Let me set the scene, let me paint a picture often seen in jumping classes, not only in New Zealand, but in most countries around the world. Half way through her showjumping round, ‘Sally’ canters her horse ‘Stormy’ towards the wall, at which point Stormy refuses the fence. Determined to get him over it the next time, Sally holds Stormy at the fence and gives him three good hard wallops with her whip. Upon presenting him at the fence a second time, Stormy jumps it clear and the round continues. The judge says nothing – it’s all within the rules after all. Plus, Sally has taught him a valuable lesson he won’t forget – stopping at fences is just plain naughty.
You may be wondering why a Grand Prix dressage rider would want to interfere or change New Zealand’s rules around whip use in show jumping and eventing. Despite not having evented for many years (Pony Club Champs was my career highlight) nor show jumped any higher than 1.10m in competition, I am qualified because I have studied Equitation Science for over ten years and teach the principles of learning theory and equine cognition around the world. My mentors include some of the world’s leaders in equine behaviour and the welfare of ridden horses, including Prof Paul McGreevy and Dr Andrew McLean. I may have no experience jumping fences any higher than a full wire on the hunt field but I am qualified to speak about equine learning and behaviour to my peer group of riders.
At the time of writing this article, the Show Jumping NZ Rules state:
1.1.2. Excessive use of the whip or spurs: A horse should never be hit more than three times for any one incident. Use of a whip after elimination is forbidden. If a horse’s skin is broken it is considered excessive use of the whip or spurs. Athletes will be disqualified. At the discretion of the Ground Jury an athlete may also be fined or issued an official warning card (Article 242 3.1)
The FEI go a step further to add:
• The whip may not be used to vent an Athlete’s temper. Such use is always excessive;
• The use of a whip on a Horse’s head is always excessive use;
• A Horse should never be hit more than three times in a row*. If a Horse’s skin is broken, it is always considered excessive use of the whip;
• The whip is not to be used after Elimination
(*Note that the FEI have proposed reducing the number of whip strikes to "two times per use" in 2019)
So, getting back to Sally in the scenario above…. After reading the rules we can ascertain it is perfectly legal for Sally to hit her horse, to punish it for stopping at a fence – as long as the whip is not used in anger, on the horse’s head, or more than three times for any one 'disobedience'.
You might be interested to know that this practice is banned by law in some enlightened European nations. Why you might ask? Because it goes against all recent scientific literature published on equine cognition and learning. It looks bad, is ineffective and actually when you think about it, it’s just downright animal cruelty.
Imagine watching someone trying to take their dog for a ride in the car, and when the dog refuses to jump in he gets three whacks with a stick. Is the owner of the dog teaching him a lesson? No, I think most of you will agree that all the dog is learning is that his owner is a bit of a dickhead and cannot be trusted.
In those countries that have strict rules around whip use, you may use the whip coming towards the fence to ask the horse to increase his speed but it is illegal to use it after the horse has refused as a form of punishment.
A case for banning the whip as a punisher…
The whip used in this fashion, after a refusal, is being used by the rider as an attempt of POSITIVE PUNISHMENT. The definition of a positive punishment is the addition of something aversive to make a behaviour less likely to happen again. However, do you really believe that because Sally has hit Stormy for stopping to “teach him a lesson” that he will never stop again? Anyone with more than a month’s experience riding and jumping horses will know that a horse with the habit of stopping will,of course, stop again – maybe not the very next time it jumps, but at some stage in the future – proving that, by definition, the punishment did not work.
And if the last thing Stormy did before being whipped was to stand still when Sally gathered the reins, he has been punished for doing as he was asked.
The argument people use - that if the horse stops the first time, is whipped and then jumps the second time he must have learnt the right lesson - is fatally flawed. It fails to address the horse’s reasons for the refusal, which may very well include fear or even pain. Taking away some of the fear can have dramatic effects and that is why in training, rather than competition, we’d lower the top bar to rebuild the horse’s confidence.
