Training Exercises: The Verbal “Whoa!”

In my early days of horse training, I was less experienced and less sure of myself. My angst expressed itself with a great deal of work on safety exercises. Paramount among those were disengaging the horse’s rear early so that he never showed that part of his anatomy to me and teaching him to stop in his tracks when I told him to. Having been a professional dog trainer before I started horse training, I find that I am more verbal with my horses than some equine specialists. It has been a little bit of a drawback in some exercises and a great plus in others.

After my horses start getting the hang of directional line-lunging, I start teaching them to stop in a prescribed manner on my verbal request, “whoa”. In this video, Waters has learned to stop, turn, face and come in when I signal him. He is a little over-zealous as he approaches, but his routine for stopping is very nice in a very short time.

This lesson uses three or more of the training principles used by most trainers and detailed in this document:

Intention Pressure: When a horse is lunging and you move forward of his girth line (drive line), you inhibit his forward movement. When you step toward his rear he turns it away. Your body language and gaze have shown him intention pressure in both instances. (see Pressure)

Release is the reward. In this case, the reward is your instant stop of any pressure the moment he is stopped facing you. (see Release Training)

Paired Response You will be nearly-simultaneously doing four actions at once. First the “Whoa” is paired with the forward-inhibiting step followed by the rear pressure to turn his rear end away and face toward you. Followed by the release with 60 second relaxation. “Step-front + Whoa” to “Step-rear” to “back away from the horse”. “Relax”. Remember: Body cue; Voice cue; New Body Cue; Release (see Paired Response)

Teaching the verbal WHOA is a three step dance during a trotting lunge.

whoa during lunnging exercisesStep 1: When the horse is moving at the end of the rope in a relaxed manner (you standing in the middle of the pen), take a step in the direction that your horse is circling, moving your gaze and pressure in front of the girth line (drive line) to inhibit his forward progress. Simultaneously say the word “Whoa!” in a firm but calm manner. This is not a wimpy “Whoa Please”, but “Whoa!”.

Step 2: As momentum ceases, quickly take a step with your other foot (the one at his rear) toward his fanny (with intention gaze at the root of his tail and a slight pull on his head toward you). This maneuver causes him to “hide” his fanny from your predator gaze (which turns it away from you) and brings his head toward you. (disengage his rear)

Step 3: IMMEDIATELY (the moment he is stopped and looking at you) back up and release all pressure so that he stops in that facing position. Stand there for a full 60 seconds with no pressure.

Most horses like the Whoa! request. It is always followed by rest.

Think of it as a dance between you. You send him lunging, then step to the front to slow him down, step to the rear to turn it away, and back up to release all pressure. In response to your moves, he trots off, stops, hides his fanny and stands looking at his partner. Soon, the body maneuver is reduced to Whoa!/step rear/stand still. Then Whoa!/stand still. Then just Whoa!

In-hand Whoa accomplished.

The procedures above are great to introduce the concept of stop on a verbal cue. However, they invariably leave the horse stopping on his front instead of his rear. He stops locomotion in the front and then swings his rear around.

To start getting a stop that will eventually rock back on his rear, we must begin to eliminate the fanny-swing and teach him to stop in his tracks and stand parallel to us.

Whoa on the ground

Most of your horse’s life will be spent with both of you doing routine tasks on the ground or you in the saddle. The lunging “whoa” with all of its “fanny-swinging” is just a precursor to getting him to stop in his tracks – dead on.

The lunging “whoa” lesson can be expanded to start using the word “whoa” during other ground work. When you are walking your horse from point A to point B, say the word, “whoa” as you stop walking. Then back up three steps.

teaching a horse to whoa on the ground

If your horse proceeds ahead of you, he will run into his halter about 1/2 second after you stop. Using whatever cue you have used to teach him to back up (either jiggling the halter, knocking on the halter, or tapping his chest with your stick) accomplish the back maneuver. Then stop and rest.

Repeat this exercise until your horse anticipates the stop the moment he hears the word. At this point, your word and body language are simultaneous. You stop when you say whoa. He stops when you stop and he hears the word “whoa”. It is fairly easy to teach when there are two cues.

The next step is to teach the horse to stop even if your body language is still walking. This is harder. As you walk, say, “whoa”, and take a couple of more steps. If the horse follows, actually correct him with a more forceful “back up” command for three or four steps back. Expect him to be confused. Your body language said go and your voice said stop. It will take him by surprise that you expected him to stop.

After a few tries, you will probably notice that your horse will begin to slow down (if not actually stop) when he hears the “whoa”. You will see him hesitate to “think about it”. Correct each time, even if you see the light starting to shine but the actual stop is not perfected.

Repeat until he stops on the request BEFORE you stop walking. Rest.

