Whoa: Learn How to Stop Your Horse Correctly
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman and CHA Master Instructor Andy Moorman in The American Quarter Horse Journal
I teach my riders a fail-safe way to stop a horse of any kind. I call it the “power position stop.” I teach it because everybody needs to know how to stop a horse correctly. The goal behind it is to get the horse to come to an absolute beginner. It’s really for someone with at least a minimum of basic riding skills at the point of beginning to understand feel.
I do teach it to anyone having trouble learning how to confidently take control of a horse, not out of fear or frustration, including advanced riders. It teaches you how to balance the horse, pick his back up and have him in your hand for a correct stop. It also gives a rider confidence. A lot of people fear not being able to stop a horse, and when they get stiff and clutchy with the reins, it makes the horse worse. This gives riders a better alternative. And it works if you do it right.
When someone can’t get a horse to stop, for whatever reason, the first thing most people do is pull. Most riders want to pull back, lean back and shove their feet out in front of them and try to manhandle the horse.
It won’t work. When you pull, the horse drops his back, raises his neck, gets stiff in the poll and resists. Because the horse is so much more powerful, you can’t make him stop that way. It teaches the horse to evade your hands and the bit, and it can make him fearful.
What to Do
We used to play a game when we were kids: draw a line in the dirt, lock one hand with a person on the other side of the dirt line, and try to push or pull the other person over the line. Whoever gets the other person across the line first wins.
You find out pretty quick that if you get your weight down low and your arm in by your body, you’ve got good strength and can pull the other person across, especially if you can get her to let her arm go out straight. That’s the same idea with the power position stop. It allows you to stop the horse just by taking a feel and letting your body weight control the horse.
Here’s what you do (you need someone on the ground to make sure your position and rein length are correct):
• Use a mild bit, like a ring snaffle, and two hands. Don’t use draw reins or martingales with this exercise- they interfere with the contact you want for this
• You must have correct horsemanship: Sit straight up and down - don’t lean back or forward. There should be a straight line from your ear to the middle of your shoulder through the middle of your hip (where your jeans seam is) down to the back of your heel.
• Sit down in the middle of your horse and feel your seat bones on the horse’s back.
• Put your arms down by your side. Pick up your hands so there is a straight line from the elbows, down your forearms and the reins to the horse’s mouth.
• Have your rein length so you have a decent feel on the horse’s mouth with your arms and hands in that position. It’s not tight or slack, just a feel. Close your fingers on the rein so you have a grip on the rein.
• Now, when you’re ready to stop, just close your upper arms by your side and steady your hands, DO NOT give or take on the reins. At the same time, sit deep and close your legs, not hard, just a little. Closing your leg through the stop keeps the horse’s hind legs coming under him.
• As you sit deep and steady your hands, when he feels he can’t pull you, he’ll usually give to you in the poll and stop. Often, he will even take a step back with a soft poll. Immediately release him and pet him; reward him.
The power position stop uses your own body weight to balance you and the horse into the stop. If your horse pulls on you, when you sit deep and centered and stay steady with your feel on the reins, it is as if he’s pulling you down through his back, and he can’t do that.
If your arms are straight and you’re not sitting down and long through the leg, he’ll pull you right over forward. When you get it right, you’ll feel the horse respond, especially after you do it a few times. He’ll step under with his hind legs, raise his back and give at the poll, soft into the stop. He won’t hang on you on his forehand. It doesn’t hurt him; it’s not hard on him; it’s just a simple way to put you in control.
Once you learn the technique and your horse understands it, just apply it very lightly, and he’ll respond. You absolutely cannot pull on the reins. Just hold the rein, steady your arm and don’t let him take it away from you. On the other hand, you cannot throw the reins away, either - you have to have a feel.
That’s why it’s really important for the rein length to be correct. You have to go through this process several times to adjust your rein length for the right feel. Usually people tend to have their reins too long, but you can also get them too tight.
Practice first from a walk, then at the jog, then a bigger trot and, finally, at the lope and canter. You need to be secure with it at each gait before you move up. And be patient - some horses pick it up quickly; some don’t.
