About the Head and Shoulders

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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6 Comments

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6 responses to “About the Head and Shoulders

  1. Laughed all the way through this post. πŸ˜› I must remember this: “You’re worth more mad than scared.” πŸ˜€

    You write wonderfully. Almost felt like I was there. Almost…hehe.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Hahaha, thank you. I just read it through the whole way for the first time. I hadn’t realized it was funny – but it kinda is! That’s always nice. I wrote this on the A train from Aqueduct to downtown Brooklyn, and on the D train from downtown Brooklyn to Rockefeller Center, where I then ate a ridiculously amazing cupcake from Magnolia and thought, “Whoops, I should really post that blog I wrote on the train…”

  2. Blob

    I’ve never really considered a whip to be a driving aid (though I know it is often used that way in the racing world). In fact, I use my whip in downward transitions more than anything else to engage the hindquarters at a time when horses often like to leave their booties behind.

    But it’s been useful in other ways too. I remember teaching a pony to jump who had no issue going forward and going over the fence. The problem was that his idea of ‘over’ the fence meant dragging his front end across a little cross rail and sort of falling to the other side. A little tap of a crop on his shoulder at takeoff taught him to actually lift his shoulder. Once he figured it out, he became a perfect little jumping pony.

    Of course, I’ve also seen it mis-used or over-used. But more than scare a horse that usually just dulls them out.

    I think most people that are anti-stick/whip/crop/bat are that way either because of a bad early experience or because they became decided it was a cruel thing long before they started riding and understood what it actually is.

    Though, I’ve found OTTBs are often more responsive to spurs in the way I like than to whips, maybe because they’ve learned from their track time that a whip means go. Whereas spurs are more of a new territory to them and are great for engaging.

    As for terminology– my dressage whip is a whip. And a shorter jumping stick I always call a crop. But admittedly I usually jump with my dressage whip…

    (sorry for the long and rambling response)

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      When I was a ten year old girl learning to ride on a stubborn dapple gray pony (also with a head roughly the size, shape, and weight of a large cinder block) the whip was most certainly a driving aid. I think with most school horses, that’s exactly what it is.

      What you and Sara (below) remind me of is that crops are often given to beginners for exactly that purpose – to avoid kicking the absolutely bejeezus out of a pluggy school horse. That’s why I was given one. And I was taught to never – ever – use it on the shoulder, to only ever use it behind the leg. Honestly, I think I was taught to use it smack across the hindquarters. I still feel funny when I use it on the shoulder, to this day! That’s how much my first riding instructor ridiculed me for using it on the shoulder. But it does the trick when trying to get attention without, say, dropping your reins because, say, you might end up on the ground if you do.

      I’ll never forget going to see the American Invitational show-jumping as a teen and listening to the crowd “boooooooooo” when a rider gave his horse a couple of licks for refusing a fence. I thought, “What would you do, give the horse a carrot and say ‘don’t be scared, horsie, I’ll protect you!’ ” Probably. That demonstrates the non-equine response to whips, especially interesting since I bet every person in that stadium had at one point stuck a puppy’s nose in a mess or smacked a kid.

  3. Phhhhfffffttttt….the whip/crop is the one aid I’ve never had any issues with, and I find it invaluable for getting horses in front of your leg and motivating lazy horses. In my mind, it is MUCH kinder to give a flick of the whip on the shoulder or even behind the leg than constantly kick kick kicking (at the beginning stages particularly, and especially for smaller riders that don’t have the leg strength!). More than anything, I’ve found as you have that a wave of a stick lets your mount know they better shape up, or stop what they’re doing, or NOT do the thing they really want to do:)

    I’ve seen bits and spurs misused much, much more often than whips/crops/sticks. Of course I’m not against either, but even a snaffle in the wrong hands or a pair of spurs on unsteady or aggressive legs is awful to see.

  4. Crops are wonderful tools when you really need to get your point across. Of course, when I pull one out on my TB, he instantly engages in “I’m not listening mode.” It has absolutely zero effect on him whatsoever. Spurs it is! Fortunately more for refinement than anything these days… πŸ™‚

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