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.


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.


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: 


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!).


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.



We used to think “fencing” (using the fence as a barrier to help get a horse sliding in his stop) made a horse bracy in the front end. But I think we just weren’t doing it correctly.

Done properly, fencing can help teach your horse to run straight and true. This is especially important in a short arena, where your run must be as reasonably long as it can be. If your horse begins to anticipate the upcoming fence and starts to shut down, you’ll never get a good stop. “Fencing” teaches him to keep going toward the fence until you give the stop signal.

A second reason you “fence” is to encourage the horse to drive up underneath himself (push from behind) while giving in the face, raising his shoulders, and rounding his back (in other words, increase his collection—think of that accordion) without pulling on his face while sliding. You let the fence do the hard work, and you’re not the “bad guy.”


A third reason for this exercise is to help a horse who’s just beginning to slide. Once he’s loping straight in his approach to the fence, building speed as his rider dictates (never choosing his own speed), and maintaining that speed as he nears the fence, he’ll begin to understand how to keep “running” in front as he starts to slide in the back, to keep from colliding with the fence.

I’ll explain how to fence your horse at a lope; you can also perform it at a trot for the first few times.

Begin by loping your horse around for a bit until he’s no longer fresh and is beginning to think about wanting to slow down and stop. Then lope a straight line slowly through the middle of the arena toward the end fence (be sure it’s a safe one). Use your legs and reins to keep him straight and perpendicular to the fence. Continue to drive with your legs right up to the fence. When you reach it, don’t pull on the reins; let the fence stop your horse. Then stand and rest for a moment, giving your horse a pat. You want the fence to become “a good place to be” in your horse’s mind. Then repeat the entire sequence.

As your horse becomes comfortable loping straight up to the fence and stopping, you can begin to say “Whoa” just before the stop.

Over time, as your horse’s confidence in this exercise grows, begin to build speed on the approach to the fence. If your horse starts to get nervous, go back to the last speed at which he was completely comfortable, then build even more slowly from there. And, whenever you’re stopped at the fence, spend as much time as needed until your horse is calm and relaxed.

Essential 7: Pivot Troubleshooting

Essential 7: Pivot Troubleshooting

Troubleshooting. Common problems in the pivot, and how to fix them: 

• Too much bend. This is caused by trying to pull your horse around with the direct (inside) rein, so overbending his neck.

We resort to this when we can’t make his shoulders move. This will actually cause you to end up going in a circle instead of a spin.

To correct it, think “kick” more than “pull.”

Use your legs assertively to keep your horse’s body aligned and to keep him moving around; use that inside rein just enough to keep his nose tipped in the direction of movement and engage your indirect (outside) rein towards your belly (but not across your horse’s neck). 

• Counter-bend. This happens if you use too much indirect (outside) rein, trying ineffectually to make the shoulders move, and in the process pulling your horse’s head to the outside creating a counter-bend in his neck.

Correct this by using a little more inside (direct) rein and a little less outside (indirect) rein, plus bump with your outside leg at the cinch more assertively.

See photo.

If your horses shoulders won’t move- go back and work on your side pass until you can move them in any direction especially away from the gate (or magnets).

Essential 7 Pivoting on the Hind End

Essential 7 Pivoting on the Hind End

The 360-degree pivot on the hind end is the start of what will eventually be your spin, so a correct foundation is extremely important.

All major problems in the maneuver, now and later, result from lack of shoulder control.

With Essential 3 (the counter-arc circle) and Essential 6 (moving off the leg), you’ve started to gain control of your horse’s shoulder.

With this, the final Essential 7, you’ll build on that control.

A common mistake at this point is to “go faster wronger.” In other words, eagerness to move a pivot into a spin, prompts riders to sacrifice form for speed.

Don’t do it! Go as slowly as you need in order to maintain control and do it correctly.

In the beginning, think in terms of a 90-degree turn, and then a 180. Build toward the 360 in increments.

There are many different ways of teaching a horse to step his front end around; one tried-and-true method is to walk in your perfect circle, then tighten it down while taking care to keep your horse’s nose pointed in the direction of the turn.

This is the method I’ll teach you.

The goal. Your horse will make his circle smaller and tighter, while keeping his jaw soft and his neck level, with his nose tipped slightly in the direction of movement.

As the circle tightens to a pivot, his outside front leg will cross over the inside one. His hind legs will remain more or less in one place (you needn’t worry about either of them being “planted”).

You will want to move only as fast as your horse can maintain proper form.

Here’s how. Begin by reviewing Essential 2, Walking a Perfect Circle.

Do it in a corner of your arena, so you can use the wall as a visual marker and a physical barrier.