Always use two hands for this exercise. When you ride one-handed, you ride with your hand in front to keep an even feel on the bit, and your arm is not where it needs to be for the power position stop to work. Once you have learned to stop properly - your horse responds lightly when you deepen your seat and steady your hands - then go to one hand.
It teaches you to ride with feel on the reins to control the horse, not pulling and not throwing the reins away. And it teaches you to get the horse to step up to your seat and leg. It’s one method for learning a good, proper stop.
Surviving First Canter Lessons
By Julie Goodnight
Sometimes, the mere mention of the “C” word is enough to send riding students into panic and cause high blood pressure in the instructor. And it usually isn’t much fun for the school horses either. But there is a great allure to cantering, whether the rider is mortified of it or not, and it is the stuff of their dreams-- cantering off into the sunset with their trusted steed.
Before even thinking about introducing your students to the canter, consider this age-old wisdom of classical horsemanship: the best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot. I tell this to riders in my clinics all the time. Don’t get in a hurry to canter; keep working at the trot until you are ready. When the rider can ride the trot well; posting, sitting and standing; circling and going straight; making effortless transitions up and down; it is time to introduce the canter.
There are many different opinions on how to teach the first canter and there is no one right way (although there are many wrong ways, like starting them all at the same time). After 30 years of teaching and working with thousands of riders, I have come up with some dos and don’ts that have served me well over the years.
First and most important DO--always check the cinch or girth before starting any canter work. In normal circumstances at the canter (with an experienced rider) the rider’s weight shifts into the outside stirrup (when the horse is on the correct lead) and the saddle can get crooked. Add to that equation a loose cinch and an off-balance rider and it is highly likely someone is going to eat dirt.
Although I know of instructors that have had success teaching the canter on a longe line, personally I would never do it that way. Learning to ride the canter on a straight line is much easier than turning. Where you tend to lose riders is in the corners or on the turns. Even on a straight line at the canter, the rider’s weight is shifting to the outside if the horse is on the correct lead. The centrifugal energy created by putting the horse on a longe line exacerbates his problem. Many beginner school horses don’t have the training and conformation to canter a small circle in a balanced way, making it ever harder for the rider to learn. It’s not to say that it can’t be done safely; it can-- with the right horse and a suitable environment. But for me, I like to keep them on the straight away at first.
I think it is really important to prepare your students well before their first canter. I like to talk about how it is different from the walk and trot, talk about what suspension is and how the gait feels and how your body moves at each gait, particularly the differences between the trot and canter (more vertical--up and down movement at the trot and more pumping/circular motion at the canter).
The single biggest mistake beginner riders make is leaning forward and closing the pelvis at the canter, causing them to get thrown up and out of the saddle in a posting motion each time the horse comes into suspension. So I really emphasize sitting back, even slightly behind the vertical. This is why “pushing the swing” is such an effective analogy for the canter.
I think it is critically important to have a good demonstration of what it looks like to ride the canter, before they do it, so they have a good visual image of how to ride the canter. I also think it is important in the demonstration to show what happens to the horse’s head as he canters (moving down with each stride) and especially how far he drops his head on the very first stride as he is launching his entire body weight off the ground. I spend a lot of time explaining what happens to the horse if the rider does not give an adequate release and causes the horse to slam his mouth into the bridle. This is a particular concern for fearful riders who may flinch and suck up on the reins when the horse first starts to canter. When this happens, the rider is punishing the horse for doing something she asked the horse to do. That is very unfair to the horse and at best will prevent the horse from cantering and at worst will make the horse fear the canter departure and distrust the rider.
How you set up your riders for the first canter depends a lot on the number of riders in the group, the horses, the size of arena, and how much help, if any, that you have. There are many acceptable ways to do it-- each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. Do you keep the horses in the middle and put them out to the rail one or two at a time? Do you line them up on the rail and proceed around one at a time to the end of the line? Do you keep the line moving and play “catch up”?
