Let's Build a Great Stop with Jonathan Field
By Jonathan Field
Last winter, I had a very good reminder about the importance of knowing how to stop! My family loves hockey, but I was always too involved with horses to really take it up. I decided to adopt the sport as a way of keeping fit. I bought the necessary gear and thought, “how hard can it be?” I quickly learned to build up speed and how to pass the puck, but this business of stopping was a whole other matter. Using the boards worked quite well — a gentle caress, stop, and head the other way. Truthfully, I didn’t see a flaw in this plan and I was having so much fun!
Finally, I had my first breakaway! Adrenaline coursed through my body and power pumped through my legs as I rushed towards the net. I shot! I missed. I headed for the boards at 50 miles per hour! Bam! I hit the boards with a crashing thud. As I lay there sucking air back into my lungs, all I could hear was the noticeably loud crackling sound that came from the interior of my body. Of course, my fellow hockey players simply skated around me and the game continued. I thought to myself, “the next time I venture out, I think I’ll try bull riding instead!” Seriously, I limped off with my broken rib thinking “how could I have disregarded learning to make a proper stop?”
You see where I’m going with this?
Before you point your skis downhill, strap on skates, or head off with your horse, remember one thing: stopping procedures come first!
What makes a great stop? A great stop is when you can ride at the gallop in any location and simply relax, let your breath out, and your horse responds by quickly coming down to the stop, both physically and mentally, just off your seat.
What is a bad stop? A bad stop is when you ask for the stop and your horse takes off, a full runaway, in the most dangerous of situations — like across a highway — or when the responsiveness is not there and the horse fights with his head. When you finally do get the unresponsive horse stopped, he is ready to go again as soon as you let go of the reins. In the horse’s mind, he is still on the run.
A soft, respectful, and willing stop can improve all other areas of your riding. There is much more to a proper stop than a good hard pull or a stronger bit. These three techniques, practiced in combination, provide the building blocks to a great stop.
Begin with the One Rein Bend-to-the-Stop, then progress to the Disengagement of the Hindquarters, and finally, the Two-Rein Stop.
Some helpful tips to get the most out of these exercises:
- Move through these steps in order and then in reverse if you run into trouble.
- Hold, and don’t pull!
- When you stop, give the horse a minute to stand there and fully relax before moving on. Let the horse settle and learn. After he sighs or is noticeably relaxed, then you can move on.
- Use the stop as a reward. If you play with a new concept or try something difficult, when the horse starts to get it or make improvements, reward him by stopping and allowing the lesson to soak in. Remember it is when you quit doing an exercise that the horse learns!
- Don’t come out of nowhere with your hands. Even if you do need to be quick, don’t just suddenly jerk on the horse.
- Remember, mastery of any sport, whether it is playing hockey or riding, takes practice, and starts with a great stop!
Stop 1: One Rein Bend-to-the-Stop
In order to create mental and physical relaxation in the stop, I start with a one rein, bend-to-the-stop in order to soften the horse laterally and to teach the horse to relax and come soft to the touch of the rein as he comes to the halt. This stop asks the horse to bend his head around to one side, as he unwinds down to the standstill. At first, the horse may walk small circles as you ask for the bend. Like everything in horsemanship, the key is in the release. Be consistent in releasing after achieving these three important things: the bend, the stop, and the relaxation. In this way you can teach your horse to do the bend without circling or forward movement and become patterned when it bends, stops, and relaxes.
Start by practicing this on the ground, then while mounted. Here I am using a soft rope hackamore, but these exercises can also be done in a snaffle bit.
Ask your horse to softly bend his head around. Start by reaching down the rein, closing your fingers, bringing your hand out to the side, then around to your leg. Wait as your horse follows the feel around and then fix your hand against your inner thigh close to your knee. Once your hand is fixed, try not to allow the horse to “root” the rein from your hand. Wait until the horse does three things before you release the rein: stops, bends, and relaxes. Be sure to put slack in your outside rein so your horse is able to bend comfortably without restriction. Place your outside hand on the pommel or saddle horn in order to maintain a strong position in the saddle. It is not necessary for the head to bend more than 90 degrees. If your horse resists as you ask for the bend, hold the rein and wait. If you pull and try to force it, your horse will resist and spin around, run backwards, or twist his jaw and not properly yield. Get this to the point where the horse can easily bend, stop, and relax from the walk and trot consistently, and stand relaxed after you release.
Related: Horsemanship: Free Up with Sideways
Stop 2: Disengagement of the Hindquarters
After perfecting the one rein bend-to-the-stop, I move to the hindquarters, where I use an indirect rein to ask the hindquarters to move around the front. This creates more bend throughout the entire body. The crossing of the hind feet helps the horse’s mind to stop racing and thinking forward.
In effect, by using an indirect rein, I ask for the hindquarters to disengage as the hind feet cross over. This active communication helps the horse mentally connect to you, and allows you to get control of his feet. As the hind feet cross over, the main source of power for the horse is disabled.
A horse can still go forward under power with just the head and neck bent so it is crucial to practice this exercise after you master the bend to the stop because it causes the entire body to bend and disengage.
Great communication to the hindquarters creates suppleness throughout the whole body, which helps with lateral exercises and is essential in creating longitudinal flexion.
To ask the horse to move his hindquarters, start by asking the head to bend (stop 1). Once the horse’s head is bent to the inside, turn your head and look towards the inside hindquarter. Then turn through your body while pressing your inside leg to ask the hindquarters to yield away from you. This will create an arc through your own body with your ribs compressed slightly to the inside. It is not necessary to lean excessively to the inside, but move just enough that you load your weight onto your inside seat bone. You want the horse to cross his back legs over and pivot on the forehand. If at first he does not yield, don’t rush, wait for his whole body to bend and the hindquarters to unlock and cross over.
Release both your leg and rein as the hind feet step underneath (as shown in the accompanying photo with Tessa). Do this repeatedly at the standstill and at the walk until you can bend the head and move the hindquarters easily in both directions.
You will know when your horse has done it well because it will feel like you have connected your seat and rein to the hindquarters and have access to disengage them anytime you want.
Related: The Young Horse
Stop 3: The Two-Rein Stop
The two rein stop is used once the horse has developed relaxation, softness, and mental connection in the previous two steps.
The two-rein stop is the typical stop you will use in your daily riding. The goal here is to have the horse stop straight, from the seat, without pushing forward or resisting the transition.
Many horses will stop but as they do, they brace against the rider and push forward onto the forehand.
When you prepare for the stop be sure that you are really actively riding so that when you change your seat to stop, your horse can feel the difference from actively riding forward to stopping. Keep your focus up and begin the transition first with your seat, and then stop riding. If the horse does not feel this change in your seat then use your reins equally with a steady holding pressure. Don’t abruptly yard, jerk, or pull the horse. Time given between the seat aid and rein aid will help the horse learn to stop from your seat. If the horse doesn’t feel the seat and then resists the rein by locking up, quickly go back to Stop 2 and disengage the hindquarters to soften the horse off of the reins and unlock his body. After this, repeat the two-rein stop.
Constantly repeat these steps until your horse feels your seat change and comes straight to the stop. Allow for soak and rest time as part of the learning.
All photos by Angie Field.
Main photo: A soft, respectful, and willing stop is an essential skill for all horses.