The “Whoa Back”

The “Whoa Back”

In this exercise, you stop your horse, ask him to further soften to your hands, then back him up several times in succession in response to “whoa.” In this way, the idea that “whoa” means no forward motion is reinforced, plus he learns to get off the bit the moment you slowly take the slack out of the reins, and to be backing before the reins come tight, without raising his head or locking his jaw. 

Below my horse is showing a lot of resistance at first, then he starts to soften and engage his whole body. It should feel effortless.

You’re teaching all this through the repeated backing-up instead of repeated stopping. As a result, this is a terrific exercise for improving your horse’s stop without putting a lot of extra wear and tear on his hocks. It’s also something you can go back to when you begin to add speed if your horse starts to brace, as the Whoa-Back is a great way to soften him up. 

Here’s how: Start this exercise at an easy lope. Before you ask for the stop, make sure your horse isn’t just “motoring on”; in other words, he should have “at least one ear on you” (meaning he’s paying you some of his attention). Also, make sure he’s traveling straight and “in the box”—not leaning to one side or the other, or pushing on the reins.     

Then, sit down, and say “Whoa.” When your horse stops, back him off your hands a little more assertively than you have up to this point. To do this, hold your hands softly but firmly at belt level with enough pressure on them to keep him from going forward as you bump with both your legs to get him to come off the bit (i.e., you want him to rock back, pick his shoulders up, keep his head down, and stay soft in your hands). If he resists coming off the bit, up the ante by bumping more insistently with both legs in neutral position until he does, but not pulling harder. 

Once he softens, back him up briskly and steadily until he feels as if he’s “getting back” (moving his feet more quickly) instead of just backing up. When he does, release all pressure and let him stand quietly for a moment. Then, without going forward, say “Whoa” again, take the slack out of the reins, and make him “get back” again. At this point, it’s important not to pull more or harder to get him to resume backing up; use your legs as necessary to drive him into the “wall” made by your hands, which then cause him to go back.

When he’s backing up as if he’s going somewhere (other than to a funeral, that is), let him stop and rest again. Keep going like this—backing, then resting—all the way across the arena if need be to get him responding willingly and lightly. Then pick up the lope and start again from the beginning. 

Once he’s responding willingly at an easy lope, begin to speed him up. Be sure as you do, however, that you also increase his collection by using your legs in neutral position to push him into the bridle. He needs to drive from behind, rather than just “colt lope” on his front end. If he pulls the reins right out of your hands when you ask him to stop, he’s falling onto his front end—the result of not enough collection.

He’ll start to read your body better and softly be backing before all the slack comes out of your reins. It will feel effortless and resistant free. That’s a good time to go take a trail ride and try it out under different circumstances.

Let me know how it works for you!

The “Whoa Back”

Fencing Troubleshooting

The most common mistakes people make with this exercise are failing to continue driving the horse all the way up to the fence, and pulling on the reins instead of letting the fence do the work.

Troubleshooting

Common problems in “fencing,” and how to fix them. 

If the horse:

Wiggles on the approach.

If your horse breaks gait, falls out of lead, or won’t stay perpendicular to the fence as he nears it, just continue up to the fence as best you can, then stop and rest.

Over time, as your horse comes to understand what’s being asked of him, this problem will resolve itself. 

Raises his head.

If his neck comes up in anticipation of reaching the fence, just continue to drive with your legs in neutral position and bump gently on the reins, as you normally would, to bring his head back down.

Races.

If he starts speeding up on his own instead of responding to your cues for speed, just take the slack out of the reins and ask him to soften through the jaw, then draw him down to a trot, then a walk, then a stop, then a back-up, all in about six or so strides.

Sit there for a while and let him relax. Whatever you do, don’t jerk on the reins—this only frightens him and compounds the problem. Jerking will just make him raise his head and brace through the neck more.

