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

Dominated Horse

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Dear Julie,
I have a 13-year-old Paint Horse mare who is very dominant. She came to my barn as a two year old and I already had an18-year-old gelding and a 4-year-old mare. In just a few days, she was the Alpha.
Her ground manners with me are quite nice, but the problem seems to be related to her strong response to outside stimuli, whether it is a horse or something else. This is particularly a problem when I am trail riding—as her attention is quickly diverted. Generally, I will begin to do leg yields or ask for something that I know I can get, but occasionally she catches me off guard.
Additionally, if she doesn’t want to do something, she just stops. I ask once, tell once, and then use a crop or spurs. Her response is bucking and head tossing, but then she moves on. Everyone knows to clear out when she stops, as the scenario unfolds about the same each time. Her teeth have been checked and she doesn’t appear to be saddle sore. Could you share your thoughts with me?
Thank you so much for your time.
Dominated No More
Dear Dominated,
If you’re certain you have ruled out any physical issues in your mare, then you have to look to training.
As for getting and keeping your horse’s attention, here’s what I suggest. Even though you say her ground manners are good, I would work her on the ground first, in the easiest location, then in any environment where you have trouble keeping her attention. I would work very doggedly on two issues: 1) don’t move your feet unless I tell you to, and 2) keep your nose in front of your chest at any time you’re in my presence.
Controlling the feet and the nose are very critical for keeping your horse’s focus and obedience, especially from the saddle. But you must have complete control of the nose, shoulder, hip and feet from the ground first.
Most people think they can control the feet and the nose but when you get to it, the horse is in total control of when and where he moves his nose and feet. There are numerous articles about this type of lead line work in the Training Library on my website so I’ll let you read about it there. I also have a video called Lead Line Leadership that shows a series of exercises you can do from the ground with any horse to gain respect, focus and obedience from your horse.
Secondly, I would begin to reinforce the “nose” rule when I am riding. Any horse I ride, I don’t care the age or training, is expected to keep his nose in front of his chest while I am riding. I do not let them be “looky-lous” or vary the track on which they are moving. A simple correction with the opposite rein (if he is looking right, use the left rein) is all it takes. In about thirty seconds to a minute, I can teach the horse this rule. The problem most people have in correcting is the technique and the timing; in fact, those two words cover any and all horse and rider problems. To correct the nose properly, you have to use perfect technique and perfect timing.
Technique: you must bump lightly UP on ONE rein. Ninety-eight percent of riders will pull back instead of bump or flick up on the rein. Seventy-five percent of riders pull rather than bump, and with both reins. You want to bump lightly and smoothly (not jerking) with your thumb pointed up and out, so that your wrist twists open. Bump exactly in this manner (not pulling back) until the horse brings his nose to your hand.
Timing: you must release sooner rather than later. You must release when the horse first makes an effort and then ask again for just a tiny bit more and release. The horse is focused on the release and if it doesn’t come immediately, he will stiffen and resist. Apply the correction 100% of the time; this takes a lot of concentration but once your horse learns the rule (keep your nose in front of your chest) he will comply. But first he must know you will correct him, gently but relentlessly, before he will comply (this is true of all things with horses, they must know you’re committed before they are obedient).
Before you loose control of your horse, you lose his nose position. Enforcing the nose rule, is keeping your horse’s focus on the task at hand and what you have asked her to do. This requires concentration and persistence on your part too. I would either put my horse to work or disengage his hindquarters every time her attention wanders (which is obvious by his ears and nose position). Put him to work by just asking him to do something (stop, go, turn, backup, circle, trot a circle, walk-trot-walk transitions, etc.). When she is compliant, let her relax and as soon as her attention wanders, put her back to work. All you have to do is create an association between her actions (losing focus on you) and having to work harder.
There are many articles on my website about disengagement and why and how you do it. I would start with making small turns R-L-R-L in a random pattern. Every time I change the direction of my horse’s nose and shoulder, I am gaining more control and keeping her neck relaxed and moving side to side. I am also bending her whole body, moving her feet and disengaging the hindquarters. As she relaxes and focuses on me, I let her go straight; horses get tired of circling and turning quickly, so she will look for what gets her the release. Again, timing and technique determine the success.
Technique: Make random turns in both directions using your whole body to turn, starting with your eyes, making sure both hands point in the direction you want your horse to turn, not pulling back on the reins, but to the side and up with the inside hand. (see articles on equitation and rein aids in my Training Library). Your hands would be applying the leading rein (inside) and the neck rein (outside). Never turn a horse quickly or ask him to do something in anger. Your leg aids must reinforce the rein aids and control the horse’s barrel too (the reins control the nose but the rein and legs control the shoulder and the body of the horse).
Timing: Always cue the horse slowly to turn so that he might possibly have time to move his head before the pull comes on his mouth. When your horse’s attention wanders, do not rush to the correction, but slowly and methodically ask the horse to do something. Ask him to perform his paces in a perfunctory manner, not in a punishing manner.
When the horse balks on you, you simply need to move his feet. But do not try to kick or spur him into action, that will almost always lead your horse to explode because his feet are stuck in one place and you have lost control. Pulling his nose to the side and disengaging his hindquarters will un-stick his feet, then you can move right into changes of direction and controlling the horse’s nose. If need be, turn him in the direction he wants to go to get his feet unstuck but immediately turn his nose the other way. If this horse is obedient to your legs at other times but suddenly “pulls up” (suddenly bulks and refuses to move forward) on you, kicking her or spurring her more will not necessarily help and may cause a burst of movement from your horse. Bending and disengaging will un-stick the feet with less drama. So when she plants her feet, rather than get in a big fight over asking her to move her feet, ask her something different: flex, bend, disengage, leg yield, etc. Ask, release. Ask, release. Ask something else.
That’s what I would do with a horse whose attention is wandering and leading her to be non-responsive and disobedient. Good luck and be careful!
Julie Goodnight