It’s been called a crop, a whip, a bat, and a stick. It’s controversial to some, a no-brainer to others. Whether you consider it an “extension of the leg” or an object of inhumane punishment, you’ve thought about whether or not to ride with a whip.
I’ve had a start-stop-start again relationship with whips. (They’re currently called crops in press releases, and I have called them sticks for years.) I carried a long hunter crop as a kid, with an awful green handle, and then moved on to that jumping bat shaped like a hand when those came out. (Remember the middle finger bats that had the black “censored” block over their illustration in catalogs? Yeah I didn’t have one either.) By the time I was eventing in the mid-levels, I was carrying a racing whip. The balance, length, and weight were all just right. And I always rode flat with a dressage whip.
But when I started riding again after my school/NYC/new mom hiatus, I didn’t carry a stick again. I had a lovely one, a racing whip with blue stripes, but I’d kind of lost interest in my horse’s going forward. I was more about taking it slow and easy, at any cost, and I assumed that carrying a stick on an OTTB would be counter-intuitive with my more sedate goals.
In fact, I never once carried a stick of any size or shape on Final Call, even though I’d gotten over my fear of forward motion by this time. My blue racing whip slowy fell apart in the feed shed, and when I packed up my tack trunk, I forgot all about it and left it behind.
My first few weeks at the racetrack, I still eschewed carrying a stick. My goal, I thought, was to avoid breakneck forward speed – at least at first – and again, the whip seemed counter intuitive.
What I was forgetting is that whips, as the loftily titled “extension of the leg,” are no more solely for attaining forward motion than the leg is. We use the leg for lifting the head, for lateral motion, and for getting back the attention of a swayed youngster far more than we do for forward motion. In a Thoroughbred, of course, forward motion generally takes care of itself.
My ire was finally raised by a colt that made an unholy – and unheralded – buck while jogging past the wire. It was dirty and underhanded and sneaky, and kicking him on and shouting after the fact wasn’t good enough. I knew the next morning would bring the exact same behavior. I needed to remind him before he tried a repeat performance: I was a force to be reckoned with.
The next morning saw me jogging the rude colt again. And this time, every time he gathered himself up for one of his ridiculous bolts (he already bolted; it was the bucking that made me realize he was slowly building up his repertoire as he built up muscle) I swung the stick in my right hand from dangerously close to his ear (sure to catch his attention!) back down to his shoulder. The touch on the shoulder was light, but it let him know: “Son, I’m through with your games.”
It was effective at regaining his focus, and keeping his pace somewhat even. But as we approached the wire I felt his body tense, and his head go straight up – he being one of those charming horses that can dig down on the bit so fast you’ll be left with no reins before you knew he was pulling on you.
Fine. Fine. Fine. I pulled his head around with my left hand and laid into his hindquarters with my right handed stick. Three quick whacks and I had him galloping forward. Galloping, you’ll find, is much preferable to bucking. Much easier, for me, anyway, to pull up a galloping horse than to kick on a horse already passionately engaged in a bucking crowhop party of one. And it cowed this particular miscreant so thoroughly that he had to be harried home.
And so the first day that I took a particularly snot-nosed youngster to the track, I had my stick in hand. I didn’t know what he’d do, but I knew it would probably be rotten and I just wasn’t in the mood. (Hint, when riding a horse you might otherwise be afraid of: get pissy and be “not in the mood” for anything he throws at you. You’re worth more mad than scared.)
As it turned out, his bright idea was to stop at every quarter pole and take a spinny-crowhop fit. He had a head roughly the size, shape, and weight of a large cinder block, so pulling it up once he had it down was practically impossible. There were two solutions for dealing with his crime: keeping his head up by leveraging one hand against another, and flicking my whip around his neck whenever he lost his attention to a passing horse, goose, or evil garden sprinkler.
Whip as extension of leg? Certainly. Any one of these faults can be corrected, in a mild case, by a good sharp “hey you!!” kick to the ribs. In a more dedicated customer, the whip as a less refined article does the trick. And, the whip was more of a visual reminder than anything else – “um, see this? Yeah, I’m going to smack you if this nonsense keeps up.” And that was enough.
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