Three Good Whacks

There isn’t a lot standing between an exercise rider and the ground.

Admittedly, there is the horse, but that isn’t the most substantial of barriers. It is quite the opposite. On the best of days, the best of horses is just a few tail-wringing seconds away from depositing you in the deep sand of the track. Hopefully. That’s better than the hard-packed gravel of the horse path or, heaven forbid, the concrete walls and metal pipes of the shed-row.

And of course we aren’t really well-armed against equine eccentricities and moments of psychotic anti-human behavior. A vest, a hard hat. In most cases, nothing but an eggbutt snaffle without so much as a noseband to keep their mouths shut. Most riders I know wouldn’t take out a Children’s Hunter with an eggbutt and no noseband. Let alone a three-year-old racehorse. I rode Final Call in a flash and a martingale. You know all those pages and pages of tack catalogs full of gadgets and gizmos? Yeah, there aren’t any of those things in my tack room.

Unsteady ground - only stirrup irons between the rider and the earth. Mike Smith stays aboard. Photo: Jamie Newell

I do have a whip.

I rode my first school pony with a whip. (And spurs, for that matter.) My riding instructor used to yell at me when I tapped gently. “One good smack, Natalie!” he’d shout. “Stop tapping him on the shoulder and reach behind – one good smack will do it!” 

(I Googled his name recently. He was training high school dressage horses in California. Uncanny. I do high school dressage in New York every morning.)

He was right, of course.

For example, take The Bad Apple. (Please! Kidding.)

The Bad Apple and I have come to a sort of an uneasy understanding. He hasn’t yet decided if he wants to use his powers for niceness or evil, but at least he is acknowledging the possibility that, perhaps, someday, he might want to behave like a classy gentleman and not make me cuss, shout, scream, kick, and otherwise display my remarkable temper.

But he still has moments when he reminds me of why I call him The Bad Apple. He had a brief but alarming period where ducking his head, bucking, and spinning were the order of the day. Come on, even the most ardent animal rights activist has to acknowledge that the only way to discipline a horse like that is to give him a whack (or five) on the ass. He’s being dangerous. He is bigger than me. What would you like me to do, sing him his favorite song and rub his neck reassuringly?

Now, the fact is, The Bad Apple has a long ground-covering trot and a canter that is akin to dozing off on a deep sofa while listening to The Weather Channel drone reassuringly in the background. He woos you with his comfort, he seduces you into quiet contentment with his pseudo-honor, and then – every now and then – dips his head sideways and makes for the big buck.

I asked his previous rider how he got him around the track. He said you had to stay on him with the whip – keep tapping his shoulder to keep him moving. That sounded familiar. Like a certain gray pony named Silver. I could hear my riding instructor yelling at me already.

So – there it was. You could  stay on the offensive, yell at him, and kick him on. He’ll do it again, though. At every quarter pole, like clockwork, and in a few extra places for good measure, just to keep you on your toes.

Or you could flip your whip over the way a certain un-named Olympian once taught you to do, give him three emphatic whacks right on his ample hindquarter, and scare him straight for the rest of the ride. Which you will enjoy, lulled by that easy, round stride of his.

Well, thanks, David. You were right now as you were when I was a little jockey-worshipping kid. Because three good smacks sends him on, and sends a message,

and that’s all you need. None of that tap-tap-tapping nonsense.

There’s gadgets and gizmos a-plenty in the horse business, but I guess the most useful one is the one I was handed the first afternoon I got on a pony. It’s one of the few tools I have, when hands and seat and weight and voice aren’t enough – and those times do come, and those times remind you of just how shifting the ground beneath your feet truly is, when that ground is the latex-wrapped treads of your stirrup irons.



Filed under racetrack life, Training Diary, Training Theory

18 responses to “Three Good Whacks

  1. Barb

    You had me from the title!! I am also a fan of properly timed whacks and always carry one with me, although I find I’m using it less. I’m liking The Bad Apple more and more! Keep up the good work, Natalie, you’re on a roll!

    • I always tell my son I’m going to spank him and never do… LOL.. And the Bad Apple is far more behaved than he is, probably because I live up to my promises! Hahahaha!!

      Exactly, though – you use it less and less, and then you’re just using it to finesse, instead of as discipline or reminders!

  2. I’m no ‘animal rights activist’ and happy for anyone to do what works for them (within reason), but over the last dozen years I’ve only carried a whip twice, once in a recent schooling session to see if carrying it ‘woke up’ my horse (not with any positive effect), and the other rather foolishly on a xc course (unnecessary and just got in the way).

    I’ve taken on 3 horses in that time that others ‘couldn’t get going’ with a good whack, one was eventually selected for the Athens Para-Olympics, another I sold back into racing, and the other I ride now and runs like a well oiled machine (faultless cross country). All ridden in a snaffle.

    My only point here is that there are other ways to get results. I prefer acceptance from a horse rather than submission, otherwise you only treat the problem you don’t cure it. Monty Roberts was big eye opener for me when he first came to the UK, his methods are worth trying.