I have on many occasions, seen a top rider react to a refusal by gently stroking a horse on the neck to reassure (or possibly reward) the horse. That very same horse cantered in the next time and ballooned over the fence – no beating with the whip needed at all.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
You simply can’t prove that the reason the horse jumped on the second attempt is anything to do with whether or not it is being whipped. But what I have noticed is this, horses that are whipped will tend to approach the fence faster and jump flatter on the second attempt after being whipped – not because he has learnt his lesson – but because he is now simply afraid and in flight mode. This is NOT the way we want to encourage horses to jump.
Horse behaviourists – those who have dedicated their lives to studying how horses learn – will tell us that animals with heightened cortisol concentrations do not learn well. When giving your horse a “belt” all you are actually doing is building an indelible association between you, the whip and fear (flight/fight/freeze).
Let’s see it from the horse’s point of view. Horses may stop for any myriad of reasons including but not limited to:
- The rider put the horse in a bad spot.
- The horse lost concentration and focus of the take off so stopped to avoid crashing.
- The horse could not see the fence as the rider had the head on or behind the vertical which has been found to significantly impair the horse’s vision.
- The horse has been whipped while approaching a similar looking fence in the past. Or, to put it another way, the horse has been whipped for approaching a similar looking fence in the past.
- The saddle is pinching, the feet of the horse are sore or any other number of pain related issues.
- The horse is in the habit of stopping and has been rewarded for this behaviour in the past.
Case #1) The horse stops / refuses a fence. The rider holds him at the fence and hits him with the whip – after all he should have known better and now there will be no ribbon. The horse tries to run forward to escape the whip but can’t jump the fence from directly in front as he’s too close to it. In fact that’s not even what the rider wants and if the horse tries to jump from there the rider jerks his mouth to stop him. The horse thinks – “does the whip mean go or does the whip mean NOT go? I am being hit to go forward but not allowed to go. Now I am scared.”
Case #2) The horse refuses by turning away from the fence (or is turned away by the rider) and then is struck with the whip three times. Because the horse no longer has the fence in his field of vision he has no idea why he is being hit. You see, out-of-sight is simply out-of-mind for the horse who has little or no ability to reason and can’t hold a picture of something in his mind – he quite literally has no imagination (think about it – a horse that is busy imagining things in his mind’s eye will not be ready to escape a predator at a split seconds notice – horses have not evolved to be day dreamers!)
Here are many scientific reasons why whipping a horse for stopping at a fence is fruitless and leads to negative welfare implications:
- The horse has a very limited ability to reason, so will not know why he is being punished if hit a second or more after he has refused.
- Good timing in horse training is essential as horses are not able to store thoughts in their brain for any length of time – so any punishment delivered more than a second too late will be just that – a second too late.
- Punishment causes fear and stress - and horses don’t learn when frightened or stressed.
So should we carry a whip at all? And, if so, how should we use the whip?
Learning theory says that horses can learn the meaning of the whip (e.g., go forward) via negative reinforcement – this means the removal of the whip at the onset of the correct behaviour – also known as pressure-release.
For the whip to be effective in this way, it must be used in a quick (no more than one second) tapping rhythm that increases in frequency (i.e., becomes more annoying). If the pressure (the frequency) does not increase you may risk habituation, and any gap of more than a second between taps may be perceived by the horse as a release of pressure and therefore a reward.
This is why a single 'whack' of the whip to get the horse to respond to your leg better does not train the horse – the horse will be rewarded for whatever it was doing the split second before the whip is removed. If you hit him once and he pigroots and the tapping of the whip ceases – guess what? You have just successfully reinforced and rewarded that behaviour.
Whips themselves are not inherently bad – but the horse must be trained and learn what it means - i.e., what the rider wants for each series of whip taps on different parts of the body (e.g. hind quarters for yield, shoulders for turn and behind the leg for increases in speed.
As riders, we are being watched by those who question the welfare of horses in sport and we owe it to the sport we love to make it sustainable in today’s ever changing world where the spotlight is firmly on the use of animals for entertainment, sport and personal gain.
So, let's join the enlightened European nations who realise the whip is not a tool for punishment nor a good look for equestrianism. Let’s change the rules and start educating our riders from grass roots level to elite. For the betterment of the sport and the love for horses.
This article was first published in: www.hartstoneequestrian.com.