Despite their size and power, horses can be fragile animals…
I have a photograph in the classroom, of me jumping down a huge drop fence cross country at the National Championships. Once upon a time I liked that photo, it recorded a memory of a competitive achievement and reminded me of the fun I had competing and challenging myself. Then in more recent years, as I learnt more I started to be racked with guilt about that picture, it no longer bought me pleasure. Why? Because in it I’m ‘hailing a cab’ as the saying goes, I’d basically taken my hand off the reins and hit my beloved horse George with a whip. I did it because the adrenaline was high, we were doing well and he came into the drop fence and backed off and I made a split second decision and I used my whip. Only once but I used it. In fact in the 20 years of owning George I can’t remember ever hitting him more than twice but the fact remains that I did. The first was out of frustration, again at a competition, I was 17 years old and he got over excited, I lost my patience and hit him. My dad hauled me out of the saddle and gave me such a telling off I can still remember it, he was rightly appalled and told me that if I ever did it again I wouldn’t be allowed to ride.
But back to the photo. This was many years later, I was wiser and had more experience and I hit George not out of frustration but because that was what I was taught to do, if a horse backs off from a jump, use the whip. It was just a normal part of riding cross country. It is only all these years later that I look at the whip differently and because of this I get consumed with guilt. The drop fence was big, he naturally just wanted to check it out as we came to it at speed, he hesitated and got hit for doing so. He didn’t deserve it, quite the opposite, he was looking after us both and the guilt comes from this and knowing that I can’t ever say sorry or take it away. Horses don’t understand sorry.
Years of traditional lessons and competing had desensitised me to what whipping a horse actually meant. It was never referred to as causing pain, a classic example of humans changing language for moral disengagement! But whips do cause pain, that’s why they’re used, they get the horse to do something that it might not want to do because otherwise it gets hurt. Even if only used once the whip can become associated with pain and so its mere presence can be enough to get a horse to perform.
And for those that need further evidence, research has now given us proof that the horse’s skin has more nerve endings than humans and it is also thinner, meaning that against popular belief, horses do feel pain when they are smacked with a whip, even gently. It’s actually common sense if we’re honest with ourselves and not clouded by the problem of desensitisation to their use.
I kept George until the end of his days, he had many years of retirement and I like to think he was happy. I can’t change the past but I can learn from it and I now use the photo to help explain to others that inflicting pain is not a positive method of horsemanship. George was the best teacher I could ever wish for, he taught me more than anyone in my whole career. If only I’d known how privileged I was at the time.
Happy Riding! x