A well trained horse stopping on a loose rein from any gait never fails to impress. It is also a joy to ride. However, perhaps even more importantly, I think our horses prefer to stop as nature intended – that is by using the power of their hindquarters in all downward transitions. This is especially evident when you watch a well trained western horse stopping and backing. Just check out the picture to the right of 2010 NRHA Futurity Level 4 Open Champion Spooks Gotta Whiz to see how it should be done. (Thank you to Baby Spooks' owner Michell Anne Kimball for allowing us to use this lovely image.)
What you need to do
Even before you ride your horse there are important opportunities to teach your horse to stop well. Most of us lead our horses in and out of the field at least once a day, so use this time to reinforce your voice cue to stop your horse. It's vital that all western horses recognise, and respond to, the word ‘whoa’. Whether being led, lunged, long-lined, loose schooled or ridden your horse needs to respond immediately to the ‘W’ word. As in all things equine you need to be utterly consistent. NEVER say whoa unless you want your horse to stop – I know it sounds obvious but check you're not saying 'whoa' when in fact you just want your horse to slow down. Whoa must mean whoa!
Stopping in hand
When leading your horse he needs to stop whenever you do - this means without having to pull on the lead rope. Try walking along, say whoa without using the lead rope and see what your horse does. Ideally he should stop moving completely without overtaking. If your horse wasn’t paying attention it should only be necessary to smartly turn yourself around and start asking your horse to back up, repeating the word whoa once you are happy with the back up steps and you've come to a complete stop. Pat him, relax and then repeat the walk, stop exercise again until you're happy with your horse’s response. Test out your leading skills by unclipping your lead rope (or taking off the halter) and walking, jogging, stopping, backing and turning without using the lead at all! We'll use Skooter to illustrate stopping without a halter.
Note from the WRDP team: Before we get to that, just as an aside, it's worth noting that Judith has always worked quite a bit with Skooter loose. In the picture to the right Skooter was just a few months old and was on one of her many 'walks' with Judith. This was when she learned to tackle some basic obstacles like the huge ditch she's about to cross... OK, it's a tiny little ditch, but you get the drift - Skooter learned early on in life to walk alongside her human, read body language and listen to voice commands. (She was also a very, very cute baby, but we're biased!)
Now back to the present day and the serious stuff! In the picture to the left you can see that Skooter isn't wearing a halter and is jogging alongside Judith. She's positioned beautifully, and when she wants the stop Judith must rely on Skooter being attentive, reading her body language and understanding, and responding to, the 'w' word.
At this point Judith has begun to stop her own forward motion and you may be able to see from the photograph that she's saying the word 'whoa'. (Remember that how you say the word makes a difference. Relax, say it slowly with a low, relaxed tone. If you rush to get the word out and it comes out like a squeak it's not likely to work... and you don't look cool!) Skooter responds immediately and shifts her weight back onto her hind-quarters...
... and here you can see that Skooter has stopped and is standing relaxed, waiting for her next cue.
Now let's move on and think about stopping when you're in the saddle.
Stopping under saddle
First let's take a reality check! Start by walking on a loose rein then without picking up the reinssay 'whoa', sit down in the saddle at the same time putting some weight into your stirrupsallowing your feet to move away from your horse’s sides. If your horse stops walking immediately - well done! However, if you have to pull on the reins before you cease forward motion then you need to do some more work on your voice and seat cues.
There's a common misconception that the rider leans back in the saddle whilst pushing hard into the stirrups with almost straight legs. This is illustrated in the picture to the right.... (we did have a laugh taking this photo, but Sparky looked a bit shocked!) Unfortunately this is something you see quite a lot at western shows, but it really is NOT how it should be done. When a rider braces like this the horse has no option but to mirror the action. This means that he'll tighten his back and lock his legs – when attempting to stop from speed this will result in a hollow back and raised head. Not only that... the rider stands a strong chance of bouncing straight out of the saddle or even sustaining a very nasty injury to the delicate under-parts! If you're a competitive reiner you won't get a good manoeuvre score for a stop like that and you definitely won't look cool.
Instead the rider needs to learn to drop weight down into the saddle by using a rounding action of the lower back. Imagine you've been punched in the stomach – try this on a chair feeling how your pelvis tips so that you are sitting more on your jeans pockets. You will also feel heavier as you're no longer supporting so much of your own body weight. Still sitting on your chair, practise stopping your horse – visualise riding along then say 'whoa', collapse your middle but don’t pull back with your hands. It can help to close your eyes, but you'll need to make sure no one is watching because not everyone will understand what you're doing! This is illustrated below, by Judith on her 5 year old, Sparky.
Check out the difference. Here Judith is sitting normally....
... here Judith is positioned to ask for the stop. Can you see the difference?
Young versus old
A word about the differences when training young and old horses. Young, newly backed horses will usually slow down/stop when their riders quit riding them forwards. An unspoilt horse naturally responds to the feel of the rider who is no longer moving with them; they feel the block and react without resistance. Unfortunately, without correct tactful riding the horse quickly learns that they will be pulled to slow down and stop. This inevitably sets up tension and resistance - firstly in the jaw, continuing to the neck, along the back and into the hindquarters. A horse that is stopped by the reins and not the seat will quickly learn to lean on the bit (to protect itself) which puts it onto the forehand making a good stop impossible. So just be aware that you may need to re-school your horse if he is no longer responding to the seat cues.
Before you begin stopping from jog and trot, make sure you have consistent stops from a walk. When, and only when you're confident that the stops are consistent, then begin asking from a lope. Remember adding miles per hour (speed) will show up any gaps in your training! If you have to pull the reins to stop from a jog it will only get worse when you are running to a sliding stop in that reining pattern.
Get into the habit of always backing your horse whenever you stop. It may only be necessary to rock back very slightly, or you may need to back several steps, but the real secret to a fantastic stop is having the horse think back up when he hears you say 'whoa'.