Sierra came to Hanaeleh with little training, but a lot of abuse. It seems that whoever worked with her used fear and intimidation instead of spending the time teaching her. Whips can be excellent training tools, but when they are used in anger and to intimidate, they leave a lasting impression of fear.
You Cannot Teach Through Fear
You cannot teach any animal when they are afraid- they will only learn to avoid whatever it is that is threatening them. When a mammal is put in a situation where he is in danger or is being hurt, the hippocampus stimulates a “fight or flight” response. This actually inhibits the prefrontal cortex and prevents conscious decisions from being made- essentially the animal is no longer processing the situation, but is pushed into a reactionary, instinctual response. This can be drastic for the person either on the horse’s back or even holding the line, as the horse no longer considers the human, but just is focused on his own safety. Shutting down the prefrontal cortex also inhibits learning. Essentially, fear puts both the human and the horse in danger, and does nothing productive.
Unfortunately, for horses who have been abused, they will see items such as a whip or rope or even a saddle as a precursor to pain or fear. I want Sierra to learn that the whip is not going to hurt her, and I also want to be able to use the whip as a training tool, so I can teach cues on the ground that I will eventually use on her while I’m on her back. In order to use that whip as a training tool, however, I have to desensitize Sierra to its touch and extinguish the fear reaction. Only after she no longer views the whip as something that will hurt her can I use it as a training tool.
If the horse has been charroed or used as a tripping horse (unfortunately very common in the southwestern parts of the U.S. and in Mexico), your horse may have a violent reaction to any touch of the whip on his legs, so be careful when you are rubbing the whip along his legs, especially the hind legs.
Depending upon your horse’s personality and the length and severity of the abuse, it may take a LONG time for your horse to stop reacting to the whip on his legs. Honestly, depending upon the level of abuse, you may never be able to completely extinguish the fear response. The goal is to lessen the response to the point that it is extinguished, so think about just working towards improvement over a complete elimination of the response.
Steps to Extinguishing the Fear Response
Before you start, remember not to spend too much time on this exercise- anywhere from two to five minutes, tops. If you spend too much time on working with the whip, the horse may end up getting frustrated and stressed, which defeats the entire purpose.
Always keep your hand low and do not raise your shoulder. Raising your shoulder and putting the whip up higher is an aggressive movement: keep your hand low, keep your voice low, and keep your energy low.
Make the whip shorter in your hand by grabbing it at the top (so the length is below your hand instead of on the top), and rubbing the edge on the horse. You can slowly extend the length to the point that you are holding the whip at the handle and able to rub the whip all along the horse’s body. Do not move on to Step Three until the horse is completely comfortable with having the whip touch him all over without flinching.
Lightly tap the horse with the whip- just tiny little taps so he is used to being touched lightly with the whip, but not so much that you want a reaction to the taps. Just lightly tap the horse all over- his neck, his body, his legs, etc. until he no longer responds. You will *teach* the horse to respond to the whip later- right now you have to extinguish any whip response before you can create a new response.
Keep working on these steps, remembering not to push the horse too hard or for too long. You do not have to do this desensitization every day, but you should work on it several times a week if you want the horse to progress. If the horse’s reaction is immediately to tense up and be fearful, remember to keep the whip at the top of your hand, and you can even introduce treats when you introduce the whip so the horse has a more positive reaction.
Below is a short video of me introducing the dressage whip to Sierra. Notice her immediate reaction the minute I raise my shoulder and the whip. Also, apologies for the poor audio, especially when the wind comes up at the end of the video.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.