Dressage whips look like a simple implement, a 3- to 4-foot length of fiberglass covered with woven thread and a cap at the top so it won’t slip through your hand. Even so, there are a lot a variations on the theme, with some new ”looks” over the past few years even if the basic function hasn’t changed.
You now can get dressage whips in sparkly colors. There’s a greater selection in handle grips, from bamboo, to leather (woven, ribbed, plain and suede), gel, rubber (ribbed, plain, or pebbled), wood, velvet, and even no handle at all.
Caps come in brass, chrome, silver tone, gold tone, stainless steel, leather, nickel, rubber and with bling, and they’re shaped like a mushroom, ball or disc. What it all boils down to, though, is balance, which can be affected by the design of the shaft vs. that of your handle and cap.
Weaves. The ultra-stiff whips we saw a decade ago coated with thin metal seem to have mostly disappeared, while the braided cover that’s worked well for over a century is still the norm. The woven thread usually will be nylon or cotton. Important choices here are the tightness of the weave and whether or not the material is lacquered.
Lacquer and a tight weave will get you a stiffer whip, but unless you’re experienced, the difference may be too subtle to matter much. The lacquered whip will also be less likely to fray and, while whips with a frayed shaft are still serviceable, they just don’t look as nice. A stiffer whip has a lighter touch, while a ”whippy” whip will have a bit more sting but also a little less control.
So, weave does make a difference. For most of us, a lacquered, stiff whip is the best choice.
Handles. Even though whip manufacturers make a big deal out of the materials in the handle, it’s not likely that you’ll be gripping that area at all but rather the base of the handle. Thus, balance will usually determine whether you’re comfortable holding a whip over an hour of riding. It can be difficult to sort out the balance point in a whip that doesn’t have a handle.
One time-tested solution to the balance problem, with or without a handle, is to slip a rubber rein stop onto your whip from the bottom and set it just at the point above where you want your hand. You won’t have to readjust your whip and it won’t fall out. The rubber rein stop is fine for showing and doesn’t get in the way when you switch the whip from side to side.
Overall, your choice of a handle matters little, if the whip designer did a good job with balance.
Balance. You want to carry the whip so that it angles across your thigh, not pointing down to the horse’s shoulder, and you don’t want to have to grip too hard. You should be able to touch the horse’s side lightly with a flick of the wrist.
The ideal balance point is roughly where the handle joins the shaft. So, you should hold the whip at that point, not actually by the handle. The longer the whip, the more weight you want at the top to balance it, while a short whip with a heavy handle may feel awkward.
Therefore, a well-designed whip will have a cap that is suitable to the weight of the shaft. When you’re shopping, pick up the whip, grasp it at the handle-shaft joint and note whether it wants to tilt one way or the other or if it is relatively easy to hold. It should feel comfortable in your hand and easy to maneuver.
Length. Consider length, including the size and sensitivity of your horse, when shopping for a whip. You won’t want a long whip on a 14-hand Arab, and you likely won’t want a short whip on a 17.2-hand warmblood where it won’t even reach past the square saddle pad. If you’re competing, you’ll need to consider rules, too (see sidebar, page 7).
We’re beating around the bush on length because the U.S. Equestrian Federation changed its rule this year for the maximum allowed length, and some tack shops and manufacturers are still in a quandary. What’s printed in catalogs and websites — including info supplied by manufacturers for our product box here — may be very different from what’s available when you’re actually ready to buy, at least for the next few months.
Last year, the maximum allowed length was 110 cms (about 43”). Over the winter, that changed to 120 cms (47.2”), but the manufacturers and tack shops were caught flat footed with mostly 43” whips on hand while customers wanted the longer allowed length. Many catalogs and websites still haven’t caught up, although the longer models may be available.
That said, you can’t just take any information concerning length on trust. The problem is that most manufacturers list their whips by shaft length, while the legal length allowed at USEF shows is the overall length including lash. (The manufacturers do this because the shaft is a fixed length, while the lash can easily vary.)
Some catalogs are clear on this and others don’t bother, so look closely to see if they list their whips by shaft length, overall length, or maybe even both. If you’re not sure, call and ask, or order down a bit, say 45” with the expectation that the lash will add more length. You can always trim or knot the lash to the allowable length but you can’t trim the shaft.
Note: Actually, last year’s usual listed length was 39”, with the presumption that it would total out under the 43” limit. We saw this number on shafts that were anywhere from 34” to 42” plus lashes from 2” to a scary 9”, making the whip illegal even at the new length.
Because of this muddle over length, we recommend that you buy your whip in a tack shop and that you verify the total length yourself. Tack shops usually have a tape measure somewhere if you ask for it. Don’t go by the tag, which again is likely to list the shaft length and not the overall length.
Care And Color. We’ve found that riders shop for a new whip more often than they expect. Dressage whips are basically disposable, since they get broken in a car or stall door, or get set down and forgotten, or the tip wears down. Show secretaries could go into a side business selling the gloves and whips that get left at their counter by the end of a long weekend.
You’ll want a somber-color whip for showing, but if you tend to forget where you’ve set down your whip at home, or if it gets ”borrowed” by others in your barn, then you might want a schooling whip in something brighter than black. You can also prevent your whip from wandering away by putting an address label or a bright piece of tape at the base of the handle.
Ideally, you should store your whip in a rack so the tip isn’t damaged and so you can find it easily. If your whip lives on the floor of the tack room, store it in a corner handle-down, not tip-down. A whip with a replaceable lash doesn’t necessarily last longer over a lash that’s an extension of the woven cover because the tip of the fiberglass shaft can still wear through. If that happens, always discard the whip because the exposed fiberglass can cut your horse.
Bottom Line. We had a wonderful variety of materials, features and corresponding prices with the whips. You don’t need to spend a fortune on a dressage whip. Very inexpensive whips are still serviceable and useful.
All the whips in this trial were basically well-balanced. We talk about individual difference among whip styles in our chart, but for our picks we’re looking at brands over single products because we’ve found whip brands tend to be consistent in their overall qualities and because of individual needs for specific features. We considered materials and workmanship in our decision during our field trial.
Fleck, which come from Germany, is our No. 1 pick because their range of whips is overall the best-balanced that we’ve seen, no matter which Fleck whip we mount up with.
Our Best Buy goes to Westfield Whips, made in Massachusetts. These whips are sturdy, long-lasting and have an almost infinite variety of options.
Article by Associate Editor Margaret Freeman.