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Help, I can't Stop

There is nothing worse than getting on the back of an atomic bomb that is ready to explode into a sudden burst of movement that leaves you crying tears wind blown across your face or just sheer terror or panic. This is the moment we all dread, when our horse has become a runaway train that is about to derail and leave you in the dust somewhere along the happy trail that you were meant to be enjoying. Even if they are not running 100 m.p.h, you may be tired of your blistered hands and sore arms from holding back or pulling against a concrete wall. So how do you stop your horse? Maybe stop pulling on them, and make them take responsibility for their own body.  One of the most frequently asked questions I get is “How can I get a better stop?”.  No matter if your horse is young, old, off the racetrack or is experiencing difficulty with the word ‘whoa’, I am going to let you in on a big secret. The only way to fix it is through solid education, repetition, and obedience. Solid education is the knowledge to know where the issue is stemming from that makes your horse feel like it must pull through pressure. In most cases, it has nothing at all to do with the horse’s mouth. Riders will practice stop and back up until they can’t feel their fingers or hands anymore.  To their discouragement, the horse is still heavy on the bit. Did you ever take a moment to think about how the horse is balanced before you are asking for the stop? If the horse is pushing through the chest or pulling with the front instead of lifting the back and driving with the hind end, then all the halts in the world will not fix your problem. A bigger bit will not fix the problem. Leaning back to counterbalance the weight will not fix the problem.  The answer lies in how the horse uses the four feet to balance into the stop. Repetition is also of utmost importance. Most people will tell me that they don’t like to reprimand the horse or are afraid of giving the horse the wrong signal or cue. In all reality, what they fail to realize is that they reprimand the horse every single time they are in the horse’s presence. Repetition is the gentlest form of punishment. In everyday riding or handling you have a routine, and the horse happily follows it. It became a routine by repetition.  Like all bad habits, they form by doing something the same way over a long period of time. In your struggle to find a better way to stop, you have repeated the wrong habits to try to form good ones. This is hard for people to understand and when you stop and think about it, it takes about 5 times for a horse to start to learn a behavior. Here’s a thought for you. If you feed your horse treats out of your pocket to be nice, and sweet and gain respect, then how long does it take for your horse to search in your pockets when you are standing close by? Good habits and bad habits happen in the same way. The horse does not know what is acceptable and what is not unless you have a routine that forms good habits. Obedience is the key to all understanding between horse and rider. Obedience comes in all shapes and sizes and can be as simple as both legs mean go to both hands mean whoa. But the biggest point with obedience is the rider must know within their body what the horse’s balance point feels like and what their own balance point feels like. If you are asking for a stop and the horse is leaning on your hands, you have just engaged in tug of war and you are going to lose. A bigger bit will fix the problem temporarily but the horse will eventually learn to lean on it as well. Then you will also have 3 other problems arise from trying to fix one issue. Think about what you are asking for with your horse’s behavior and do what is appropriate to fix the problem. If the horse can’t balance with you up there and you can’t get a stop, then that is not the best place to start asking for it. Allow the horse to develop balance on his own. Teach ground work to the horse and make them responsive to a snaffle bit or a bit that is not using pain as a motivator. My goal is always to feel a polite contact constantly with a horse, in a stop, in a go, in a turn and in any other movement I ask for because, then I know the horse and I are connected. Not feeling any pressure is not good when asking for a stop because the horse may have learned to go behind the pressure or behind vertical.  They learn to curl the chin towards the chest and break over in the poll too much. This  will cause a whole new set of issues, because once the rider pulls on the reins to ask for a stop then the horse can keep curling the neck, and the rider will have no pressure in their hands to ask for the stop. A well educated hand is what keeps a horse on contact and obedient to the bridle. I have four key phases I use to educate the rider’s hands. The rider must first be steady with the hands. There is a constant feel and connection with the horse no matter where the horse goes, and where the head travels there is a constant steady hand that does not bounce or interrupt the movement. Like a hand shake with a person that you meet for the first time and don’t let go. Once you establish that then you must be free to follow the horse, and by that I do not mean let go of the rein and make a loop. That is for young uneducated horses that need a big incentive to understand they have done something correctly, I am talking about the steady hand leading and following the flow of movement that is felt in both hands. It is like a dance partner leading you across the floor. You don’t loose that feeling throughout the ride. Your hands are never generating a pull backward but instead are fixed and polite to capture what you create which is the next phase. You must capture the forward and direct it. You are always looking for a place to send all that energy. There is really never a moment in the horses training that you are not feeling what is happening in your hands.  When you daydream, you have lost your connection and the ride will suffer because the horse must be forced to make that decision on his own. Once the seat and legs can educate the horse, then they will constantly communicate in conjunction with the bridle. You then must contain what you captured without squashing it or creating tension. The horse will resist your pressure everyday of its life, for the rest of its life no matter how educated they are, so you must have well educated hands. I always say to my riders it is not about the bit you are using, it is about the hands that are holding it.  Make sure you are generating a feel with your horse. This takes reeducating sometimes, and if you need the help of an instructor, get it!! I am firm about this rule. Sometimes you must feel the process to determine why the balance of your body to hand combination is not working. It takes top level years to perfect this. Don’t get discouraged, but just know that the issue of you not stopping is no easy fix. It won’t be fixed quickly, and it won’t be fixed with gadgets such as bits and tie downs. They only complicate and snow ball the problem. The fix lies not in the rider’s head but in your hands  The issue must be fixed in the horse’s head before the fix can be felt through your hands. Think differently to get better results. A great stop on your horse is not far away, but you must understand the mechanics of what has caused the stop to be braced and rigid. Next time you can’t stop, I encourage you to not look at the horse’s jaw or bit as the problem but look instead at the horse’s poll. If it is raised and tense and looks as though the horse swallowed a ball and it got stuck behind the ears then your stop will not get better until the horse spits the ball out. The poll relaxing is the top reason why horses resist the rider’s hands and use the neck as a balancing rod instead of raising the back and elevating the withers in order to make room for the hind end to step up and under so the horse can balance on all four feet. By asking the poll to relax by picking up on the rein on one side at a time and gently resisting the horse’s brace until the horse learns to relax the poll and free that muscle, you will gain a solid level headed horse that is ready to learn a new technique such as stopping politely and on contact. Remember, if you start this exercise on the ground you will gain more control and the horse will be able to think about nothing but the pressure on one side of the bit as the rider concentrates on the poll. Once the poll drops, repeat the exercise. You are forming good habits through solid repetition If you release the rein when the head raises, then you are teaching the horse to lock the poll and raise the head. That is probably already a practice that has happened over and over which is what creates resistance there in the first place. Change your habits. You must pay careful attention and only release when the horse has dropped it’s head in response to your contact and raising of the rein. Good habits begin with the rider. If you always did what you’ve always done, you are going to get what you always got. I challenge you to think differently and work with your horse instead of against it. You will see a change but it must happen within your head and hand first to make a positive change within the horse’s mind and body

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