Riding Tips

“Whoa” – The Life-and-Death Command

horse standing still
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Written by Lindsey Rains

Can Any Command Top “Whoa?”

Horse riders use many cues to ask their horse for specific movements, speeds, and behaviors. 

“Whoa” is arguably the most important command in an equestrian’s toolbox. Horses are flight animals by nature, which means they’re inclined to move quickly when they perceive danger or feel pressure. Being able to slow and/or halt your horse from any speed — and in any situation — is critical for safety.

You Never Know When You’ll Need Whoa

A simple story illustrates how essential it is for your horse to understand “whoa.”

I remember when a group of barn friends and I went down to the Pacific ocean for a weekend getaway with our horses. It was a beautiful time: there was just enough sun to keep us warm during our hours of riding along the beach, yet it was also early enough in the year to avoid heaps of tourists.

Basically, our group had the beach to ourselves, and our days were littered with amazing beach rides and our evenings were reserved for campfires in the backyard that were so rich with peace, laughter, and friendship that it almost felt holy.

It was a meaningful point in my life because I was newly engaged, had come out of a tremendously difficult season of my life, and had just gotten my first horse. I felt like I was glowing from the inside out. Along with the joy, however, I also experienced an underlying uncertainty about all the things I didn’t know about horse ownership, despite my 20+ years of experience riding them.

One morning, a friend and I agreed to go on a morning gallop along the beach before the rest of the crew set out for our group ride. We needed to get our daredevil out of the way. I headed to the barn as soon as I woke up and started to tack up before my friend got there. I was so excited for this morning sprint that as I was tacking up my new horse, Chip, I dropped the reins in front of him instead of over his head.

horse on the beach

Photo Credit: Pixabay

I had bent down for literally two seconds before he had fidgeted his front left leg into his reins. Surprised and aloof, he jerked his head up quickly and began to panic. I began to panic. He had nylon closed-loop reins that would not break away like leather ones, and with his panic fit, I couldn’t safely unhook them. So, as my instinctual hail-Mary, I just threw up my hands, palms-out, and shouted “whoa!”

Chip froze in place and just blinked at me. The same look of bewilderment was in his eyes as was in mine.

Although now, he was looking to me to fix the problem instead of fight out of it himself. With my heart feeling like it was going to beat out of my chest, I quietly reached up to the shank of his bit and unclipped the rein. I petted Chip’s neck and face until we were both relaxed, and we went about our morning playing on the beach.

The peculiar thing about riding horses is that, as much as we work with them and trust them, and as much as we learn about safety, we can all make ditsy moves like I did. And even if you are not the type of person to make stupid horsemanship mistakes, any horse can spook at any given time.

Regardless of the circumstances, we need the reassurance of one command that can get their attention.

A Simple “Whoa”

When training a green horse or a seasoned horse, the most important dynamic to establish is that you, out of all their circumstances, are the one to be feared. And by feared I do not mean that they should tense up and tip-toe around you. NO. A million times no.

By fearing you, I mean that they rely on you as the dominant one in your dynamic. You are the one they trust and submit to.

In their moments of panic and fear, they defer to your answer instead of taking matters into their own hands. In the moment when I yelled “whoa” to Chip, he became still and looked to me for the answer, despite the apparent panic in his expression.

Chief Rookie Aside: Some riders prefer “hoa” instead of “whoa”

To make “whoa,” the universal “stop,” a life-and-death command for your horse, you will need to reinforce it in every aspect of their training. They need to respond to it with reverence on the ground (when you lead them), on the lunge line, and under saddle. This will then translate to the open trail, the show ring, and any new circumstance. The basic idea is to use the horse’s memory to reinforce a pattern that can be translated in any given situation.

man walking bay horse

Photo Credit: Pixabay

By conflating “whoa” to more contexts than just under saddle or just on the lead rope, you show them that the command is universal, not just bound to one context.

Breaking it Down

On the Ground:

This is the first place where we need to perfect the “whoa” command. Most horses are taught this from a young age, but the idea is for the horse to stop and stay still as soon as you say “whoa.” You don’t want to let them walk past you. Some people want their horses to stay a certain distance behind them, but it is a matter of personal preference. I like their shoulder to be a foot or so behind my backside.

palomino horse walking

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Practice walking with various hoas, starting with consistent intervals [walk-whoa-walk-whoa-walk-whoa], then moving to more unexpected stops [walk-walk-whoa-walk-whoa-walk-walk-walk-walk-walk-walk-whoa-walk-whoa-]. Get their attention and make sure their stop is complete. Watch their attitude and make sure that they aren’t walking in front of you or leaning into you.

You can start in the arena, or a familiar place like their stall aisle, and move your way out to where there are distractions and potential fears. The more places you practice this, the better.

Remember: Becoming a better trainer means understanding how your horse thinks.

On the Lunge Line:

Of the three places to perfect “whoa,” this will likely be the trickiest. You’re not right next to them to stop them with your body language and jerk of the lead rope, and you’re not connected with your hips, seat and reins.

