Improving My Horse’s Stop

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Question: I enjoy your presentations and I have a question that I hope you can help me with my horse, Rocky. During groundwork he does not respond to the verbal command “Whoa.” What would you suggest I do while longeing? While under saddle? (Note: when I hand walk him, he responds excellently). Details: Rocky is new to me, a green 12 yr old Fjord, (He’s only had 1 owner before myself), and before I got him, he’s had only 50 rides-within his 12 years of life. I have only owned him for 2 months. On the longe line, when the verbal command “Whoa” is given, he does not stop immediately, and when he decides to stop, it’s only after he takes an additional 7 -10 steps. I am worried about taking him out on the trail. What do you think? (Note: under saddle, he responds fairly well to the bit when stopping) Is he safe? Please advise.
Answer: I wouldn’t worry about taking him out on the trail as long as he responds to your stop cues while riding. Since the cues from the ground and from the saddle are different physically and the context is quite different for the horse, you’ll have to teach these cues separately. But since you are teaching primarily a voice cue from the ground, once he learns it, he should stop better under saddle too.
Your horse isn’t built to stop like a reiner but he should respond abruptly to the whoa command by coming immediately and promptly to a halt, shifting his weight back on his haunches. The Norwegian Fjords are draft type horses that are bred to be pullers and thus tend to be heavy on the forehand. It’s really easy, especially when riding in a snaffle to inadvertently teach this type horse to lean into your hands when you try to stop him with the reins, since their tendency is to want to pull anyway. If you teach the whoa cue from the ground, it will be much easier to teach the horse to hard-stop from the saddle without using the reins.

I like to teach the voice cue to stop while I am circling (driving) the horse in a rope halter and on the long training lead (12 or 15 feet). The first thing you’ll do is make sure the horse will move out at an energetic trot in a circle around you in each direction; then you can start teaching the whoa command.

To teach the voice cue to stop, you will give the horse a verbal cue at the same time you give a body-language cue to stop—by saying “whoa” and at the same time, take one step toward the front of the horse (as if to block his forward motion) and plant your feet in a stop. If he does not stop promptly (within a second or two), you’ll snap the lead, sending a wave of rope toward the horse so that he gets bumped in the chin. Keep bumping, with increasing pressure, until he stops.

By giving the voice and body language cues first, then applying pressure from the rope if he does not stop, your horse will quickly learn to stop on the voice cue instead of waiting for the rope to bump him. This process is demonstrated in detail in my groundwork video called Lead Line Leadership. http://www.shop.juliegoodnight.com/shop/trftg2leadlineleadership.html

It sounds like your horse is stopping when you say whoa, but on his own time frame and he is not putting any effort to the stop or giving much respect for the voice cue. It takes a lot more energy for your horse to stop suddenly on his hindquarters than it does for him to drag his feet slowly into the stop, heavy on his forehand (especially since he is not built to stop hard on his haunches like a Quarter Horse might be). Because it takes more effort for the horse to comply (stop the way you want him to) you’ll likely have to use more pressure to motivate him to try a little harder. Both horses and humans are this way—you have to find the amount of pressure that motivates them to change (to try harder).

By the way, “whoa” can only mean one thing to your horse: stop dead in your tracks now! It cannot also mean slow down or quit spooking or stop and then walk four more strides. So use the word sparingly and always reinforce what you mean. Say “whoa” once, give the horse a brief opportunity to respond, and then reinforce the cue firmly with your other aids. From the ground, your only other aid is your rope; from the saddle, you reinforce the voice cue with your weight and reins.

If your horse “wanders” when you tell him to stop (stops but then continues at a walk for a few steps), you’ll have to issue a correction with the rope, in a timely fashion—as he first steps out of the stop—and with enough pressure that he reacts to the bump of the rope and begins to look for a way to avoid the pressure of the rope. The answer is easy to find for the horse (if your timing is good), that when he hears you utter the magic word, if he stops hard enough, there will be no bump from the rope (and he will get some praise and a nice rest).

You would use the same principles to train the horse to hard-stop from the voice cue when you are riding him. This time you’ll use the voice cue first, followed immediately by your weight cue (sit down on his back and drive your seat bones in); if he does not stop suddenly and with effort, then use your reins as reinforcement, backing him up abruptly. If you give him a second or two to respond to your voice and seat before the pressure from the reins is applied, he will quickly learn to stop to avoid bit pressure.

Sadly, most riders pull back on the reins as the very first part of their stop cue under saddle, so the horse is not motivated to try harder and learns to stiffen and brace when he feels a pull instead of dropping his head, rounding his back and stopping on his haunches.

Remember, you must always reinforce the whoa cue, whether you are doing groundwork, riding or just routine handling. Always be willing to reinforce with your other aids if the horse does not listen or stop adequately; that way, he’ll learn to pay attention and try harder. If you make the horse back up a step or two every time you say whoa, it will improve his stop. Be sure to watch a video clip of the Horse Master episode we did on this topic and check out the full set of Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVDs at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlprUCxQd5M, http://youtube.com/watch?v=dXZKDMkIyRo and http://shop.juliegoodnight.com.

Good luck!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician