Whips hanging from a fence with horses in the background.

Whip Use in Equestrian Sports

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Whip use in horse sports is currently a highly debated topic, not just within racing but across the entire industry, and a recent study into the use and perception of the whip in equestrian sports suggests there is an appetite for changes in regulation and education.

Dr Jane Williams and Kirstin Spencer presented the results of a survey at the 15th International Equitation Science Conference in Guelph, Canada. While previous research has focused mainly on whip usage in the racing industry, the researchers say it is necessary to evaluate all disciplines in order to effectively address whip usage concerns and any welfare issues.

The survey, which was conducted in the United Kingdom revealed 72% of respondents regularly carry a whip when doing roadwork, hacking out, schooling and/or receiving lessons.

Nearly 70% of survey participants agreed that whips should only be used by experienced riders.

Additionally, the great majority wanted to see tighter restrictions on whip usage in competitions including warmup.

Those surveyed were asked to share how they use whips.  The majority responded that they are used to increase the horse’s response to the aids, for training purposes, and that whips should be used lightly and never continuously out of aggression or frustration.

Dr Williams said  “It is encouraging to see most riders believed the whip should be used as a training aid, however, when asked how and when to use it in this way, their response was not always aligned to how horse’s learn, outlining a need for increased rider education”.

In another study, the same researchers evaluated streamed data recordings of British Showjumping (BS) affiliated (official) competitions between August 2018 and January 2019.  This study included 285 horses and riders competing over jump-heights between 0.8m and 1.25m.

Statistical analyses were conducted to determine if and how whip usage related to performance.

Approximately 76% of riders carried a whip but only 14% actually used their whip during the competition performance.

Additionally, this study found that increased whip usage correlated with decreased performance (increased faults).  These findings complement previous studies published in 2012 and 2013.

Ms Spencer said “Observations found whips often being used with poor timing which may reflect rider education issues such as misunderstanding a horse’s cognitive ability and how it learns.

“Potential issues were also recognised within BS regulations, for example, significant use took place whilst riders were still holding on to the reins [despite the fact that the BS rules] technically exclude this type of use. Out initial findings raised further questions as to the efficacy of using a whip to enhance horse performance in BS competition.”

Overall, both studies suggest there is an appetite for changes in how whips are used and regulated, and that such changes will rely on aligning the education of riders, trainers, sports officials and coaches with the latest knowledge in how horses learn (learning theory).

Depending on how it is used, a whip can be perceived by the horse as a signal or as punishment. According to learning theory as it applies to horse training, the whip should become just another light signal and has to be trained using pressure-release, where you start by applying a light pressure (cue or signal), such as a light tap, and you keep the minimum amount of pressure (light but continuous tapping) that motivates the horse to respond, at which time you immediately stop tapping. The aim should be to quickly reduce the pressure to just the light signal (a light tap) eliciting the horse’s correct response.

Unfortunately, the whip is often used as a ‘correction’ or to ‘discipline’ a horse when he/she fails to perform as expected. An example of this is striking the horse after he/she has refused to jump a fence, or urging an already tired horse to run faster or to keep running by provoking a startle or flight response, which is how the whip is normally used in some sports like barrel racing and horse racing.

Punishment is problematic because it creates a fear association which spoils the human-horse relationship and makes learning less probable and the horse less confident. 

A broader understanding of how horses learn across the entire horse industry will lead to more effective decisions when designing rules that govern the acceptable uses of the whip. More research into how whips are used across the different disciplines is necessary. For example, investigating what participants and regulators currently consider normal use of the whip will provide insight on how to best establish and change regulations in order to protect the welfare of our equine partners and preserve the social licence to operate of all our equestrian sports.

Save the date for the 16th International Society for Equitation Science Conference, August 11-14, 2020 at Hartpury University, United Kingdom, which will run on the theme: “Succeed with science: performance, practice and positive wellbeing”.

This article has been edited from material written by Melissa McGilloway, the Equine Guelph Team and the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), a registered charity that aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship.

Melissa McGilloway
The University of Guelph

Melissa McGilloway is currently studying at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

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