The Whip – Training Aid or Punishment?

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This is going to be one of those long answers that ends up concluding that the whip can be both and that there are a lot of factors to consider. So, we will just get started right away and try the best we may.

Many describe the whip as being an elongated arm, making it possible for us to touch the horse from further away or in places, that we wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. Thus making it easier to help and guide the horse. And this can certainly be true, that we can use the whip in this fashion. We will get back to this a little later on.

In other cases, we see the whip being used in a very hard fashion that will leave bruises that we don’t see because of the horse’s fur and dark skin. Especially in the horse racing industry we tend to see this harsh use and I haven’t yet seen a horse enjoying this treatment. On the other hand, I have heard people saying that the whips don’t actually hit as hard as that because of the way they are formed. I bet none of those people have actually tried being hit by the whip with the force that is behind it when being used in the races. The one person I know who’s tried it (as a fun “scientific” experiment up to the ISES 2014 Conference) had a huge mark for a very long time afterwards and he said that it hurt bad! This use of the whips on horses is aversive to the horse and is definitely in the category of “overall punishment”.

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But nonetheless, still in this case above the whip is used as a training aid, though not a very kind one. So, what defines a training aid? In theory, everything that we use to aid our training of the horse. And thus, the whip could be classified as a training aid no matter the ethical use of it. It can actually be both a training aid and a punishment at the same time. The learning theory describes operant conditioning with two primary outcomes: Reinforcement, making the behaviour prior more likely to reoccur and; Punishment, making the behaviour prior less likely to reoccur.

If the whip is used as a positive punishment right after a behaviour the horse will be less likely to repeat that behaviour and the whip will, technically be used as a punishment – also, if we don’t hit the horse very hard with it. Many times, unstructured use of the whip, with a flick here and a flick there, will be seen as positive punishment and the horse can become nervous and skittish at what comes before or at the sight of the whip. In many of these cases the rider of the horse actually intends to use the whip as a training aid, more than a punishment, trying to get the horse to e.g. speed up. However, they are often not persistent enough to actually keep the pressure of the whip on to make the horse speed up, and afterwards negatively reinforce the horse for speeding up. Changing it from a punishment for slowing down to a signal for speeding up and then negatively reinforcing the horse, by removing the pressure of the whip, can in many cases remove the horses fear of whips as well as improve its overall mental state and willingness to work.

The most important when using the whip – as with any other training aid – is to use it as an aid, guiding the horse towards the right answer. We must spend some time considering our training ethics and find out how we can best help the horse in any given situation, trying to use as little pressure as possible, but as much as necessary to not desensitise the horse to the meaning of the aid. With most horses combining negative and positive reinforcements are the most effective in learning new tasks, therefore adding a treat at the same time as releasing the whip will make the use of pressure almost non-existing.

In this little video-clip below you can see me training the understanding of the whip with my horse Vinur. When the whip is around him, and when I stroke him with it I don’t want him to react. He is learning how the whip can be used in guiding him in a kind way through a light tapping that he knows to mean “I want you to do something, and when you have done it, there will be a treat.” This something is what the horse is trying to figure out. In this setup I use as little pressure as possible and instead raise the horse’s motivation through positive reinforcement and at the same time I give him enough time to guess the correct answer.  This ensures that he is trusting, happy and willing to work with me.

So, the answer to the headline is that the whip can be used for both a training aid and punishment – and at the same time. The important-take-home-message is that we need to be conscious about the way we train our horses and ethical in the use of pressure, trying to find the solution with the least pressure and stress/harm to the horse.

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