Teaching The Whoa Step-By-Step


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(Photo 8) Alexa really appreciated praise and was rewarded throughout the session with a release of pressure for each “try” she made. Her “tries” included: forward motion, softening and relaxation, and of course stopping on command. Each try would be rewarded by the most suitable gesture of thought, relaxed eyes, slower pace, soft shoulders and lowered hands or arms. But the most appreciated reward for Alexa was connecting with me in the center of the round pen where we spent time bonding. We repeated our lesson a number of times, which lasted no more than 10-15 minutes and finished on a superb note. It was clear that Alexa enjoyed her time together remaining sensitive and motivated.

A good whoa is one of the most important things you can teach your horse. Doing so at liberty can help strengthen your communication skills.

Whoa there! For centuries, horsemanship seemed to be all about man dictating to the horse. Good horsemanship was demonstrated by how well you could train your horse, regardless of the methods you used or the negative effects they had on the animal.

Thankfully, times have changed and horsemanship has evolved into something much kinder and far more effective. At Reach Out to Horses, we are committed to not only training horses but creating a trust-based partnership with them, giving them a voice, and instead of “breaking” them, allowing their true personalities to shine through, creating a genuine bond built on communication and respect.

Communicate freely

Nowhere is this partnership more obvious than when you’re working with your horse at liberty. Liberty work can be very fulfilling and a lot of fun. It’s a time when you and your horse are truly on equal terms, when he can speak his mind and you both get to experience the joy of freedom from tack, equipment and lines. It’s a chance to explore one another while combining educational exercises into the mix.

The round pen can be a great place to work with your horse at liberty. Many misconceptions exist about the round pen. Some love it, some hate it, some use it, some don’t. As with any tool, the effectiveness or abuse is not in the tool itself, but in the hands that use it. I use the round pen for the “Reaching Out” process, to create a specific contract with my horses, and for free schooling.

Free schooling allows you to choreograph your lesson, going with the flow and feeling what your horse has to offer. As long as your horse appreciates his environment, is enthusiastic and willing, free schooling can be built into your weekly activities.

Free schooling is an ideal tool for removing excess energy, rehabilitating, building muscle and endurance, “playing” with your horse, teaching “trick training”, viewing his movement, introducing voice commands, and more.

Whoa there!

If you have thought about connecting on this level, but didn’t quite know how, here’s a great place to start. Try using free schooling to introduce your horse to the importance of the word whoa. This exercise will enhance your connection and communication, and empower both you and your horse. Incidentally, I’ve heard others utilize the word “Ho”, but I caution against this because it sounds similar to “No” and you might accidently create an unwanted stop when you least expect it!

Teaching whoa step-by-step

1 Begin driving your horse around the round pen, remaining in the “driving zone” about 45º behind the barrel of your horse. I will sometimes bring a line in with me for safety and to enhance my communication. Always remember there is a difference between driving and chasing, and your intention should never be to create fear in your horse.

2 Decide on the exact location within the round pen you would like your horse to stop.

3 Say whoa before you take any action to stop him.

4 Keep your eyes on your horse’s eyes and step with determination into his path of travel; do this well ahead of him to allow him to understand and see your request.

5 Gauge the distance needed to be effective. Do not walk directly towards your horse’s eye and head, as that will turn him.

6 Do not get too close to the horse or “pinch” him against the round pen wall. It may cause him to bolt or even kick out.

7 Gauge the correct amount of energy needed to facilitate the stop – project or absorb your energy where needed.

8 If your horse is traveling in a clockwise direction, use your right hand to influence his nose; use your left hand if he’s moving counterclockwise.

9 Step towards your horse, if needed, to prevent him from turning towards you.

10 Keep your horse’s nose straight in front of him to ask for a stop on the round pen wall (you can build up to this).

11 Use your line to back up your hand gesture, if needed.

12 Look directly at his hips if he is about to swing them towards you.

13 Plant your feet firmly when you know your horse will come to a stop.

14 Soften your posture slightly at the moment he stops, as a reward.

15 Maintain your positioning.

16 Hold your horse in this position, increasing the duration over time.

17 Return to the driving position and say “walk on”.

18 Repeat multiple times, gradually eliminating bold body language and becoming more subtle until you eventually remove the body language altogether and replace it solely with the verbal cue.

