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Dear Dana: How can I put the ‘stop’ in my horse’s whoa?

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - December 20th, 2012 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: I have a Paint Horse that I really get along with. He is very responsive to most of the things that I ask him to do. He jogs and lopes slowly and with his head down. For the most part , he does what I ask. Recently I have noticed that when I ask him to stop, he does not respond right away. He puts his head up and pulls on my hands. When I do get him to stop, he tries to take a few steps forward. Also, when he has stopped, he doesn’t like to stand still. Please help!
– Andrea, Pasadena

DEAR ANDREA: What you are describing is a very common problem. I am going to teach you to redefine your ‘whoa’ cue!

Many riders draw back on their horse’s reins and pull them to a stop, and when they feel the motion stopping they release their cue before all four feet are fully committed to a stop – which can also put the horses body weight on his front end. A well-balanced, collected horse needs to carry more than half of his body weight over his hindquarters. When your horse stops this way, he is not fully completing the ‘whoa’ cue. He is not respecting your cue and basically taking control of his feet. That will lead to your other problem of his not wanting to stand still. Many horses will also learn to throw their heads in the air because you have drawn back on the reins then released and given them freedom before the stop is completed, thereby opening a door for him to pull away from the rein pressure.

The fix for this problem is simple! Remember, the reward is the release, and you have given your release too early. You have to reprogram that by making sure that the timing of your release is correct. Awareness is the first step to change and you are aware of the problem. Now increase your awareness by feeling through your hands – if he is pulling on you, or if he is soft and light in your hands. Many riders become so accustomed to their horses pulling and tugging on their hands that they don’t even realize that this is going on. A horse can desensitize a rider much in the same way that a rider can desensitize a horse. Redefine your feel and work toward a light responsive horse. When you ask for your whoa cue, your horse should match your cue and be right there for you.

So, when you ask him to “whoa” – or, as I like to say it, when you draw him to the ground – do just that. Draw up on your reins and draw him to the ground. Keep your pull or draw consistent, and don’t release until all four of his feet are fully committed to the ground.

Then, release him in the face. If he walks forward out of the stop, pick up on your reins and draw back until he backs up a couple of steps. I don’t like to pull him backward a long way because then the real message to him can get lost, and this is turned into a lesson in the back up. Be clear in your message. All you are doing is drawing his motion back to the ground and regaining control of his feet. If he walks forward, again repeat the maneuver. Continue this until he stands. If he feels real ancy or nervous, make sure that you are not jerking or snatching him in the face. Just make it a smooth, firm draw.

Also, at the start, it may be a lot to ask him to stand for long moments at a time. Just get him to settle all four feet to the ground to the count of 3, for example, and then go back to work with forward motion, practicing your stop over and over until he is happy for the reward he gets with a balanced stop and a quiet stand.

Several components may come into play if he does not want to stand quietly. He may be fresh or nervous, or he could be nervous by someone picking at him or grabbing at him in the stop. Or, he may be spoiled and barn sour and may not have been required to stop and stand like a obedient, balanced horse. When he has stopped and is standing quietly on a released rein, then pat him or tell him good boy or good girl. Horses relax to the sound of your soft voice; it is a reward for them.

Also, as you draw your horse to the stop, make sure that you are not throwing your body backward. Just simply relax your pelvis and fold down onto your horse. When you throw your body backward, you are adding pounds of pressure to your pull and you may be adding your upper body weight to the pull through your handsÑhitting your horse in the face with a lot of pressure. If you have a sensitive horse, he may become scared of your hands, dreading the stop. You will have more body control with your hands and arms if you are sitting balanced through your seat.

In your question, you say your Paint Horse is responsive most of the time, and that he jogs and lopes slowly. Your stop is your problem. My guess is that it is very likely that he is afraid in the stop and is dreading them. This may be from you or a previous rider, but you can improve those stops – if you are (1) very mindful of how you use your body and hands and (2) very clear in your cues and release at the right time when all four feet are committed to the ground.

If he continues to be very heavy or pull on you in the face when you stop him, you can pull until he backs up and softens in your hand. Then, release. He should not be able to drag your forward by pulling on your hands. The best correction is not to jerk or snatch, just draw him backward until he softens in your hands.

Good luck to you, I know this will help.

Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.

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