometimes a well-timed poke is needed when your leg is being completely ignored. But incessant or prolonged jabbing with your spurs is punishment, not an aid.
So how do you punish your horse if he’s being bad? First, don't think of it as punishment. Think of it as a correction to whatever your horse is doing. Next, you have to find out why he’s being naughty. In general, I find that most horses just want to make the rider happy. If they aren’t trying to please, there is a reason. Mainly when horses are misbehaving it’s because they HURT. Back, neck, legs, tummy – something is making them say “I don’t want to.” Make sure they don’t hurt, and see if the disposition improves.
Now I will admit that there are some (but very few that I’ve come across) who are just assholes. Yeah, I said it. And they don’t care about making you happy. In this case I think these horses just hate their jobs. You’d be a grumpy ass if you hated your job too... and maybe you are when you’re at work. Get these horses another job and stop fighting it.
So that was really long, but I think it needed to be said. Go ahead and use whips and spurs. Just be smart about it and use them as aids, not as punishment.
In short, just be nice! :)
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