Open mouthed, crooked, lugging-past-the-marker stops rear their heads (pun intended) at every show. Yet the halt remains an often ignored component of training.
Equitation over fences riders hand gallop past the stopping cone. Trail competitors lope into the chute and land past the end. Sometimes I have to step out of the way in showmanship to avoid being run into!
Here are three reasons to tune your horse’s brakes:
1. Safety. It’s essential in working with horses to have control over their legs. A prey animal’s first instinct is to flee before understanding. If we don’t interrupt his flight, that instant escape from the unsettling event is recorded in his mind as a viable option. Extinguish a spook, runaway canter transition or rushed jump with a calm, unemotional halt and rein back (not a hauling, learn-your-lesson back up). My riding students are familiar with my favourite phrase: Slow his legs, slow his thinking.
If you can stop your horse, you can slow him down. If you can full halt, you can half-halt. As a judge, I see countless riders on course or in speed events with faulty brakes, rushing down lines, rushing for home. It’s a safety hazard for horse and rider.
2. Education. Quite simply, stopping is a building block for collecting your horse. It’s a universal obedience test. All equestrian work, whether it is in-hand or in any discipline under saddle rests upon sound basics of stop and go. Collected movements represent the most sophisticated development of stop and go and the quality of the training of these basic responses is the foundation for a relaxed, problem-free horse. The goal of training is a light, attentive horse by eliminating every resistance.
3. Competition test. In most disciplines a stop will be on the exam. Styles may vary slightly, but in every pattern or test the stop is your presentation’s final “ta-da.”
What is the judge looking for in a halt?
- Location. Your horse should be able to stop in the exact imaginary box of your choosing, not in a general, geographic region. In equitation, dressage and horsemanship patterns for example, missing your marker is a hefty error.
- Softness. A gaping mouth, a poked out nose are both symptomatic of a horse giving his rider “push back,” which can result from discomfort, poor balance or a lack of understanding.
- Light on the forehand. A credit-earning stop appears to “sit” behind. The horse’s withers raise and his frame shortens. Conversely, the “nosedive” stop is recognized by the horse stubbing his toes into the dirt as he tips onto the forehand and hides his nose behind the vertical. Avoidance, but also a form of resistance.
- Straightness. Your horse should stop with all his train cars in line – nose, shoulder and hip. Any part that pops out of alignment will result in a poor, unbalanced stop.
- Energy. With each stride approaching the marker, the horse maintains a lively rhythm. It’s natural to lose steam on approach, but not desirable. If each stride gets flatter, even breaking gait, it means a major fault on the scorecard.
- Imperceptible aids. In the prettiest stops, the rider maintains classic equitation. No hauling on the reins, leaning back or stepping on the dashboard.
I coach riders to aim for a four-step process:
- Preparation. The key to a good stop is preparation. As you approach the stopping point, align your horse’s body parts arrow straight. Make a connection to your horse – a rebalancing or call to attention. Ask him to soften into bungee cord rein contact as you maintain the stride rhythm with your leg.
- Pre-signal. Now sink into your seat bones to anchor yourself deeper in the saddle and stop following the stride motion with your hips. Your horse will begin to recognize this subtle change as the pre-signal.
- Signal. Say “whoa,” while your seat remains deep and immobile. This is your cue to stop. Horses recognize the tone and volume of voice commands, not the actual word, so theoretically it could be any random word. Just make sure the cue sounds the same every time you say it. Save it only for stopping…and mean it.
Note: in some disciplines (i.e. dressage), voice commands are discouraged. In most, discreet use of voice is acceptable. In either case, a vocal cue is a useful training bridge, which can be eliminated eventually.
- Correction. If he doesn’t halt on the next stride, follow immediately by reining back several steps. No drama. This isn’t a punishment. After several repetitions you can expect your horse set himself up to stop when he hears your signal. He’ll tune his ear back and shift his weight onto his hindquarters. This is where anticipation becomes our friend! Thereafter, only back him when he’s getting casual about responding to your “whoa.”
Remember not to combine signals. When leg and rein aids are used simultaneously, it’s conflicting to a horse. Each aid should be used distinctly and in sequence.
Like jumping, or loping trail poles, I count down strides with my students as they approach the stopping point so that they halt out of a rhythmic gait. Preparation – several strides away from the marker. Then soften your body and flow for the next couple of strides. Pre-signal – two strides away. Stop – at the marker.