And yet, from starting out with an idyllic dream of galloping bareback along a beach on a horse with whom we have a perfect partnership, we somehow end up with children beating the living daylights out of their ponies simply to try to earn themselves a pretty rosette. Where did it all go so wrong?
We live in a world where we (well most of us at least!) do our best to teach children to be kind to each other, to other humans and to animals too. These are some of the most basic and initial lessons children are taught by their parents, but imagine how confusing this must be to such a young soul when their Mum then takes them to their local tack shop to choose a beautiful pink, sparkly whip to beat their pony with. Is horse riding the only activity in the world where we actively encourage the next generation to hit their animals? To hit the animals whom they want to develop a good, positive relationship with, who they want to help them win prizes and rosettes, and share fun and happiness with? I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many people out there who think their child will develop good relationships with their peers through hitting them with sticks when they do something they disagree with, yet it is often encouraged with their ponies. We’ve all seen that Mum at the side of the showring shouting ‘Just hit him, use your whip!’ when the enduring pony refuses yet another jump that he has been poorly set up for by his young rider. Using the whip is something so ingrained in the teaching style of many instructors that I have actually been banished from lessons for refusing to use one. When you really think about how absurd this is you have to laugh, but it really isn’t very funny.
Imagine a world where you could go into a shop and buy a stick to hit your dog with when he did something wrong at the park. Imagine a world where not only could you buy a stick to hit your dog with, but where you could actually buy fancy coloured, glittery, specially designed sticks to hit your dogs with just to encourage your children to use them. In fairness, I’m hoping you’re finding it pretty difficult to imagine a world in which we all hit our dogs with sticks in the park when they fail to do exactly what we ask, and yet it is common place in the world of horses.
How can we expect our children to grow up showing kindness and compassion to their horses whilst we are encouraging them to hit their horses with whips? How can we be angry when our children turn around and hit us, with or without a stick, when we have encouraged them to do the exact same thing to their horse? How can we expect children to grow up with a healthy attitude towards competition – winning and losing – when we teach them that if the horse doesn’t perform to the required standard it is ok to beat them? And how can we expect a young child to understand when we say that the whip is a ‘training aid’ and that they must only hit the horse so hard, but not beat it. Surely as adults we have the responsibility to create consistency in the lessons that we teach our children but yet in the horse world we seem to be so contradictory.
Should whips ever really be something that we encourage our children to have? Do we allow it simply because we are afraid of the size and power that a horse has and that somehow having an implement to hit them with makes us feel more powerful and less fearful? If you wouldn’t allow your child to behave aggressively towards other beings, human or animal, perhaps it is time to reconsider whether you still want your child to carry a whip the next time they go riding. After all, if it isn’t for hitting the horse or pony why do they need it anyway?
Perhaps if we teach our children how to understand their horses and ponies better from the outset they may not have quite so much cause to want to use it – the next time your child asks you for a new whip why not invest the money in buying them a book about equine behaviour instead. If they start observing their ponies behaviour more closely from a young age they will surely be experts by the time they reach adulthood. And their interactions with equines are likely to be far safer than those who approach their horses with an aggressive outlook and attitude.
Is it not time we woke up and realised that encouraging children to hit animals is simply not cool?