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‘Whoa’ means ‘whoa!’

By SHERYL LYNDE / Horsetrader columnist - August 1st, 2017 - Trainer Tips, Training

Trainer Tips“Whoa” is a verbal cue given when asking the horse for a stop. Sounds simple, but when overused, the horse will learn to ignore your instruction.

One mistake I’ve seen riders make is they say the word “whoa” multiples times, but I never see the horse actually stop moving their feet forward. “Whoa” means “whoa!”

The word “whoa” is sacred and should only be used when you’re bringing your horse to a complete stop. It is not meant to be used in transitions from one gait to the next, or while your horse is bolting or anytime there is even the slightest possibility that your horse will ignore the cue.

A good stop takes preparation. It’s important to maintain softness throughout the stop. If the rider has been in the habit of balancing on the horse’s mouth and not riding with their seat and legs, this will negatively impact the horse’s ability to get into the ground properly. The very nature of “pulling” will create resistance, not softness. At any point during training, if a horse starts to hold his breath or get rigid through his body, you need to stop and back up — you’ve gone too far, too fast. Problems arise when a rider rushes through steps in order to reach a perceived goal. If you are riding with feel and training at the rate your horse can understand and easily process, the word problem doesn’t become a label attached to your horses’ behavior.

At a walk, trot, and canter, my horse needs to be soft. If I pick up on the reins at any time, I want my horse to give and be soft in my hands. Once he gives nicely to my request, I release the pressure and allow him to move out without contact. I repeat my request at different intervals at all gaits. If I were to have constant contact, I would be desensitizing him to my reins. By asking at different intervals and releasing pressure when he gives, he understands what I am asking and is sensitive — instead of numb — to my request.

Transitions help in building a stop. When riding at a trot, my legs are on my horse, moving in rhythm with his pace. When I am ready to transition to the walk, I will pick up slightly with my hands and ask him to soften while keeping forward movement by adding pressure from my legs. Once he softens, I will exhale, sit deep in the saddle and release my legs. As soon as he breaks into the walk I will reward him by releasing the reins. I will repeat the same steps transitioning from a canter to a trot. Once the horse has a clear understanding and consistently transitions from a canter to a trot (and from a trot to a walk), I will begin to introduce the word “whoa.”

The art of the stop comes from building a sequence of cues that prepare your horse to get into the ground. The first cue in the sequence comes from sitting deep in the saddle and releasing pressure from your legs. Make sure your shoulders are slightly behind your hips and your lower back is soft. It is easy to get in the habit of throwing your shoulders back, but resist the inclination to do so. If there is a brace in your body, your horse will be abrupt in his stop, causing him to be heavy on his shoulders instead of engaging his hindquarters. It is counter intuitive, but the softer and slower you are in your body movements, the better and easier it is for your horse to stop. If you golf, think about swinging the club. When your swing is effortless, the ball just sails through the air perfectly at a great distance. It feels effortless. But when you try and force your swing, that’s when problems arise and you wind up sending the turf farther than the ball. Secondly, say the word “whoa” in a loud voice as you exhale. Draw out the letters slowly rather than short and hastily. Last, but not least, in the sequence: slowly pull on the reins, being as light as possible but as firm as necessary, to bring your horse to a stop. Sit. Whoa. Pull.

Stops take practice on the rider’s part to develop timing and feel. If you rush the cues too fast, your horse will go into the stop too hard. If you look at your tracks, they should be smooth going in and deeper at the end. Make sure you keep your chin up and focus on something ahead of you. It’s very common for riders to look down or at their horse’s head, which pulls your body forward in the saddle. And, most importantly, relax!

~Sheryl

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