Knowing Whoa Before You Show!
By Mike Rosauer
Stars Miniatures, USA
In this article I explain the method we use to start training all our show horses. Before I try to teach them to set their feet or use their necks, I always make sure they have a strong understanding of the word “whoa“. As a show horse, it is important that they develop a strong attention span, and learning how to whoa is the foundation for this. Our goal is if we are standing face to face (See photo A), the horse should stand still and be paying attention to me. If I change my position to a side to side (See photo B), or my side to his face (See photo C), it is his cue to relax or move.
To start, I put a halter and a lead rope on the horse and take them to a quiet area in the barn. I stand in front of the horse, face to face. From the very beginning I want them to understand that if we are face to face they should be standing still, paying attention to me, and most of all they should never step forward while we are in this position. At this point I may let my hand touch their nose to give the horse a physical place to stop (See photo D). I will also keep light contact on the horse with the lead rope. I will tell the horse “Whoa” and I will stand still. If you have to repeat the word “Whoa” several times, it is alright. Each time you feel like to horse is ready to move, say “Whoa”. This is how they learn to associate the word whoa with standing still. If they don’t stand quietly, I will tug the lead towards me. It may be your natural reaction to try to push the horse back with the lead, but doing this causes you to loose your leverage and it won’t be effective. Every horse’s learning capabilities are different, and the program has to be adjusted to fit each horse. For some horses, our goal during these first lessons will simply be walking to a spot and having the horse stand still for 10-30 seconds. Other horses may quickly understand, and on the first try, let you step back with no contact for quite a while. Remember, we are trying to achieve success and build confidence. If your horse stands with attention for a moment during the early stages of training, reward the horse by turning your position to a side to face, or side to side, which allows the horse to relax or move. Once I can easily get the horse to stand quietly, I gradually lengthen the amount of time I expect them to stand still. I also slowly increase the distance I can stand from them. A finished horse will easily let me stand 10 feet away from him for several minutes. The amount of lessons needed to achieve this depends on the horses age and attention span. Each lesson should not last longer than 15 to 20 minutes.
From here we will teach the horse to “back off“. The back off is an important step in learning to stand and show halter. The most common problem we see in the show ring is horses leaning into the exhibitors. This throws the horses frame and balance off and paints an ugly, undisciplined picture for the judge. The steps I started with for whoa are the basics for back. If I am several steps in front of the horse in the face to face position and I step towards him while tugging the lead to me, he should want to back away. If he doesn’t, I increase the force of the tugs as well as the speed at which I step into him. In rare circumstances a horse may refuse to back away from me by holding their ground or pushing back into me. If this happens, I would first add a chain to my halter and lead rope as you would a show halter. This will give you more leverage. If I still don’t receive submission, I will use a typical straw broom as an aid. I walk into the horse while tugging on the chain and slapping the ground in between us with the broom (See photo E). This added sound and movement exaggerates my command to back off. Another issue some horses have with backing is that they want to turn away from you to escape. This is another place where the broom can be effective. Use it as an extension of your arm . Hold the horses head to you and shake the broom on the ground to keep the horses hip from stepping sideways. This should help teach the horse to move backwards in a straight line.
This has set the basic foundation for the horse. From here I will add an exercise to teach the horse to focus. I start in the face to face position and tell the horse “Whoa“. I back away from the horse. The horse should stand still but remain attentive. I will walk in a semi circle with the horses head being the center and the rope being the radius, keeping my face to face position (See photo F). As I walk, I continue giving the verbal command “Whoa“. The horse should follow my movement with his head, but because we are still face to face, his body should remain still. If at any time in this exercise the horse steps forward, I will immediately step towards him asking him to back up twice as many steps as he came forward. If he steps sideways while following me with his head, I take him back to the original position and tell him “Whoa” and start over. If he steps back during this exercise I just tell him “Whoa” because back off is the only thing besides stand still I allow from the face to face position. As the horse learns to stand still, I gradually increase the size of my semi circle. I use this as a game to build a relationship with the horse.
This is the basic foundation I build on my show horses. With these skills, teaching your horse the finer points of showing are much easier. This also builds the bond between the handler and horse that is necessary for a true winning combination.