When it comes to horse training, nothing is more fundamental than teaching a horse to reliably stop on command – and yet, it’s something that many horse trainers skip right over without a thought. Instead, most horses are trained to stop through body cues and rain cues – like sitting deep in the saddle, stopping the movement of your body and following the horse’s gait, and slightly tightening your grip on the reins.
All of these are “good” training, but in our opinion part of every horse’s early training should include an emergency stop in response to a verbal cue. A horse that cannot stop when instructed to is not a safe horse for anyone to ride. Adding a verbal stop cue, such as “whoa,” makes your horse safer on the ground and in the saddle.
In this article, we’ll be discussing how to train your horse to stop on a dime in response to a verbal cue. This skill is handy for any rider but essential for kids’ horses or horses written by beginners. Training the stop is pretty simple, like training any animal anything, it simply requires reinforcing a behavior the horse will occasionally do by themselves anyway.
All pleasure horses should be trained to stop at the word “whoa”. Using a universal verbal cue, like “whoa,” means that if the horse is sold to new owners or is being handled by someone else (like a farrier) or in an emergency situation (such as a vet clinic or temporary horse show stabling) other horse people will automatically know the cue.
Although there are ways to train a horse to stop with your body that most horses understand, intuitively, very well, having a verbal “emergency brake” is a safety measure that means if you’re not able to give that body cue or if you are in danger, you’ll always have a way to get your horse to stop. A horse can’t know “Whoa” too well!
One exception; If you show competitively, you MAY want to consider using a different word. In highly competitive show circles, other competitors might tell your horse “whoa” in the show ring and make him break gait! Using, instead, “stop” or “halt” as your verbal cue is unique enough that unethical competitors probably wouldn’t guess it.
To start training your horse to stop on command:
Practice teaching your horse to stop, by saying “whoa” at a walk, at the tame time you give other cues to stop. If your horse is sometimes hard to stop, begin this lesson after a long ride or lunging session, when the horse is already tired and will want to stop.
- Ride forward,
- Say “whoa” at the same time you tighten your grip on the reins and relax your body.
- When you stop, drop your body down deep in the saddle like a sack of potatoes, this signals the horse that you have stopped riding and most horses will halt. Your horse should stop
- If the horse continues moving, give a signal with your reins: gently adding pressure to cue a halt.
- If the horse continues forward, there are options for emergency stops: you can pull one rein firmly around and direct the horse into such a tight circle that they have to stop.
- Once you have mastered training your horse to stop at “whoa” at a walk, you can move on to the trot or the canter / lope.
One great way to train a horse to stop on a dime is to finish your ride every day with a “whoa”. Make sure it’s in an unexpected place- like midway through the arena or a moderate walking distance from the barn.
Tell your horse “whoa” and as soon as they stop, pat them, and tell them they are a good boy/girl, then immediately dismount & loosen their girth. (If you’re riding in the pasture, go ahead and untack and turn the horse loose right there, carrying your tack back to the barn) This is the FASTEST way to teach a horse to understand that stopping on command has a huge positive reward. Since horses are intrinsically lazy, this association will make them more likely to stop in the future, in hopes that they’ll immediately get to be loose with access to grass again!
Training a horse to stop on command may take a little bit of time, but is an essential skill that every horse needs to be taught.
With a Masters Degree in Psychology and two decades of experience as a horseback rider, breeder, and tack store owner, Tatum has developed a unique approach to coaching adult riders that integrates the physical and emotional aspects of developing as a confident rider.