    • Really good points and I appreciate your making them. Looking back through my old posts you will find that Monty Robert’s Join-Up method is a big part of how I have worked with my TBs. I don’t agree with him on everything.. One of them being that smacking a horse constitutes “violence.” Everything about Roberts’ history would lead him to believe this, but nothing about mine would – hence, our opinions on this count differ.

      I’d not want to try and convince anyone who doesn’t want to ride with a stick that you should. We all have different methods and we all have reasons for believing them.

      I ride with a stick and I think I have good reasons for it.. I’m riding fit young horses on a racetrack. I get at most 20 minutes a day on these horses, in a crowded and volatile surrounding. There’s no opportunity to train in the classical sense.

      Would I ride a green three year old in an arena with a stick? Honestly, probably not. I’d be progressing much more slowly, taking my time, and adding far more ingredients to the mix before asking the horse to progress to a new lesson or the next level.

      • Yes, having ridden work in the US and UK, and ‘broken’ yearlings I do understand the pressures of life in training, so take your point, and whilst I think ‘violence’ is probably an inappropriate word to generalise use of a whip, I still feel a troublesome horse can never be rushed, but I’m not judging, just providing opinion and comment.

      • The “violence” reference does come directly from Monty Roberts’ e-mail newsletter – he believes that hitting a horse is violence and that violence is never justified.

        The Bad Apple we have gone very slowly with, as slowly as we can anyway! I think a truly bad horse would have to go back to the farm for slower remedial work.

  3. For what it’s worth, IMHO, and as a long time rider,I think it’s always good to carry a whip. Unusual things can happen in a New York minute, and sometimes even with the best of horses, you need to get their attention.
    Natalie, I was wondering if I could get your opinion on what appears to be a Houghton bit that is used on Rachel Alexandra? I have never used one, and I wondered WHY it would be used and just What does it do?
    Would love to hear your take.

    • Susan, I wish I knew about the bit.

      I have only ridden with a few bits, nothing so exotic as the Houghton – which, incidentally, is one of those Bits of a Thousand Names – when you type it into Google, you get about seven thousand different possibilities.

  4. And how funny is it, that those whacks, which really amount to a large bug bite, can wield such power:)
    Touch/Timing/Surprise factors at work.

    A stick is handy for so many things, and it’s always wise to carry one. It also encourages quiet, soft hands, as horses generally dislike a stick waving around besides their faces.
    Great post, as always!

    great snork at the “rub his neck..” line..
    You are crewel. I’ll send you a carrot stick collect.

    • Ooh good point about hands!

      I carry my stick across my right thigh, as if a dressage whip. Many riders stick their whip in the small of their back. But years of muscle memory keeps mine in place, and smoothly along the neck or shoulder if my hands are resting on the withers at the gallop. My soft hands are one of my advantages 😉 and of course keeps my whip neutral.

      BUT giving it a little wave alongside the head does remind the compulsive bolters among my little herd that I don’t care HOW interesting that breezing horse on the inner rail is, they damn well better keep their attention on ME – I am SCARY! Hahahaha!

      Do send the carrot stick, we will hang it up in the office as a point of curiosity… 🙂

  5. jessicamorthole

    Love this post! I don’t get on any horse without my stick and good use of the stick is something that every good rider should know how to do. These guys really are just looking for a little bit of authority in their rider and a few good whacks can make for a much easier ride. Love your blog. I write one of the CANTER blogs at Right now I’m riding a lovely 3yr who requires a daily dose of whacking but once you let him know he better get his attitude in check then the ride is lovely.

    • Hahahaha – a daily dose of whacking?! You cruel thing! 😀

      I do agree about the authority part. From the time they were born, these horses have been bitten and kicked and body-slammed. And that’s just by their loving mothers!

  6. Pingback: Everybody needs a Mort in their life | CANTER Mid Atlantic in Delaware

  7. carrotplease

    heh. 🙂 Love this entry 🙂

    I always carry a stick – very rarely use them (and most of the time I use them it really is a tap or signal, more than a whack). As far as “violence” – I’ve seen what horses do to each other when they step out of line, so I’m inclined to believe we can’t come close to that. Now, if you get really into it with a horse and the horse doesn’t understand the lesson (like if you time it badly or are excessive), i’d be inclined to pull you off and give you a few whacks myself, but I’ve only rarely seen anything like that. In my case, my horse seems to like boundaries. One good whack has, on several occasions, set those boundaries and he is perfectly happy to then stay between the lines 🙂

  8. Natalie,
    I agree that a stick is a valuable tool for correcting “naughty” behavior, and applaud your spunk to get out there and show these racehorses who’s boss!

  9. Charlie

    While riding over the hurdles and fences in OZ and the UK, I found that a good slap at the right moment, makes all the difference!

  10. Charlie

    Yeah! Sure is true. A slap on a horse’s shoulder at the right moment, will make it put it’s mind on the job, pick up it’s game and get over a jump, rather ‘through it’–where it could potentially cause itself and the rider serious injuries.

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