Why you should not use whips with horses
The gun analogy
I once been told by someone that wanted to justify his use of the whip, that a whip was like a gun; on their own they are harmless, and it all have to do with how you use them. For a human that never seen a gun in person or on TV, never have been described one or read about it, a gun is a neutral stimulus; it’s a random object that do not produce any specific response. But if you were to demonstrate to this person how much damage a gun can do, then a gun would become a threat. The same applies to a whip or any object you use to hit anyone be it a rope wiggling near a horse hindquarter or a rolled-up newspaper waved at a dog.
Something interesting about whips is that once you have given them meaning, you don’t actually need to ‘use’ them much anymore. And this is especially true if you know how to use them effectively. I have seen in events and riding lessons people calling their trainers over, asking for a whip and actually not needing to hit the horse with it; the horse that was lethargic and tired all of the sudden started to move around a lot more quickly and nervously; the threat of pain was all that was needed. Robbers that take hostages or empty cash registers in front of helpless shopkeepers could tell you all about it. For a long time I used whips with my horses to get more hind legs engagement or for lunging, yet since I had bought said horses I never hit them with it so surely there was nothing wrong with my use of it? I thought it was the “extension of my arm” as people like to call it. I never questioned why it worked, why my horses’ lateral movements were drastically better every time I held it. I failed to understand what was really going on from their perspective as I was so focused on my own.
Classical conditioning is a type of associative learning that can be used to explain why the presentation of a threatening stimuli (without its consequence) is enough to elicit a conditioned response (CR). In one of the numerous experiments conducted to better understand the phenomenon, a young child was induced a fear of a white rat which he previously wasn’t bothered by through the process of classical conditioning (Watson and Rayner, 1920). The presentation of the white rat was paired with a loud noise which is an unconditioned stimulus (US) that naturally provoke an unconditioned response (UR) of fear in most children. After a few pairings, the presentation of the white rate alone was enough to elicit a conditioned emotional response in the young child who would start crying and attempt to escape the animal that he previously has no fear of.
The same process occurs early in the young horse life when the whip is first paired with the pain of being hit or, at best, the fear of a novel object being waved around, an unconditional response for a prey animal like the horse. Depending on the aversiveness of the unconditioned stimuli, the whip immediately became a conditioned stimulus which causes fear and avoidance or only does so after a few pairings.
The tables below illustrate how classical conditioning works for both of our examples:
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Is there ever a good reason to threaten to hit (or hit) your horse?
One argument some equestrians have come up with is that there is such a thing as appropriate use of a threatening or pain inflicting device. They may argue that there is some kind of ‘higher purpose’ to hitting the horse and that it may even beneficial to his welfare. For example, one thing I was taught when I was younger is that it is more humane to whip the horse strongly once, than having to ‘kick him on’ constantly. I can still see the argument for this but why do we fool ourselves in believing there is the only two options here, a rock or a hard place. And more importantly why is it so important for the horse to jump the oxer or canter on letter A? I did not realise at the time that I was justifying threaten to hit, or hitting, a living, cognitive being on the grounds of entertainment. Never was I in a life or death situation that justified threatening my horse it was always to win a ribbon, to have fun during my riding lesson or to avoid being yell out by my riding instructor.
There are other ways to deal with unwanted behaviours and to animals to perform desired behaviours. Ways that are scientifically backed, that are humane and effective. And even if they weren’t, it would not make the use of the whip ok. You are going on a trail ride here, not curing cancer, get a bike.
“But it’s really not that bad, horses have thick skin after all.”
Our next argument to tackle is that hitting horses do not cause them any harm. Because you know the horse is so big and his skin is so thick…. Except this is not true, especially where the whips land most frequently. For example, the thickness of the area of the muscle vastus lateralis rarely exceeds 2mm (Nevzorov, 2012). In addition, when vet pathologist Dr. Lydia Tong looked at the difference between horse and human skin as part of an investigation on horse racing, she found that the outer layer of the skin is thinner in horses than humans. She also found that horses have a higher density of nerve endings meaning they probably feel more pain than we do. This information however should be nothing but common sense to anyone that witnessed a horse’s panniculus reflex; the characteristic skin shake performed by horses when they feel a fly land on their skin.