The Meaning of Whoa
By Jec A. Ballou
Non-horse people naively assume that “whoa” is one of the most important words in a horse person’s vocabulary. In reality, “whoa” has little significance in the horse world. Unfortunately, the word’s lack of directive power is almost comical. It’s as if horse people use it just to see what might happen.
I’ve seen terrified veterinary assistants tethered to the end of a chain shank holding a snorting, leaping stallion uttering “whoa” incessantly in barely audible tones with blank stares and obviously zero conviction that “whoa” is actually going to STOP the menacing beast from his antics. Likewise, I’ve seen owners trying to groom their antsy, dancing horses at a tie post, chasing the steeds around in circles with their brushes and muttering “whoa, whoa, whoa….” Now, if they intended that word to actually mean something, they’d be darn sure to get a response when they said it, rather than continuing to chase their four-legged friends around to brush mud off their hocks.
I’ve lived a long time in the horse world and mostly what I’ve seen is that the word “whoa” is used with zero purpose other than to fill silent air and give our busy human minds something to work over and repeat incessantly. Here’s a perfect example. We’ve all witnessed moments at a barn where something really awful is happening, like a horse starts panicking while in the trailer or rearing on wet slippery concrete, etc. And how do their humans react? By screaming, and I do mean screaming – WHOA! – at decibels that could rupture eardrums. Now why, I ask you, would a panicking and terrified animal suddenly calm down by being hollered at, especially by a word that he has been trained to ignore? Why would a whole bunch of yelling and shrieking settle the horse down? Well, obviously it doesn’t. Yet, we horse people keep doing it. It proves that we have no intention that “whoa” is going to do anything, but it makes our frantic minds feel better. And that’s what counts, right?
I’ve ridden frequently in Portugal over the past 10 years and the horses there are completely bombproof… except when around guinea hens. One year, the riding school’s neighbor bought a flock of those clucking hens and deposited them across the arena fence. When riding past that particular spot in the arena, our normally stalwart stallions bolted at the speed of light. It didn’t matter how skilled a rider you were. The sheer speed alone ejected you from your seat and you could only hope to hang onto the stallion’s mane until he ran out of oxygen. Of course, the flurry of bolting, charging stallions only excited the guinea hens more, which elevated their clucking, which in turn accelerated our respective runaways.
Meanwhile, our dear trainer stood in the center of the arena quietly telling our group “whoa, whoa, ladies.” He said it so unassumingly, as if it were our own idea to have a white-knuckled ride and we needed a reminder to rein things back in. Our cries for help, our cursing at the stallions and the hens, all passed him by. Whoa.
Those years of Portuguese horses and clucking guinea hens really confirmed for me how little punch the word “whoa” packs. So, you might say that like most riders, I had become programmed to say “whoa” only when I expected positively nothing to happen.
Then one night I was riding a young stallion owned by my buddy, Mark. I don’t recall how the circumstances aligned for me to be in the dark arena at 9 pm with about a dozen 4-H kids but there I was. The air was chilly, Mark’s horse was frisky, and children on ponies darted around like air hockey pieces. I was just thinking to myself, “This can’t get any worse…” when the young stallion under me shook his head so vigorously that his bridle flew off. Now I sat holding reins attached to nothing. In its launch, the bridle flew towards the ground and the bit smacked my horse’s knee hard, which startled him. So, he started running. I, of course, pulled on the reins out of habit, but the bridle was now dragging along in the sand next to me. Likely mystified by his sudden lack of restraint, the young horse kept running and 4-H children scattered.
I froze in the saddle, then quickly realized I’d need to be more proactive. “What should I DO?” I yelled over to Mark who casually watched the scene without concern. He gave me a look that confirmed I had asked the stupidest question in history. In his slow Texan drawl, he said, “Well, tell him whoa.”
I, in turn, thought his reply was the stupidest one in history. Why say “whoa” – a tactic proven NOT to stop a bolting stallion? Well, apparently, “whoa” actually means something in the Western world Mark hails from. Convinced that once again nothing would happen, I whispered “um… whoa?”
Upon hearing my feeble mutter, that young stallion screeched on the brakes so rapidly that I flew onto his neck, toppled over his shoulder, and landed on the ground beside him. He stood like a statue while I composed myself and even while kids on ponies crashed into his backside.
So this is what WHOA looks like! The word does mean something! Granted, I’ve decided since then that “whoa” is like a Holy Grail and only precious few know its real identity.
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