The Evolution of Horsemanship I. Whips

It is human nature to resist ‘change.’ And seemingly, especially so in the horse world.

Yet admittedly, change is inevitable, even in that elite world of humans who look down on their hapless grounded peers from the lofty perch of their horse’s back and refer to themselves as ‘mounted.’

It is amazing how we take some things for granted until something calls our attention to it and forces us to consciously stop and ask ‘why’ we do or use something. And so it was when the subject of using ‘whips’ was recently discussed on an Internet equine related forum. For some reason, the controversy really piqued my curiosity.

And activated my all too often out of control, ‘going off on a tangent’ OC desire to learn as much as I can to better understand the human/equine relationship, and in the process, give my horses the best life possible.

I understood the obvious implications of generational multicultural usage of whips to train horses, (tradition).

But this particular expedition I embarked upon unexpectedly took me to a variety of subjects ranging from imperfect empathy, sociocultural evolution, epigenetics, intergenerational transmission of cultural/ethnic traits, phylogenetic memory, transgenerational responses, social structure of memetic diffusion, human need and memes/memetic algorithms to mention a few.

I digress.

So, are whips indelibly imbedded in the human collective consciousness? Well I’m not sure. So lets’ take a closer look at whips, the human consciousness, and horses.

The ‘undercurrent’ of whips actually dates back to the dinosaur era. They used their long and powerful tails as a display of force and punishment both offensively and defensively. Consciously or subconsciously, whether observed by our ancestors, or personally in movies, that ‘whipping action’ was duly noted.

Have you ever heard of the expression ‘letting the cat out of the bag? Sure you have. But it had nothing directly to do with cats being in or taken out of a bag, (or the indiscretion of an exposed secret).

According to human history records, whips have always been used one way or the other for millenniums. In the ancient hieroglyphics we often see rulers holding a sort of stock whip as a sign of authority and power. A
cat o’nine tails is a whip with nine knotted lashes. Its origin is believed to date back to ancient Egypt, where the domestic cat was sacred and, even then, was said to have nine lives. The Egyptians believed that when beaten with cat hide, the victim gained virtue from the whip.

The nine cords or tails represent the nine lives of a cat and the whip also left marks like the scratches of a cat. On board ships the cat o’nine tails whip was kept in a bag. The ‘cat was let out of the bag’ for a flogging. Hence, punishment was forthcoming.

Ever heard the expression ‘enough room to swing a cat’? Sure. But again, it has nothing to do with swinging a live or dead cat around.

Plenty of room was needed to swing the cat o’nine tails whip without the tails getting caught, hence the saying ‘enough room to swing a cat’. Even indigenous some tribes used them.

Throughout history, whips were a quick, efficient method of punishing and controlling slaves.

Even in our modern history on the ‘big screen’ in the movies and later DVDs, whips have always been a sign of expertise, authority, and superiority, (Indiana Jones, cowboy Lash LaRue, Catwoman and Xena amongst many others).

Oh, let’s not forget the signal whips (signalwhips) that were originally designed to control dog teams!
In Rudyard Kipling’s short story Garm – a Hostage mentions a long whip used by a horseback rider in India to defend an accompanying pet dog from risk of attack by native pariah dogs.

In Victorian literature cads and bounders are depicted as being ‘horsewhipped’ or threatened with horsewhipping for seduction of young women or breach of promise to marry, usually by one of her relatives.

Whips are also mentioned in comic novels by Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. As late as the 1970s the historian Desmond Seward was reported by the Daily Telegraph to have been threatened with ‘horsewhipping’ for besmirching the reputation of Richard III in a biography.

Did you catch that? Horse whipping. Horse whip: a whip for controlling horses. 2. to beat with a horsewhip.

I’ll stop here with the written implications although I could fill a rail road car with quips about ‘whips and whipping’ in our literature! –

  • The Scarlet Letter, ‘Locked away in Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet was a bloody whip. This Puritan had often whipped himself with it, laughing bitterly while he did.’
  • Who wants to be the ‘whipping boy’ this time?
  • Anyone ever play ‘crack the whip’ with a group of ice or roller skaters holding hands?
  • ‘Whipped him like a dog.’
  • ‘Man, I’m whipped,’ meaning tired-exhausted.
  • A music band called ‘The Whip.’
  • Whip: an official in a political party whose primary purpose is to ensure party discipline in a legislature. Whips are a party’s ‘enforcers,’ who typically offer inducements and threaten party members to ensure that they vote according to the official party policy, (hence dominance/control over others).
  • Whipped cream.
  • A new dance called ‘The Whip.’
  • ‘Whipped him into shape.’
  • Whippersnapper: a young and inexperienced person considered to be presumptuous or overconfident.
  • Miracle Whip.
  • ‘Whipped,’ a movie written and directed by Peter Cohen.
  • Whipped: “Damn! Joe is whipped!” completely controlled by your girlfriend/boy… In most cases a male being completely controlled by his girlfriend.
  • ‘I whipped him good,’ (physical beating resulting in submission).

Of course there is the ‘dressage whip’ too. My goodness, they even have them in colors now! Perhaps that increases performance and a ‘happy horse’? And what portrait or instruction by the old masters doesn’t have or allude to a whip?
In almost every pirate movie we see someone being tied to the ships mast, (or being threatened) to take whip lashes as ‘punishment for disobedience.’

What dated movie with a horse-drawn stagecoach, buggy or wagon in it doesn’t have a whip within reach of the driver?

Do a Google search for whips and voila! Eight million, eight hundred thousand results pop up! My GOODNESS! What would humans do without whips????¬†Well, let’s see.