19 Always end on a positive note and do not spend more time in the round pen than your horse can handle. The round pen should be a place of learning and fun, not work and fear.

The steps themselves are really quite simple. However, the true The steps themselves are really quite simple. However, the true art of free schooling is not a step-by-step process but rather lies in your ability to understand and communicate with your horse. After all, you cannot give him a voice and discover what he has to offer if you can’t understand what he is saying.

The best part is that this doesn’t just apply to teaching your horse to stop. It can open many doors. You can take this exercise to so many levels, from the ground through to horseback. You are limited only by your imagination. Just remember – success is in the listening, not the speaking. Happy trails!

Photo diary

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(Photo 1) Alexa, a beautiful QH mare, recently attended the ROTH Holistic Horsemanship Foundation class for the day. Completely open to what would take place, I entered the round pen to be greeted by Alexa, whose soft approach, sensitivity and kindness immediately touched my heart and everyone watching. We spent some time sharing space together, blending energy and creating a close connection. The conversation began the moment we were within view of one another.
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(Photo 2) When it was time to engage in learning whoa, I made a few initial changes to my body language. By raising my shoulders from a passive position, I asked Alexa to pay attention. Standing square in front of her, I created a boundary and maintained the space between us by projecting a “bubble of energy” and asking her to keep the distance. I looked her directly in the eyes, telling her I wished her to stand back, and reinforced my energy bubble while watching her response. I regularly use these subtle nuances in both body language and energy to effectively communicate with my horses.
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(Photo 3) In order to gain a stop, you have to have forward motion. Driving Alexa forward while I was behind her barrel at a 45º angle, and using my body language, I communicated to her to move out. My eyes watched her eyes closely to read her mood and upcoming actions, while my shoulders were parallel, or square, to her shoulders. My heart space was facing her heart space (located behind her shoulder), and directing energy like an invisible laser beam. My hips/pelvis faced her shoulder while we maintained forward motion. As she asked to rejoin me, I communicated to her with a hand gesture, asking her to continue moving forward and concentrate on keeping the flow. My open left hand redirected her nose forward.
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(Photo 4) Correct body positioning, shoulder placement, head carriage, and eye contact are crucial to helping guide your horse with clarity.
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(Photos 5-7) Clear intention is key when asking your horse to stop. Plan where you want the horse to stop in the round pen, and be aware as to why you chose that location. Always stay away from the gate as this will eventually act as a magnet to which your horse will gravitate vs. learning how the stop from your physical and verbal cues. It is good to repeat the “stop” in the same location multiple times prior to changing direction.
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(Photo 8) Alexa really appreciated praise and was rewarded throughout the session with a release of pressure for each “try” she made. Her “tries” included: forward motion, softening and relaxation, and of course stopping on command. Each try would be rewarded by the most suitable gesture of thought, relaxed eyes, slower pace, soft shoulders and lowered hands or arms. But the most appreciated reward for Alexa was connecting with me in the center of the round pen where we spent time bonding. We repeated our lesson a number of times, which lasted no more than 10-15 minutes and finished on a superb note. It was clear that Alexa enjoyed her time together remaining sensitive and motivated.

Anna Twinney is an internationally recognized Equine Specialist, Natural Horsemanship Clinician, Animal Communicator and Reiki Master. As the founder of the Reach Out to Horses® program, she remains on the cutting edge of genuine, gentle communication techniques. For over a decade, Ann a had been traveling the world teaching people of all disciplines how to work in the horse’s language and create a trust-based partnership wi th their horses. She is the creator of the comprehensive 6-volume Reaching Out to Natural Horsemanship DVD series and Succ ess: Foals In Training, a 4-DVD instructional set, and a contributor to the book Horse as Teacher and the CD Call of the Horse. Ann a is well known as a speaker, TV and radio personality, has been featured on US and international television, radio and podcast shows, and regularly contributes to national and international magazines. reachouttohorses.com

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