There are two articles that might be useful to read before moving forward to use of the whip – the first is how to hold the reins, click here, and the use of the aids, click here. Once you have those pieces under your hat, we can move onto this article: Dressage Whip 101! When you first take a dressage whip in hand you will find one arm is more obedient than the other. It is similar to writing, where you might be able to spell out your name with your right hand but your left looks like a blind monkey had a go at your signature. The use of the whip is no different, but unlike your signature, you must teach yourself to have both a functional left AND right hand. It is important for a number of reasons – one hind leg might need more activation, you are riding next to a horse that is sensitive to the whip and must switch hands, you are riding in an indoor arena and must have your whip on the inside away from the wall etc. So resist the urge to only use the whip hand that works better and force yourself to switch left and right periodically for practice.
When holding a dressage whip, your palm plays an important role. This becomes problematic for people who like to ride with open fingers and a loose grip. In the article on how to hold the reins we discussed how the thumb must be “tented” and pressed downward to tamp the reins in place. The dressage whip does not change this functionality. Many a rider has tried to use the thumb to hold the whip within their hand, but they will then lose the integrity of their rein length. As a rider, you want a dynamic, ever changing rein length that is appropriate for each stage of the ride, direction and level of work. That means that your reins are constantly lengthening and shortening, even if it is just an inch or so. If you use your thumb to grip the whip you lose the ability to bring your rein up and down quickly and easily. So! Back to your palm.
If you take a look at it you should see a crease running along the center of your palm. That is the place where you want your whip to nestle. And because your thumb and top three fingers are busy with holding the reins, the responsibility of the whip moves primarily to your pinky. If you have the whip follow the crease along the center of your palm then when you turn your hand over, the angle of the whip should match the angle of your knuckles. That means you are on the right track. Errors occur when a rider runs the whip at an angle that does not match their hand's “lines” - this can lead to accidentally tickling your horse's flank and then being ejected rather suddenly.
Step Two: How To Use A Dressage Whip
I have already covered the mentality and philosophy behind the use of negative reinforcement in riding, so we are going to keep it simple here and only talk about the hows and whys of physically using the whip. You should be able to vary the use of your whip between a little tickle on the horse's side to a firmer tap. That means you need control. Many riders new to the whip make the mistake of thinking the leverage point is the elbow and they will enact a bang-on chicken impression by flapping their little wing as hard as they can when trying to tap the horse. This not only looks a little silly, but is also not very efficient. The elbow has nothing to do with using the whip, but the wrist is incredibly important. Think about it like this: the pinky closes and opens to adjust the angle of the whip.
If you want the whip lower, toward the hock, you open your pinky. If you want the whip a bit higher, toward the croup, you close your pinky. That opening and closing seems subtle in your hand but has large angular changes down by the lash. Now enters the wrist. If you grasped a doorknob and turned it without opening the door, your wrist would rotate, right? That is the same rotation you use when applying the whip. You could turn the doorknob sharply and suddenly, like you were bursting in on your daughter making out with that good for nothing boy with the tattoo on his neck...or you could turn the doorknob softly like you were sneaking in the house after a night out with the girls. This adjustment in the rotation of your wrist speaks to the horse in either a firm or soft tap. You could also “feather” the rotation of your wrist that then translates to a tickle on your horse's side. Meanwhile your elbow is busy opening and closing with the undulation of the gaits, maintaining the rein length and essentially doing NOTHING with the whip.
A good exercise for practicing this use of your wrist not getting suckered into using your elbow is to place your back and upper arm against the wall, with your elbow jointed and forearm sticking out in front of you. You can then rotate your wrist and judge for yourself how much or little your elbow wants to help, as it were. When in the saddle you can then mirror the effects of your at-home exercise. Stay tuned for the next installment of the dressage whip where I will explain a few different ways to switch your whip hand while riding!