Spurs and whips are iconically pieces of horse-riding equipment, not to mention their more popular (and dark!) association with the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series of books and movies. Not surprisingly, then, their use is a "grey" area, constantly under scrutiny from all quarters – event officials, horse welfare organisations, riders and competitors themselves, and members of the public.
Using these performance “aids” is a contentious issue, regulated in competition (with the rules constantly being updated) and argued about wherever the subject of horses comes up.
In one camp there are those who believe spurs and whips are cruel and unnecessary; the other side of the argument is that if used appropriately they are invaluable in schooling a “difficult” horse. There is probably another, largely silent, group who believe there is nothing wrong with showing a horse who’s boss by inflicting a dose of correctional pain.
So, who’s right here? In fact is it possible there is a right or wrong way when it comes to disciplining a horse or “spurring” him on.
Let’s take a closer look at this far from black or white issue:
THE OFFICIAL VIEW ON WHIPS AND SPURS
Having studied the rules and regulations of various official bodies – from the FEI to British Dressage and British Showjumping – it is apparent that over the years great attention has been paid to this subject. This is undoubtedly because there have been incidents where complaints have been lodged at events where horses have been visibly abused by their riders.
Even at the very highest level this still occurs: at the RioOlympics in 2016 two riders - Jur Vrieling of the Netherlands and Belgium’s Nicola Philippaerts – were disqualified from the individual showjumping event, her for being too hard with the whip and she for excessive use of spurs under FEI rules.
Those FEI rules state categorically that “abuse of a horse using natural riding aids or artificial aids (eg. Whips or spurs) will not be tolerated”. The FEI forbids carrying a whip of any kind in the arena at international dressage events, and regulates the size of any whip used in the practice area.
British Dressage rules allow whips in the Premier Leagues, and rolled spurs without points, or roller ball spurs. No whips though at area festivals, regionals or national championships.
British ShowJumping have just updated their rules on whips, limiting them to being no greater in size than 75cm or less than 45cm in length overall “nor one that is weighted or with a hard point at the end”. This rule applies not only in the arena, but also the collecting ring or “anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the showground”.
APPROPRIATE USE OF WHIPS
Whether or not you opt to use a whip for schooling your horse (and if allowed in a particular competition), how can it be used “appropriately”?
To answer this question we can look for clues in the official comments in the British ShowJumping code of conduct.
If you use a whip in a fit of temper, that’s construed as excessive use – and, I’m sure you’ll agree – rightly so! Whipping a horse’s head is also a no-no. Whipping a horse so that it breaks the skin or is marked is definite “misuse”. The rules also state that a whip should be used no more than three times after entering the arena in competition, and hit only the rump, from which we can deduce that repeated whipping on the flanks or anywhere else is deemed inappropriate and unnecessary.
The British Horse Society says in its Code of Practice forthe Welfare of Horses and Ponies at Events that “any method used to discipline the horse should be proportionate and applied at the correct time”. Whips can be used “as a method to encourage the horse forwards if it is not listening to the rider’s seat and leg aids”. The BHS also acknowledges that a whip can be used “to reprimand the horse” if there is a valid reason.
This may seem rather vague, but the code qualifies it by saying the timing of the use of a whip is important, for example if a horse refuses a fence it should be reprimanded with the whip immediately, before he has turned away from the fence. The force with which the whip is used “must always be proportionate and reasonable” – that is to say not marking or breaking the skin.
Other pointers to inappropriate whipping include hitting a horse after you’ve dismounted and hitting an obviously tired horse.
Unlike a whip, according to BHS spurs shouldn’t be used to reprimand a horse.
Although there’s not as much official instruction around about using spurs (except for the permitted type and the fact that they shouldn’t cause injury), there is plenty of advice around about how they should be used correctly, if at all.
Most riders seem of the opinion that spurs are a “last resort”, and shouldn’t be used at all by beginners who might inadvertently jab a horse too hard while mastering control.
Spurs can be useful for advanced riders for adding precision to leg cues, but aren’t there to make a horse go faster. Use the spurs as a quick light push, rather than a sharp jab, without lifting your leg away from the horse’s side. Like with a whip, use of spurs should never leave a mark on the horse.
Too much spurring can cause the horse to ignore it eventually, and in some cases horses have been known to become distressed and buck if spurs are used improperly.
So … using whips and/or spurs is partly personal choice, and partly governed by best practice. It’s up to you what you decide to do! If you do use a whip, crop or spurs, we have a range of choices that are humane and fit regulations if used correctly, available to order online.