Another way to deal with it is to change your plan and simply slow down and turn at the fence and keep going. Often, it’s the stop that worries a horse, so by taking the stop away for a bit, he can relax. (In the meantime, you can work on Runarounds, which I’ve already written about.)

After he’s relaxed, have another try at the fence and remember that fencing isn’t beneficial for all horses. If you have one that doesn’t seem to improve, there are a lot of other ways to work on your rundowns and stops.

Happy fencing!

Troubleshooting the Runaround

Troubleshooting the Runaround

Common problems in the run-around, and how to fix them.

If the horse: 

Races:

If he starts speeding up on his own instead of responding to your cues for speed, break him down to a stop then back up. Then just sit for a minute. If that’s not helpful, make him collect up and slow to the last speed he was comfortable at, and continue doing the run around exercise.

Gradually, he will get more comfortable with speed and not make such a big deal about it (especially if you don’t!).

Leans:

If he starts to lean during the build-speed part of the exercise (as toward the barn or gate), draw him back and change course about 30 degrees to overcorrect the lean, then continue on that line (see diagram). If he leans again, make another 30-degree correction, and so on.

If you wind up going in the opposite direction altogether, that’s okay—it’s the sort of “healthy confusion” that keeps your horse guessing and therefore paying attention to you. As you can, pick up the track of your Runaround again, and keep going.

 

Dropping a shoulder/falling out of lead:

This commonly happens when you ask for the slowdown if your horse doesn’t engage both hocks equally. To correct it, don’t make a big fuss, but in the space of about six strides, softly draw him to you and break him to a trot, then a walk, then whoa, then back him up for a bit and ask him to soften his jaw to the reins.

Resume the exercise, but this time, before asking him to slow down, make sure you’ve softened him in the face (gentle bumping on the reins if need be) before applying your off-lead leg (i.e., if he’s on the left lead, use your right leg) just behind neutral position to drive him up so he can’t fall out of the lead. Then, more gradually than you did when he fell out of lead, ask him to slow down.

He’ll get the hang of it. It’s uncomfortable for the to fall out of lead, but it’s hard work to collect, so sometimes they opt for the easy way.

Don’t make a big deal about it.

Remember, don’t major in the minor things!

The Runaround

The Runaround

The quality of a horse’s stop is directly related to the quality of his rundown. This exercise, in which you build to rundown speed, slow and collect instead of stopping, then go around the end of your arena and build to rundown speed again, is perfect for working on your rundown without the wear and tear of too many stops.

It also helps “take the brace out” of your horse’s stop as he learns to “downshift” his weight back on to his hocks to slow down, just as he must when he actually stops. If his first response to being slowed is to drop onto his front end, that’s what he’ll do when he stops, and that’s exactly what you don’t want. By not stopping, but instead just downshifting, you can reprogram that response.

The Runaround also helps you develop greater speed in your rundown. Many horses have a low “do not exceed speed” (if you do exceed it he’ll start to think he’s a wild horse!) By pushing your horse up to that speed, backing off and asking him to collect up and soften, then nudging him up to it again, you can desensitize him to going fast. He learns to “stay with you” and continue to respond as you “pour the coal on.” Every horse can develop a higher do-not-exceed speed, but some will remain more balanced and in control than others. This exercise helps your horse achieve his best, most controlled rundown speed.

Finally, if you practice the Runaround properly, your horse will naturally begin to slide in his stops. How far he slides will ultimately be determined by his genetics, your feel and timing, the quality of the ground, the nature of his hind sliding plates, and how he feels (i.e., whether or not he’s sore). But working on the Runaround will improve the quality of his rundowns, which will naturally improve the quality of his stop. In other words, work more on your run, and the stop and slide will take care of itself.

Ride the “build speed” part of the Runaround down the long side of your arena (see diagram). Stay in the middle third of the arena, at least 20 feet in from the fence line so you have room to make corrections (to be covered in my next article). Ride the slow-collected part around the ends of your arena. As you encourage your horse to build speed, be sure to look up and straight ahead, and keep equal pressure on his sides; this will help him stay straight between your legs and reins. Ride with purpose, so that he keeps one ear on you, indicating he’s paying attention. Make sure he’s increasing his speed only when you ask him to—not of his own volition.