For me, since I teach in the clinic setting, with 15 riders of varying ability levels, some very advanced and some having never cantered, I have certain parameters I must work within to keep all the riders active and happy. I like to keep all the horses on the rail, moving at a walk or trot, and ask two or three horses at a time to canter, coming to the inside track while all the other horses stay glued to the rail. I start with the advanced riders first so that the newbies can watch and so that their horses can see that horses are cantering and start thinking about it.
I like the beginner riders to only canter the long straight line of the arena and to bring the horse back to trot before the corner. This helps them stay better balanced and in control. Trying to canter the turn rarely works for the first time anyway because the rider tends to pull back with both reins to turn causing the horse to break gait. Cantering around the turn is a great next goal, once the rider is getting the feel of the canter.
Cantering short distances seems to work well at first. Often you’ll see riders sit the canter pretty well for the first few strides then they gradually tense up and start bouncing, which leads to more tension and a downward spiral. Instead, I have them just go a few strides down the long side then come back to trot and get their composure back before trying it again. Besides, another important classical wisdom is that all of training occurs in transitions, so they are learning greater control at the same time.
Riders that are nervous about cantering have a hard time convincing the horse that is what they really want. Their hesitancy and ambivalence is clear to the horse and since the horse probably doesn’t want to canter anyway, he’ll side with the part of the rider that says she doesn’t really want to canter. Also, most beginner horses have been hit in the mouth by the rider at the canter, so they aren’t all that enthusiastic about it anyway.
To mitigate this problem, I often set up the horses the first couple of times at the opposite end from the barn or gate, so at least the horse is headed in a direction he wants to go. If the horse is more energetic and eager to canter or might go too fast, I set them up to canter away from the gate. Always use gate gravity to your advantage.
If a horse has not been asked to canter in a while, he has long since stopped thinking about it and may be difficult to transition into the canter. In this instance, and in the instance of a fearful rider, it often helps if I get on the horse and ask it to canter a few times. This puts the cue and the thought of cantering fresh in the horse’s mind and is often reassuring to the fearful rider that the horse can indeed canter without the horse running off or pitching a bucking fit. But no good deed goes unpunished because sometimes I end up being asked to canter almost every horse in the clinic, which is time consuming, not to mention tiring!
The main things I don’t do at the first canter, is have everyone go all at once or push a rider to canter when they are reluctant. Even when I know most of the riders in my clinic are experienced and comfortable at the canter, I want to watch them each closely the first time to make sure all is as it should be. Once I am comfortable that the riders and horses are in control, I’ll let them canter as a group. I also don’t worry too much about leads--that comes later, as we work on control at the canter and better cueing.
Like all things with horses, the more experience you have, the easier it becomes. An experienced instructor can even keep track of the horses behind her back, unconsciously listening to the footfalls to let her know when the horses are traveling at a slow steady speed or when the footfalls sound suspicious.
As Mark Twain said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a whole lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Proceed cautiously and learn from the mistakes of others, so you keep your bad judgments to a minimum.
Simple Lead Changes - There’s a lot of horse training involved in getting a good simple lead change
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman and CHA Master Instructor Carla Wennberg with Christine Hamilton in the American Quarter Horse Journal
A simple lead change is a lead change made through a transition down to the jog or walk and then back to the lope on the other lead. According to AQHA’s rules, there should be only one to three strides at the jog or walk before picking up the lope again.
As judges, we very seldom see a lope to walk transition for a simple lead change, but it is correct. Usually, if it’s a simple change in horsemanship, it’s a lope-jog-lope; and in the hunt seat equitation, it’s a canter-trot-canter.
In dressage, you can only do a simple change through the walk. It is actually considered a higher-level maneuver, because you are asking for more collection in the canter to do it correctly.
A simple lead change can be a great training tool. With my horses and riders, we move in a progression of simple lead changes. The easiest is a simple change through the jog or trot. As you get your horse more collected, then you move to the canter-walk-canter or lope-walk-lope. The most collected simple change, and the most difficult, is a canter-stop-canter or lope-stop-lope.
After a horse and rider can make all those transitions perfectly, then I work on the counter-canter. I have learned that simple lead changes help teach a horse to be more in tune to your aids in a canter/lope departure and downward transitions. Simple changes help a horse to lighten his side to what you ask for in your cues. It lightens the horse through your consistent training in those aids and cues.