As your horse moves forward with energy, use pressure on the inside rein (to keep his nose tipped to the inside) and with your inside leg in neutral position (to keep the circle round), supporting with your outside rein against your horse’s neck as need be to keep the circle symmetric.

Then gradually begin to reduce the size of the circle.

When you’re ready to step around, remove the pressure of your inside leg and add a little backward pressure to the outside rein by pulling your hand gently towards your belly button (but not across your horse’s neck). Also bump with your outside leg just behind the cinch.

Remember, your inside rein is to indicate the direction of movement and to keep your horse’s nose tipped that way—not to pull your horse around. If you mainly pull that inside rein, you’ll pull your horse out of alignment. And that backward pressure on the outside rein is to suggest stepping across, and shouldn’t be used so much that it pulls your horse’s head to the outside, away from the spin or pulls him back to where he’s stepping behind or on his inside front foot. You’ll probably use your outside leg more than any other aide.

If you keep him aligned with both reins and both legs, you’ll be setting the stage for greater speed later.

In the beginning, don’t worry about speed at all — go as slowly as you must in order to keep your horse’s body properly aligned, his jaw soft and poll flexed, and his nose correctly tipped.

Be satisfied with just a step or two of the front legs crossing over before moving him back onto a slightly larger circle, re-checking proper form.

Then try again. Any time he begins to lose that proper form, move immediately onto the larger circle, reestablish his form, then try again.

Gradually, over time, ask your horse to add steps one at a time.

If you remain patient and keep showing him how to do it (as opposed to trying to force him), you’ll be surprised how quickly he’ll be willing to step all the way around.

Use a visual marker (a fence, bushes or other nearby landmarks if you’re practicing out on the trail) to keep track of how far around you’re going.

Be sure to work equally in both directions, concentrating on getting willing steps in each direction. Your horse will be stepping right around in no time!

Essential 6 Moving Off Your Leg Troubleshooting

Essential 6 Moving Off Your Leg Troubleshooting

Common problems in getting your horse to move off your leg, and how to fix them.

• Unevenness which means one end is getting ahead of the other along the fence or diagonally across the arena.

Moderate your cues for the end that moves too fast.

It’s usually the front end getting ahead, so hold the rein on that side closer to your horse’s neck in a more neutral position to slow it down and use your leg more aggressively to catch the rear end up.

In the picture above, the horse is pretty even. If he wasn’t, my left hand would move closer to his neck to slow his front end down while I caught his hind end up with my right leg.

• Raising his head/bracing his neck.

To get him to soften, bump with both legs in neutral position for a moment while holding with both reins, to drive him up into the bridle.

If need be, bump the bit lightly on one side and then the other while you drive with your legs and go straight ahead for several steps to break up his resistance.

Then resume going diagonally.

• Cranking his head off to the side (away from the direction you’re going). See in the picture above.

This is usually us compensating for the fact that our horse isn’t moving off our legs enough, so we crank their heads in an attempt to try to get them moving laterally.

Instead, try to straighten your horses head out and use your off leg more vigorously to make him move off it.

A dressage whip can be very helpful in this instance.

Lateral movement done correctly is an excellent way to get your horse responsive to your cues, more supple through his body and softer in his mouth, so do lots of it! It’s a foundation block for lots of things you’ll want to do later like opening gates, maneuvering around obstacles on the trail, and it’s challenging because it requires being able to control both ends simultaneously. That’s why I consider it essential.

Essential 6 Moving Off Your Leg While Mounted

Essential 6 Moving Off Your Leg While Mounted

In the last article we worked on teaching our horse to move away from pressure while he was tied at the hitch or wash rack, and while leading from the ground. 

Now, let’s mount up and see if we’ve laid a good enough foundation.

Opening a gate. Now mount up and see if you can move both his front end and his hind end in order to open a gate. Ask a friend to move the gate manually, so you have both hands free to use your reins to influence your horse’s body. 

Line your horse up parallel to the gate. Have your friend push it open a bit toward you as you ask your horse to step sideways with his front end, away from the gate, by carrying both your hands away from the gate while using the foot nearest the gate at the cinch to encourage his shoulders over.

After he takes one step with his front end, apply pressure with your gate-side heel in the same spot as you did with the sweat scraper to move his hind end over a step, too. If he resists, bump with that heel behind neutral position until he takes the step. Go back and forth in this way, moving his front end, then his back end as your friend opens the gate a little at a time. Try to stay parallel to it and move with it until it’s open. Then sit there next to it and make that the good spot.

Be sure to work in both directions, so your horse is side-stepping both ways. Then try to do it without someone moving the gate for you. Then, reverse all the cues to teach your horse how to close the gate. Take as long as you need to master this step before you move on to work at the fenceline.

