To examine this question, a Learning Theory refresher on the distinction between negative reinforcement and punishment would be useful, since “negative reinforcement” is undoubtedly the most misunderstood concept in psychological science.

Negative reinforcement (NR) serves to strengthen a desired behaviour by removing a mildly aversive stimulus. (To ask my horse to go forward, I squeeze with my legs, my horse responds, and I release the pressure). In contrast, punishment serves to weaken an undesired behaviour by adding an aversive stimulus in the hopes that the behaviour will not occur in the future (the horse who is zapped by electric wire is unlikely to make the same mistake twice). Punishment serves to eliminate a behaviour (albeit not always successfully) and NR serves to strengthen a behaviour.

Here I will discuss how whips and spurs may be used in horse training with these learning principles in mind.

Used as Negative Reinforcement

Although many cringe when they think of training with “negative reinforcement” because of their associations of “negative” and “bad” (instead, consider “negative” as in “subtract”), negative reinforcement is the foundation of all horse training. Teaching our horses to do the stupendously varied and spectacular things that they do usually comes about through a conversation of pressure, response, and release between horse and rider.

In humane and ethical equitation (think Laura Graves, Charlotte Dujardin, Ian Millar, or McLain Ward) our ultimate goal is to have the horse respond to the lightest aid possible (McGreevy & McLean, 2010). Thus, ethical equitation follows the rule of light cue (e.g. light touch with heel or spur) → stronger cue if the lighter aid has failed (e.g. stronger spur) → desired response → reward (immediate release of pressure). Ideally, the horse learns that responding to the light touch initially will avoid the stronger aid. As the work becomes more advanced, spurs or whips may also be used to refine the aid by adding reach and/or greater precision.

Used Inadvertently as Punishment

When the horse’s correct response is not rewarded with a release from pressure (indeed, the horse is punished for going forward by the omnipresent spur), the horse learns that this question has no correct answer, and eventually gives up trying, becoming desensitized to the rider’s ever increasing aid (Goodwin et al, 2009). The horse’s confusion may be intensified when a rider gives conflicting aids of simultaneous push and pull.

Rather than refine, the spur is used to amplify the aid with the escalating use of an increasingly wicked spur to motivate a horse who has been trained to become unresponsive (McGreevy & McLean, 2010). In this case, spur use is taking us in the opposite direction of what we would hope to achieve. Emulating Charlotte or McLain is getting further and further from our grasp.

Chloe Lemmon and her research group from the UK (2020) found that 34% of 294 respondents reported skin abrasions on their horses from spurs. Counterintuitively, 47% of professional riders reported spur abrasions, which was almost four times more likely than that seen in less-experienced riders. The authors note that given the media attention about spurs and welfare concerns (eg. Andrew Kocher Suspected of Using Shock Spurs on His Horses), we can only assume that these alarming numbers reflect an under-representation of the actual picture.

Used Purposely as Punishment

Punishment is questionable as an effective training tool for humans and for animals and ultimately has no place in ethical equitation (Position Statement on Aversive Stimuli, 2018, International Society for Equitation Science). For punishment to be effective, it must always be of the perfect intensity – not so harsh as to elicit a fear response, and not so mild that the recipient becomes desensitized to it – an intensity which is difficult to gauge ahead of its delivery.

And the punishment must be contingent – i.e. simultaneous with or immediately following the offending behaviour. Whipping a horse for refusing a jump while they stand motionless in front of it, or for knocking down an obstacle when they land is an ineffective and haphazard training strategy, because the punishment is non-contingent. Whipping, disconnected to the unwanted behaviour, delivers an unclear message and may train horses to default to a defensive flight response (McGreevy & McLean, 2010).

Even perfect punishment (if this were possible) is a risky business. The punishment can become easily associated with the situation, rather than the undesired behaviour. Thus, the horse may learn to fear the deliverer of the punishment, the location where the punishment occurred, or develop an overall anxiety about being ridden.

Although accurately timed and definitive punishers can restrain unwanted behaviour, punishment rarely corrects unwanted behaviour (Myers & DeWall, 2018), as punished behaviour is generally suppressed rather than forgotten. This may be further exacerbated because punishment does not address the cause of the behaviour, nor offer the recipient an alternative desirable behaviour. A look at whip use in racehorses underlines how punishment works in opposition with its desired end goal.

Whipping Racehorses

From a learning theory perspective, whipping a horse as it is accelerating punishes the behaviour one is hoping to encourage, serving instead to inhibit that response. Countless studies on the use of whips in racing come to the same conclusion: Whipped racehorses do not run faster.

On average, racehorses achieve their highest speeds during the portion of the race where there is no whip use (e.g. Evans & McGreevy, 2011); whip use is highest when horses are most fatigued and not able to respond (e.g. Evans & McGreevy, 2011), and increased whip use is not associated with faster running times, nor with a greater likelihood of placing or winning (Wilson, Jones, & McGreevy, 2018). These authors conclude that there is no ethical justification or purpose for whipping tired horses in the name of human amusement. As these authors note, “it seems obvious that if all horses were trained to gallop without whips, there would still be winners” (Evans, & McGreevy, 2011).

Researchers examining Australian harness racing from 2007-2016 found that as rulings around whip use became more stringent, race winning times were not compromised, again questioning the belief that whipping is necessary to maximize performance (Wilson, Jones, and McGreevy, 2018). Whip use may not only be ineffective, but actually increase the inherent risks in the sport. UK researchers, Pinchbeck and colleagues (2004) found that whipped steeplechasers were seven times more likely to fall than those not being whipped.

Ethical Equitation

In an effort to ensure equine welfare, FEI rules address details about spur length, whip length, rowels or no rowels, notches or no notches, and even how a whip is to be held, and vary widely and randomly across disciplines. Racing regulations present differing criteria again.

If these governing bodies were following International Society of Equitation Science guidelines, stressing the ethical use of learning theory, there should be no variation across disciplines. As noted in their Position Statement on Aversive Stimuli (2018), extended or excessive pressure by whip or spur, or any training protocol that elicits fear, stress, or pain for horses is unethical and a serious welfare concern. Rather, ethical equitation demands that, “correct responses should be rewarded by the timely removal of aversive stimuli [such as] the leg, spur or whip.”

Just as we have had to address the social conditions that create and foster substance abuse, rather than believing that we can eradicate addiction problems by a “war on drugs,” so too must we examine the core of our equine training practices rather than making spurs or whips themselves the culprit. The length of a spur shank or whip, or the presence or absence of rowels will never solve the abuses that arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of how all animals, including humans and horses, learn.