A simple change is not necessarily easier than a flying change to execute in a pattern, especially to a horse trained to higher maneuvers. In that sense, it can be a really good test to see how well a horse is tuned into the rider’s cues. One of the hardest parts about riding is keeping your horse honest in waiting for your cues. The more training you put on a horse, the more he anticipates the harder maneuvers, like a flying lead change. With a simple lead change, you ask for a down transition instead, and it can surprise him if you haven’t practiced it. I like the simple change because it’s going back to the basics of getting a horse to wait for your aids and cues.
Pay attention: Riders really need to read a pattern. If a pattern calls for a simple lead change, then a flying change is incorrect; it’s not what was asked for. It’s not off-pattern, but it’s not the correct pattern, and it will be scored as a major fault. If a horse does sneak it on you, you’re kind of stuck!
Anticipation: People who show in horsemanship and equitation can tell you better than anybody that the horses will begin to anticipate their riders. That’s why you have to really school on different things in the center of the arena to keep them guessing a little.
That’s what people take for granted about simple lead changes. They think, oh, a simple change – I can do that all day long. But if your horse is used to doing a flying lead change in a pattern and you’re approaching a cone, the aids are very similar. If he’s not tuned in to you and waiting on your cues, he’ll have the flying change done before you know it.
Horse attitude: A lethargic horse can be a problem, too. He’s lazy, or he’s tired, and you lope, jog, and he thinks, ‘Do I have to lope again?’ And you’re two strides late. That’s why you have to practice it and get your horse tuned into your aids.
Or you might have a horse that has a very good flying lead and is a little hotter. You have to be very precise and consistent with your cues to build confidence in his mind that he understands what you really want him to do.
What to Do
Do it right: If you start from a left lead lope, your more active leg is your right (outside) leg holding the lead; while your left leg (inside) is just keeping the horse moving straight. In the down transition, you bring him back with your seat and legs, asking the horse to steady back for a nano-second with your hand and then soften, according to your horse. If you have a spur stop, you close your legs around him.
When he comes into the down transition, the push of your seat sets the walk or jog for one to three strides. Then you cue for the right lead – your left (outside) leg cues for the lead and your right (inside) leg keeps him going straight. Your seat keeps him forward. It takes a lot of feel and timing, and that comes from practice.
Mentally, you have to be very in tune with your horse, and your thought process has got to be ahead of the maneuver. That’s where greener riders or people not focused on what they are doing will give the wrong cue or the same cue and get the wrong lead or make the horse anxious: they’re not being clear in their aids and cues.
Your thought process has got to be ahead of the maneuver. That’s true of anything in pattern work. As a judge, I’m harder on a rider for being late in the transition rather than a little early, because at least I know the early riders are planning for the change and have a thought process going ahead of the maneuver.
Exercises: When you start simple changes, I suggest doing them on a serpentine in the area. Do four loops going from rail to rail, using the center line of the arena as the change area. It’s kind of like a western riding pattern. Work on it gradually. Start with a change through the jog. Once you’ve mastered that, go to a change through the walk, and then through a stop.
I love serpentines because they give you a lot of room. Start simple and start big; don’t try to get the change in one to three strides at first. A lot depends on your horse’s stride length and mentality. After your horse is tuned in to doing all of those, then you want to work on your timing. Add a single cone to the center line of the arena and do the simple change at the cone. You want to get your timing so that the cone is the middle of your jog or walk strides, or the stop.
You can also add two cones to the change area, so you have to get the down transition by the first cone and the transition back to the lope by the second cone. Be sure to work on keeping your horse straight as well, going from one lead through the down transition into the second lead. It sounds easy, but it’s not. You can add a chute of poles to the transition area to help with that. It makes you stay focused on keeping a tunnel with your aids. If you are early or late to the cone, that says something about your timing or feel. You have to know if your horse is going to be lethargic or quick to respond to your cues.
If you are consistently late, I would say the horse is not reacting to your leg aids. I would go back to exercises that ask for more collection: make him lope-walk-lope or lope-stop-lope. When you go back to a jog, the horse should be sharper because you’ve been making him work harder to pick himself up.
