We use hands, seat, legs and voice to give a horse signals, we call them aids. We can also add whips and spurs. If used well, they are an useful extra. But there is a downside to it.
Let’s start with a whip. Take one and give yourself a good whack. It hurts. Think of this, when you ride with it. A whip is an instrument to point things out, not to punish. So you should be able to handle it with care. If your horse doesn’t react to your leg, a light tap with a whip can jog his brain. If you tap him over and over, it does lose its meaning.
A schooling whip should be long enough to reach the belly behind your calf. If your whip is too short, you’ll have to hold two reins in one hand to reach for the spot, which is too much hassle. If you mean to emphasize your leg aid, the whip aid should be in that position, not on the shoulder. If you get further ahead and start working on passage and piaffe, a whip can help to point out the horse has to lift his legs up. But that takes an experienced trainer to help you.
If you have a young horse that is not used to the whip, start with ground work. Touch him gently with the whip. Take it away from him when he relaxes. He should learn it is not something to be afraid of. He should respect it, not fear it. When I was in Portugal with the great Luis Valenca, he showed me they actually use a whip to calm a horse, by holding it steady against it’s body. He taught his horses to stop and relax when he does that.
In the old days I was told to always hold the whip on the inside. So I had to change in over every time I changed rein. Nowadays I just hold it on the side I need it. I have a pupil who is so right handed, she can’t control the whip when it’s in her left hand. If she holds it there and has to give a light tap, it becomes a whack and disturbs the harmony. So I let her hold it in her right hand only.
In the Netherlands you are allowed to carry a schooling whip during lower level dressage competitions. But not on higher levels. I think it’s a good thing, because you should be able to do without. You and your horse should be so tuned in to each other that you can do all with legs, hands and seat. To get there, a whip can be useful if used with caution.
Spurs is a bit different. For starters you have one on each leg. And they can be used to emphasize a leg aid, but you can also teach a horse that a touch of your leg at a certain spot means something different from a touch of the spur at the same place. So it can be an extra aid. But…that takes a lot of control over the use of your legs. Independently, so you should be able to do something with one leg and something completely different with the other at the same time. And with hands. Now try this: draw a circle in the air with your left hand, make your right hand go up and down at the same, while touching your nose with one hand and touching your ear with the other… Can you do this? You are a miracle if you can. I can’t.
It sometimes seems like spurs are a standard part of a dressage riders outfit. But if you don’t have an independent seat yet or you can’t control your lower legs, don’t use them. I train my horses without. But that’s just because I always forget where I’ve left them. I noticed my horses didn’t go any different with or without them… In competitions on the level I’m riding they are compulsory, so I wear really tiny ones. But to be honest, I doesn’t make much difference. I train them to be sharp off the leg and they are. I’ve had horses in for training which were holding back more with spurs then without.
If your legs are quiet and you feel it helps, by all means use them. If not, don’t. Don’t ask me which kind you should buy. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t pester or hurt your horse. I’ve reached far more by being consequent and therefore having horses off the leg. There are no magic spurs that suddenly turn your horse into a Grand Prix winner. It’s not the material you use, it’s the riding…