At the fenceline. Still mounted, position your horse so he’s facing into, and perpendicular to, a safe fence (nothing he can catch his front feet in or get his head over). Ask him to move first his front end one step to the side, and then his hind end, then his front again, and so on, so that he’s moving sideways down the fence.

To ask the front end to move, bring both your reins over in the desired direction while bumping with your “opposite” foot at the cinch. (That is, if you’re asking for a step to the right, carry your reins to the right while bumping with your left leg just in front of neutral position.)

After he’s taken one sideways step with his front end, use the same leg to ask his hind end to move, only this time bumping a few inches behind neutral position.

Throughout, adjust your reins as necessary to keep your horse’s neck straight and roughly perpendicular to the fence. When he can do it moving freely, front end and then back, try to move his whole body at the same time. Get this down well before moving to the next exercise.

Diagonally across the arena. Starting in one corner of your arena, ask your horse to walk forward and sideways diagonally across to the opposite corner, moving first his front end, and then his hind end, then the front again, and so on. Let’s say you’re in a right-hand corner, and will move him diagonally to the far left-hand corner.

Squeeze with both legs in neutral position to send him forward, then to move his front end to the left, bring both reins toward the left and bump with your right leg at the cinch.

Then keep forward motion going with a squeeze from both legs, and to move his hind end over, bump with your right leg a few inches behind neutral position.

Then repeat the sequence, working your way diagonally across the arena. For every step forward, you’ll move one step sideways. As your horse comes to understand better what you’re asking, work toward getting him to move both ends at the same time in a true leg-yield. You’ll be carrying your hands to the left, and using your right leg in neutral position– just behind the cinch.

Reverse all cues and work in the opposite direction. Be sure to provide equal practice going each way.

When your horse is responding consistently well at the walk, try it at the trot, and eventually the lope.

Essential 6 Moving Off Your Leg On the Ground

Essential 6 Moving Off Your Leg On the Ground

Getting your horse to move off your leg (or move laterally) is key to getting control of his whole body. Lateral control of the hind end and shoulders helps you in simple things, like opening and closing gates or backing in a straight line. It also makes possible more advanced maneuvers, like changing leads and spinning.

Horses naturally move into pressure, so young or green horses must be educated to move away from it, instead.

Ultimately, lateral control will enable you to “leg-yield” your horse diagonally across the arena at a lope–resistance-free, body straight, front legs crossing over each other. It will also help you execute a perfect sidepass, such as moving sideways down the length of a log, as in a trail class, and will help you with a beautiful spin.

For now, however, we’ll be satisfied with any movement sideways in response to leg pressure; the more refined lateral control will come later. In these exercises, you’ll ask your horse to move his rear end over as you stand next to him (at the hitching rack and then as you hold his bridle reins) and while you’re mounted (maneuvering him next to a gate to open it, sideways along the fenceline, and finally diagonally across the arena).

The goal. Your horse will maintain a soft face (that is, no bracing against the bit) as he (1) willingly moves his rear end a few steps sideways in response to pressure, and then (2) willingly moves his front end (shoulders) a few steps sideways in response to pressure. You’ll work toward getting both ends to move together, for a whole-body move to the side.

In the movement at the gate and along the fenceline, and in the more advanced maneuver diagonally across the arena (leg-yield), he’ll move first his front end and then his hind end separately at first. Ultimately, he’ll move both ends simultaneously in the leg-yield.

Here’s how: at the hitching rack. Practice this one whenever you’re grooming your horse. (NOTE: If there’s any chance your horse will pull back, untie him before conducting this lesson.) Stand at your horse’s side, and use a sweat scraper, hoof pick, or other hard object to create pressure (that is, mild discomfort) right where your heel presses on your horse’s ribs when you’re mounted. Your aim is to have him respond to the least amount of pressure possible, so start softly yet insistently. Don’t start with a jab.

The instant he takes one sideways step with a hind foot, stop and praise him, then ask for another step. If he resists, increase the pressure gradually in a push-and-release movement until he takes at least one step, always looking to get response from the least amount of pressure, and praising him the instant he responds. If need be, you can also pull his face towards you slightly as you ask him to move his hindquarters over.

Now go to his other side and ask him to step in the opposite direction, using the same cues. Repeat frequently from both sides until he responds willingly to mild pressure.

In hand. With your horse wearing a saddle and bridle, stand next to him, holding the bridle reins in your left hand and using the sweat scraper, hoof pick, or your thumb to create pressure, again just behind the cinch where your heel would normally be. By now, your horse should respond with a sideways step even as you use the bridle reins to keep his head straight. Strive to get him to move just his hind end over. We’re “disengaging” the hind end. You’ll want to be sure he’s good at this, as it’s the underlying secret to the emergency stop.

Switch hands and repeat from the other side.