Like a dinner mint after a meal, a precise stop puts finishing punctuation on a pattern and leaves the judge with a good taste in his mouth! From reining to dressage, western riding to western horsemanship, the stop is your presentation’s final ‘ta-da.’
Your horse should be able to stop in the exact imaginary box of your choosing, not just in a general, geographic region. In horsemanship (western equitation), stopping 10 feet outside the designated point is a major error. So, the first step, as always, is planning – you are the decision-maker.
Aim to park your horse’s shoulder beside a marker. Keep this in perspective – as long as the stop looks precise and planned, this is a zone, not a pinpoint. Leave enough room between you and the marker, so that if you’re asked to pivot, for instance, you won’t knock it over (a severe penalty).
Resistance. A gapping mouth and poked out nose both signal that a horse is giving his rider “push back.” Conversely, I frequently see horses stub their toes into the dirt as they dive onto the forehand, and hide their noses behind the vertical. This is avoidance, and equally resistant.
Crooked. A horse should stop with all his train cars in line – nose, shoulder and hip. Any part that pops out of alignment will result in some area of resistance. For example, coming out of frame or nosing out against the rider’s hands can usually be traced back to a crooked approach.
Fizzle. With each stride approaching the marker, the horse loses steam. Each stride gets flatter and often he breaks down to the next lower gait – a major fault. Aim to have lift and energy. Your horse should feel light on his forehand and every stride should mirror the one before in lively rhythm.
BREAKING IT DOWN
I coach riders to picture a stop in three stages: ready, ask, stop. As you approach the stopping point, you’ll make a connection with your horse – a rebalancing, or call to attention. Then you’ll ask him to stop – sitting deep in your saddle and saying “whoa,” quietly but clearly. Subtle voice commands are perfectly acceptable in most disciplines. On the next stride, your horse should be completely stopped. Soft, straight and balanced. So, let’s break down the training process.
Ready. The key to a good stop is preparation. Begin at a walk. Your horse should be straight and energetic in the approach. Make sure his attention is focused on you and he yields to your hands as you make contact with the reins and close your leg on his side. Align his body parts arrow straight. With a seasoned horse, this preparatory signal can be as subtle as a slight backward shift in weight. Similar to answering the telephone, your horse is connected and ready to respond. Some would call this a half-halt.
Ask. Say “whoa” as you roll your pelvis back, deeply anchored into the saddle. This is your cue to stop. Horses recognize the tone and volume of voice commands – not the actual word. Make sure the word sounds the same every time you say it. Save it only for stopping…and mean it.
Stop. If he doesn’t halt on the next stride, follow immediately by backing him up several steps until he’s stepping back with only the softest touch of the reins and light leg. Eventually, you can eliminate the back up when your horse starts to prepare to stop by turning his ear back to listen, shifting his weight onto his hindquarters and stopping on his own when he hears your voice. This is where anticipation becomes our friend! Thereafter, only back him when he’s too casual about responding to your “whoa.” Expect to take roughly seven to 10 repetitions at the walk before your horse starts to connect the dots.
As with jumping, or loping a trail pole, I often count down strides with my students as they approach the stopping point, so that they stop out of a rhythmic gait. Ready should happen several strides away. Then soften your body and flow for the next couple of strides. Ask two strides away. Stop on the next beat.