Start by having them just walk or trot (definitely not the canter), say “whoa,” and jiggle the lunge line so you get their attention. If you need to draw them in a little bit, go ahead, but stay away from this as much as you can. Use your body to abruptly step linearly in front of their path, to where your shoulder is along the same line as the front of their nose.

black horse on lunge line

Photo Credit: Pixabay

If needed, bring your hands up, palms facing towards them. Make your body language rigid and almost harsh-looking, softening only when they begin to slow down and/or stop. Remember that this could be a confusing thing to teach them the first time, so reward them in a way they understand. Then get less and less exaggerated, until all you need is a little jiggle, then finally just the voice command.

Under Saddle:

Teaching “whoa” under saddle is quite different than the lead rope or lunge line, but you do have some specific advantages. You can use your seat for cues and follow with the voice command and finally, your reins. Here is my basic formula for a good “whoa” under saddle. I call it the Five-Step Whoa:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Sink into your seat and heels
  • Freeze your hips
  • Say “whoa”
  • Give a gentle tug on the horse’s mouth

As you work on this with your horse, move towards just using your seat, your voice, and a little rein. Then move towards just your seat and your voice. Then, if you want to get fancy, try to stop them with just your seat. But this exercise at first is about solidifying the verbal “whoa” command.

dressage horse halt

Photo Credit: Pixabay

If your horse happens to spook in any of the above categories, use the moment to get their attention and reinforce the command. As much as you can, use the experience to teach them about listening to you in their panics, versus flying away or trying to tackle the threat themselves. The point with these exercises is for you to have a word with your horse that can literally stop them in their tracks.

I was so grateful for Chip’s prior training in this incident at the ocean, because I could have had a much more extreme situation at hand from my silly mistake of leaving his reins unattended.

Frequently Asked Questions

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What word is used to stop a horse?

The most common word used to stop a horse is “whoa.” It can also be used for any large animal pulling a load. The word may come from the word “ho,” which is also a command to stop. There are different ways to train a horse to stop; the verbal component is just one and is generally paired with an action, such as pulling back on the reins.

The word “whoa” is most effective when spoken in a long, low, drawn-out, calming tone. Horses are prey animals and won’t want to stop if they are spooked, so never shout the word or use a high pitch.

What does “more whoa than go” mean?

“More whoa than go” means that a horse is more naturally inclined to go slowly than to go forward. Horses with more “whoa” will require more leg from the rider to motivate them to move forward. On the other hand, it’s generally easy to get them to stop. These horses would generally exhibit a calmer demeanor.

The other end of the spectrum is the horse with more “go”—those that generally require little, if any, encouragement to move forward, but are more difficult to stop. These horses might be described as “high strung” and could be more difficult and intimidating to control, especially for a novice rider.

How do I stop a horse?

Different riding disciplines use different methods to stop a horse. Generally, novice riders are taught to pull straight back on the reins and say “whoa.”

At more advanced levels, riders will learn alternate methods. They may stop driving forward with the seat and simply close the fingers on the reins. These actions may be imperceivable to the casual observer.

Another term you may hear is “spur stop,” a Western Pleasure technique where the rider squeezes the horse’s sides with their spurs, signaling the horse to stop. This can be counterintuitive, as most people learning to ride are taught that leg means “go” not “whoa.”

How do you control an upset horse?

Horses are prey animals; when given the choice, they will pick “flight” over “fight.” Depending on the horse’s temperament, some are more easily scared or “spooked” than others. It is helpful to get to know the horse you are riding. How easily do they spook? Do they spook at certain things? For example, some horses might find a plastic bag blowing in the wind terrifying; it may not even phase another horse.

If you know what the horse is likely to spook at, you can be proactive and either avoid the situation or work through it. Speaking in a low, calm voice can help ease an upset horse. If you sense a horse is nervous or upset, you may be able to distract them by riding in circles or directing their attention to a different task.

Can horses learn words?

Horses can learn and understand words. Some common words used around horses include “whoa,” “easy,” and “trot.” They learn better with positive reinforcement, such as a treat, to reward a desired behavior. While words are one way to train a horse, body language is even more common and effective. Horses in the wild use some verbalization (a nicker, whinny, or squeal) but most communication is accomplished through body language.

The majority of horse training focuses on touch, such as the sensation of the rider’s leg against the side of the horse, the pressure from the reins on the bit, or running the hand down the horse’s leg to pick up the hoof.

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Parting Thoughts

Do you want your horse to be as ready as possible for new situations? Do you want to have a foundational training aid? Do you want them to mind you and others when walking them on the ground? Weave “whoa” into every aspect of your horse’s life, and you’ll be glad you did!

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About the author

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Lindsey Rains

Lindsey Rains is the owner of Hoof Print Marketing, a boutique equestrian social media agency serving clients like The Plaid Horse, Savvy Horsewoman, and (of course!) Horse Rookie. She resides in Post Falls, ID, USA, with her husband, where she loves taking jumping lessons.