If he’s responding well, ride as if you’re going to run all the way to the next ZIP code. Then, as the end of the arena approaches, sit down in the saddle and gather your horse up—think of downshifting an expensive car. Pick up your reins as necessary, but keep your legs slightly closed around him to keep him driving from behind. From all the work you’ve done to this point, when you pick up the reins he should soften in the jaw and say, “What would you like me to do?”

Keep him soft and collected as you slow down on the straight line at the end of the long side and as you go around the short end, then build speed again down the other long side. Continue on like this until he’s doing it well, stop and rest for a bit, then go on. Over time and multiple practice sessions, you’ll find he’ll be able to reach higher speeds without getting “wobbly in the wheels” or falling out of lead.

Collection

Collection

When a horse is soft (resistance-free) in the face, you can communicate through his whole body right down to his feet through your reins and seat.

I always strive to “connect their lips to their hindquarters” meaning that when I picked up a rein, I could feel them engage their hindquarters, soften their poll and allow me to connect to all 4 feet.

The horse needs to learn to respond to every nuance of pull, kick, nudge from the rider.

In response, to the degree the rider can feel every softening (lessening of resistance), every try, is the degree the rider is “connected” to the horse. Then, it’s a matter of interpreting the horse’s response to determine if he can handle more pressure, is mad vs confused, hardheaded or a bit slow to process, etc. But the rider has to be able to feel those responses before she can interpret them.

Both of these components comprise what we call “feel”. To some degree, feel is intuitive. Either you have it or you don’t, but it can also be learned.

When we try to teach a horse collection, it is by very tiny, incremental degrees, with the slightest try being rewarded with a release of the pressure we’re applying. It is by that release that they learn, not the application of our aides.

If we miss that small give and fail to release, there’s no incentive for the horse to try next time. They learn to hang on us as we hang on them, both of us getting duller and number (and both probably getting madder and madder!)

For collection, we’re trying to get our horse to operate in a more compact box, not pushing on the bridle or either of our legs and willingly driving up from behind all at the same time.

We accomplish this “shortening of their wheelbase” by making them reach their hind feet further up under themselves, causing their hips to lower, the abdominal muscles to contract causing their backs to raise and round. This elevates their shoulders and causes their neck to lower and curve, allowing them to break at the poll and carry their head at the vertical.

All of this, just to shift the center of gravity a few inches back from its normal spot right at the cinch area. This allows the horse to balance more on its hindquarters making him more agile and quicker moving the front end.

When a horse isn’t willing to learn to respond to our cues, unfortunately, it’s usually the rider failing to give clear, understandable signals (appropriate for the horse’s level of education) and/or failing to release when a try is offered.

If we do release when the horse tries, we’re making what we want easy and desirable, and what we don’t want more uncomfortable. That’s the #1 premise of horse training.

So, if your horse starts to feel confused, instead of thinking he’s dumb or not trying, be sure you’re “explaining” what you want on the level of explaining something to a child. Then reward the try with a nice release, allow a short recovery before asking again.

In the beginning, you’ll only be asking for a stride or two. This helps the horse understand that if he complies, the release is right around the corner. He’ll be more willing to try the next time. And as his “infrastructure” gets stronger, he’ll be able to hold his frame together longer and longer.

When there is little or no physical or mental resistance, you won’t feel any heaviness on the bridle as his back rounds and lifts, and he responds from head to tail.

It’s a pretty awesome feeling of strength and coordination as they gather up under you, ready to do whatever you ask for next.

Interestingly, collection causes even the worst moving horses to be more comfortable and balanced making them much nicer to ride. Therefore, a worthy goal for any riding discipline.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as I plan to dive into this topic some more!