Most fear issues stem from a rider’s worry over losing control. You fret about what your horse might do, and whether you’ll be able to respond appropriately to bring him back in line.
That’s why polishing up your horse’s whoa is a terrific schooling exercise. It not only gives you something concrete and manageable to work on (especially handy on those days when you’re feeling less bold than usual), but also helps build your sense of security.
How? It just makes sense. As your horse learns to stop in response to your voice and weight alone, your confidence that you can remain in control of him at all times soars.
Teaching this sort of whoa is straightforward, but it requires absolute consistency. The key is always to ask for the stop with your voice and weight first, reinforcing with the reins only to the extent that you must.
Here’s how. Squeeze or bump with your legs at or just behind the cinch to move your horse forward in an energetic walk. Provide plenty of slack in the reins to encourage him to stride out.
Ideally, be traveling away from the barn or arena gate, so these natural “magnets” will be working in your favor when you ask for the stop. (Eventually, you’ll want to teach your horse to stop no matter what magnets are pulling him forward. But for the first few times, stack the deck in your favor.)
Sit up straight and tall in the saddle, and allow your seat to follow and even encourage your horse’s forward motion.
Breathe! When your horse is moving forward freely, take a deep breath, then start exhaling as you sit deep in the saddle and stop following your horse’s movement with your pelvis.
Near the end of the exhalation, say “Whoa” in a low, smooth, authoritative voice. (If your voice is tentative, abrupt, or too drawn out, it will be less effective at commanding attention and getting a response.)
As you finish saying “Whoa,” in the same breath say “One, and,” and if your horse hasn’t stopped by that point, make him stop. Do this by picking up your reins and, using the least amount of pressure that’s effective, draw him to stop. Then praise him and give him a little break—just long enough for him to know he’s being rewarded.
Then repeat. If you ride the entire sequence precisely several times in a row, you’ll be amazed how quickly your horse will begin to stop before you go to the reins. He prefers not to feel that bit pressure, so if you give him a clear opportunity to avoid it, he will.
Practice stopping like this regularly and often. Try it out on the trail, too. Be sure not to let your horse “volunteer” where he wants to stop—such as by the gate or near other horses. Make it your choice.
Once he’s reliable at a walk, move to the trot, then the lope. Before long, you’ll know the confidence that comes from having a horse with a really wonderful whoa.
Sandy Collier of Santa Maria, California, is a Quarter Horse world champion trainer, a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the only woman to win the open division of the World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity. Find information on her popular book, Reining Essentials, and her DVD, "Secrets to Becoming a Great Horse Owner," at sandycollier.com.