I’ve started a series of articles on what I consider to be the foundation of training in a young horse. I cannot stress enough how important the fundamentals are, and how this foundation is a building block to teach the horse the more advanced maneuvers. In the first articles of the series, I addressed the spins. In this article, I will explain the foundation of the stop.
Before I begin to worry about teaching the stop at a lope, I will first require that the horse have a full understanding of reverse. Not that he will just move backward when I pull on the reins, but that he will get softer on the reins and increase speed when motivated by rocking my legs into his belly. The rocking of the legs does two things: One, it gives him a pace or cadence which also controls speed. Second, it teaches him to lift his belly, allowing room for his hind end to fold underneath his belly. As a result of him lifting his belly, he will lower his head. This is the form that I want for his body to take when I ask for the stop. I will also require that the horse have a firm understanding of following his nose, and how to run a straight line.
This is true of the spins too, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles. Why does the horse have to know how to run a straight line? Because if he does not run straight then he will not stop straight. The same goes for the reverse. I want to be able to back in a circle to the left or to the right. Why does he have to know how to back toward both directions? Because if I cannot back the horse to the left or to the right, I cannot correct for the straight. In the stops, it is important for the horse to be at least starting to understand how to break or to give at the poll and at the withers. This is not as crucial as the other requirements, but it is still important. I have found in my teaching that if I stress the importance of having this part of the foundation, people tend to put a lot of emphasis on pulling and jerking a horse around to try to get them to put their heads down and low. This will actually work at times, but gets the horse much more worried about the stop and less concerned with the approach.
The approach to the stop is very important in finishing for a big stop. I want to see the horse relaxed in the approach, covering the ground with confidence. To achieve this, I must train for the body–from the shoulders back. Keeping this in mind and the horse’s body correct, the head will go down to a point at which he will be comfortable. Once I have this control, I will add the verbal cue of WHOA–not when I stop, but when I back up. I want my horses to think that I am not wanting them to stop. Rather, I want them to think that I am going from forward to reverse. This is why the backup is so important. WHOA is actually telling the horse to put his body in the position of reverse, which consists of a rounded back and lifted shoulders, with the head in a relaxed position. Without the lifted back, he cannot roll his hind end underneath himself without elevating his entire front end.
Increase the intensity gradually from a walk to a trot and then to a lope. If things get a little rough, take a step backward and use the foundation to
fix it. But remember, what does not get rough is not being challenged, and what is not challenged will not get better.