Spiraling Into a Better Ride Use Lateralal Work to Strengthen Your Horse
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman and CHA Master Instructor Carla Wennberg with Andrea Caudill
Spiraling can be done at any gait, and it will help your horse learn to balance himself, to be steady and trust your aids. By teaching your horse to spiral, you can improve transitions, create a more balanced and responsive horse, move a western pleasure horse on and off the wall, and maneuver a roping horse in the box.
Begin the exercise on a 20-meter circle, tracking left at a walk. Let’s take a look at how your aids should work:
• Your inside (left) leg aid should be at the girth, because the ribcage has got to stay moving to the outside.
• The softening rein is your inside (left) rein.
• Your outside (right) rein controls the shoulder and the neck to stay steady and balanced.
• Your outside (right) leg controls the ribcage and the hip from moving too far out.
When we first ask our horse to move away from our leg, his response is usually, “huh?” To help him understand, first squeeze your calf. If he steps away from your leg, reward him and release your leg. If he doesn’t respond, don’t reach for spurs – try to teach respect of your leg without that. So first squeeze, then kick him. If he moves away, reward him. If not, go to a whap! with your leg. Then return to asking with a squeeze. If you have to, you can use spurs or a dressage whip to reinforce your lateral squeeze.
When he understands the cue, we ask for those initial lateral steps. Most horses will want to just go sideways and not keep the impulsion going forward. They say, “I understand what you want – to go sideways!” but they miss the forward part and lose the impulsion.
To keep the hind legs active, you have to combine the two. If your horse is just moving sideways off your left leg, then you’re not using your right leg enough, and not allowing enough forward motion with your seat. You have to allow the forward movement through your seat and keep your inside leg more active, with your outside leg balancing. The inside rein is the softening rein, and the outside rein is the steadying rein. If a horse feels like he wants to suck back and get stuck, I always ask for more forward.
Once your horse has got the hang of combining sideways and forward, it’s time to spiral. Your goal is to move between a 20-meter (66-foot) and a 15-meter (49-foot) circle. As your horse progresses in training and collection, you can begin to spiral down to a much smaller circle.
• Keep a soft bend to the inside and move laterally for two to three steps. With the correct lateral movement, you will feel the horse moving sideways and forward.
• Spiraling out of a circle gets a horse to soften and relax, while spiraling into a circle teaches collection.
• You will generally find it harder spiraling in, because the horse has to work harder; he has to put more weight over his inside hind leg, and he has to hold his inside bend and make that circle smaller. He has to use his body and his topline more, and he may resist that level of work.
When he reaches the size of circle I want, then I half-halt and adjust my outside aids to say, “OK, now let’s continue forward on this circle.” Then I’ll do it again.
Once you’ve mastered the foundation of spiraling the horse in and out of a circle, begin to increase the difficulty by asking the horse to repeat the exercise at a trot (or jog) and eventually a canter (or lope). It is much harder for the horse to be balanced at the canter, so be sure to progress slowly and keep your circles large enough for your horse’s level of training.
Once you’ve mastered the spiral, you can use it to help with other problems. For example, if your horse is stiff in the shoulders, neck or jaw, you can counter bend him and move laterally to soften them, or you can work to improve your circles and transitions. If my horse gets heavy on his forehand in the canter to the right, I spiral in (to the right) a little, then transition down to the trot to put his weight onto that inside hind leg. Make sure the trot stays in forward motion by giving a mini half-halt before cueing the trot, then add leg for forward energy. If he gets too quick, I’ll show his rhythm by slowing my posting.
This is also the first step of leg-yield work. It’s much easier to first train a horse to leg-yield going into and out of a circle than it is going straight.
About the Author: Carla Wennberg has been an AQHA judge for 25 years, and an NSBA and NRHA judge for 23 years. She has judged the AQHA World show ten times. Carla has been teaching in Equine College programs for over 20 years at Colorado State University, University of Georgia and now at St Andrews University in North Carolina. She is a CHA Master Instructor.