As he gets better and better, start walking or trotting faster and faster. With both of you trotting, say, “whoa” and come to a screeching halt and back up four or five steps fast. Make it a game. Trot off, halt, back up. Trot off, slow down and stop easily. Trot off, fast halt, fast back up. Three times fast halt – one time slow down to a stop. (Intersperse them so that the horse does not start to lag at the trot anticipating the back up every time.)

We are much closer to a verbal whoa that works under saddle.

Whoa under saddle is very easy once you have accomplished a sound and instant Whoa in hand and on the Ground.

Step 1: Trot around the edge of the round pen in a relaxed manner.

teaching a horse to whoa under saddleStep 2: Simultaneously relax your posture back into the Cantle of your saddle (sort of breathing out as you rock back with your feet barely forward of the neutral position – planting the bones of your fanny into the deep muscle of the horse’s back) and say the word “Whoa” in the same tone you have used for in-hand training. The seat cue is like “plugging” your seat into the horse, not rocking like a hobby horse.

Stop 3: Quickly pick up on the reins. Within 1 second or less, follow the request and seat posture by pulling back on the halter or bit (depending on what you are using for head control – I am using a knotted-nose rope halter with rein rings at this stage of training) with arms at to your sides, forearm and rein pressure parallel to the ground. (this doesn’t mean with your hands way down below your knees or up into your chest. The forearms should be parallel to the ground and your hands just in front of the saddle so that your pull is firm and strong, not flopping around) See the picture below.

Step 4: Release all cues instantly when he stops. Wait at least 60-90 seconds before resuming forward motion. Most horses love to rest.

Paired Response: You are nearly-simultaneously doing three actions at once. First the “Whoa” is paired with rolling back into the saddle cantle followed by picking up on the reins and then inhibiting head control. If your horse is already trained to give to the pressure of the halter or the bit, he is warned that it is coming (by your voice and seat position) and given an opportunity to stop before his head is controlled by the rider’s hands. Seat-relax + Whoa to Hand Cue then Head-control to Release. Remember: Seat cue; Voice cue; Hand Cue; Head Control; Release (see Paired Response)

As the pace gets faster, some horses begin to forge ahead and lose respect for the “whoa” in the heat of the moment. Add the backing up portion of the exercise to your routine. Leg Forward-Seat-relax/ Verbal whoa/ Bit reinforcement/ Back-up/ Total Relax.

This exercise is amazing. It teaches your horse BOTH the verbal cue to stop and a seat cue to stop. And, it will amaze your friends – very few of which can ask their horse to stop by just saying the word or just rolling back onto their pockets.

But there are certainly very practical applications of this exercise. One of my newly-trained horses began her trail training with her new owner. Someone forgot to buckle the throat latch of her bridle. (Lesson learned: Always check your equipment and the equipment of your pupils). She was superb, if sometimes tense, during the ride until we started back to the barn. Sensing that she was nearing her pasture mates and home, she began to get nervous and forward. Then all of a sudden her bridle came over her head and just dropped to her chest. No head control at all. Her near-panicked rider shouted , “Whoa!” and the mare stopped dead in her tracks! What a relief. We got off, re-positioned and double-checked the bridle and came home with a potentially very dangerous situation averted with complete control.

To show you the power of Pairing responses, I recently trained a Friesian mare. A beautiful and innately gentle horse. We went through all of the steps above with one added cue I hadn’t realized. I mentioned that I am more verbal than many horse trainers. I have a tendency to reward my horses with more than just relaxation. I frequently pet, stroke, and say, “Good girl” when she responds correctly.

My cues became: Seat-relax + Whoa to Hand-Cue to Head-control to Release +Good Girl”. To my surprise, while demonstrating her abilities to a potential buyer, I realized that she had made a giant conditioned jump from “Whoa!” to “Good Girl”. While trotting around the round pen, she was doing so well that I said, “Good Girl” in my approving tone of voice, encouraging her lovely trot. She stopped so fast she skidded dirt and I nearly went over her head! I had to go back and take the “whoa” out of “good girl”.

As training proceeds, your horse becomes more and more comfortable and reliable with this exercise. More of the cues disappear over time. First, the bit-head control is almost never needed. Then you can lower your voice or drop the voice cue altogether. Soon you will have a horse who works off of the seat cue to perfection.

I am much older now and more experienced. I started this article by saying that when I was young and inexperienced I worked very hard on safety exercises because I was worried about horse’s fannies and being able to stop in a sticky situation. I should tell you now that my healthy respect for a horse’s rear end and my need to stop instantly have not changed. They have served me well. I’m old enough to be on Medicare now, and I need those exercises as much as ever.

Horse training and equestrian activities in general can be dangerous. While we try to present relevant and valuable content, under no circumstances does or its members or contributors take any responsibility for the well-being of any horse or person using a method outlined here.

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