  • We don’t use a whip to train a dog.
  • We don’t use a whip to train a cat.
  • We don’t use a whip to train a dolphin.
  • We don’t use a whip to train a hamster.
  • We don’t use a whip to train a monkey.
  • We don’t use a whip on our children.

But using a whip to ‘train a horse’ for some reason seem quite acceptable! I mean, gosh, wouldn’t a trainer look absurdly silly training a horse in a round pen, (or any place else) with a fly swatter or pool noodle? Sure they would!

You see? That’s my point. Maybe if more horse owners weren’t quite so intimidated, (or indoctrinated) they would dare to step up and ‘look a little silly.’ And in so doing, join the ranks of those seek a better life for the horses. That would immediately spotlight those who abusively ‘use a whip to train a horse.’

The ‘whip’ meme permeates the entire human psyche worldwide. Every person in every country of the world knows what a whip is, (and its’ primary use).

Don’t believe me? Then hold a long bullwhip in your hand while advancing toward a stranger in any country with the entire length training behind you without saying a word. See if you’re met with ‘open arms’ or defensive hostility.

Then there’s Phylogenetic Memory/bonding to consider. All living organisms down to the most miniscule cell came from the ‘old cell’ before it. If there was not a memory or communication between the two, the new cell would not last long.

Scientists compared genetic code from modern horses to equine DNA 30,000 year old and the result was less than .001 % differential.

Memories can be passed down to later generations through genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors, according to new research that may explain how phobias can develop.

Scientists have long assumed that memories and learned experiences built up during a lifetime must be passed on by teaching later generations or through personal experience.

However, new research has shown that it is possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.”

A new study has shown how memories of stress can be passed down from one generation to the next by being transmitted from cell to cell, and so from mother to daughter.

Genetic memory causes us to remember things we have never experienced, fear things that can’t hurt us and love things we’ve never encountered before. Most people are born with a fear of heights, but some are not. Others might fear spiders, while others keep them as pets. Some people are deathly afraid of the police, while many more feel safer when they are around. These personal preferences are the result of strong emotional experiences, experienced by our ancestors, passed on through genetic memory.

Does that mean all horses have an instant fear whips? Of course not.

Does that mean all humans are susceptible to the psychological undercurrent of ‘speciesism entitlement’ and the collective conscious acceptable use of whips on horses as a common matter of fact? Of course not.

But to deny that adding whips to the human/equine relationship in the context of ‘training’ is somehow productive would be sheer folly. Just as it would be sheer folly to believe some horses don’t feel the whip’s potential and some humans feel their need to use them.

As I see it, there are three fairly distinct groups of belief concerning the use of whips on or with horses.

One group, (Group A) uses whips indiscriminately to threaten/intimidate/punish the horse through either the sound of the whip ‘cracking,’ flicking it close to them menacingly, or actually striking the horse’s body with varying degrees of force. This form can also be used in ‘training videos’ and demos to produce; A. A subconscious implication of knowledge/authority by the holder/user/guru. B. Create a false, forced excitation in the horse supposedly ‘at liberty.’ C. Supposedly enhance racing performance.

This group doesn’t give a dam about the horse except as a vehicle for financial success and/or peer recognition.

The second group, (Group B) uses a whip but only as an ‘extension of their body’ or in some cases ‘as a pointer.’ This group seems to care, but remains aloof to the probability that using a whip for noninvasive purposes does not propagate/endorse cruel usage.

The third group, (Group C) is an ever- growing body of equine caretakers who choose to make a point of not using a whip under any conditions for any reason.

I see Group A as those who have lack empathy and have little or no appreciable knowledge of equine behavior and reward-based training and are forced to mimic thousands year-old training formats. If given the opportunity, I would ask them three questions.

  1. Why use an archaic tool that has represented torture and the ‘master/slave relationship’ for thousands of years when it is proven that using one has no real effect on ‘performance’?
  2. Why use an archaic tool that has represented torture and the ‘master/slave relationship’ for thousands of years when it is proven that there are other highly successful, reward-based methods to ‘train a horse’ that has no need or use for them.
  3. Don’t you know that the effects of Positive Reinforcement are longer lasting than Negative Reinforcement / Punishment, (and/or the intimidation/threat of Punishment). And that pressure/release, comfort/discomfort, intimidation/threat of physical punishment, and physical punishment, (in ANY degree) produces stress hormones that inhibit learning and create a counterproductive, negative, cognitively disassociative relationship?

I see Group B as ‘on the fence’ who have the propensity to someday possibly join Group C. Given the opportunity, I would ask them three questions.

  1. Why use an archaic tool that has represented torture and the ‘master/slave relationship’ for thousands of years in human culture when there are other more benign items available?
  2. Are you promoting the acceptance and use of an archaic tool that has represented torture and the ‘master/slave relationship’ for thousands of years when you use one for supposedly ‘innocent reasons’?
  3. Don’t you want to make an appreciable change in the horse world for the betterment of the horses? If you do, then it be an excellent good idea to ‘lead by example’ and not use whips for ANY reason.

My ‘hats off’ to those in Group C. They already know the insidious effects of Learned Helplessness, (and the rewards of giving their horses the best life possible). Goodonya!

And so, I would close with a small request.

The next time you think about picking up a whip to ‘train a horse,’ (or for any reason) stop and think FIRST, and think long and hard. Because there is a large group of equestrians who won’t use them because they don’t need them, have found better results in the process, (and are making a radical change for the betterment of the horses). And our numbers are growing daily.

Read more: Do whips encourage horses to run faster

Next: Evolution II, The Evolution of Horsemanship

Author: Chuck Mintzlaff – Friendship Training