A Word on Whoa

Throughout my riding career I’ve had several different coaches, each with a different stance on the use of vocal aids. I used to have a bad habit of “clucking” on takeoff whenever I got a deep spot to a fence. I stopped because I was told I would be marked down in the strict, stuffy world of Hunterland. My “clucking” wasn’t just distracting, it was unnecessary. I have two perfectly good legs to create impulsion with. The “cluck” was just for my own sake, to reassure myself that we were indeed going to make it over the jump. Eventually, I learned to ditch it and just use my legs.

While I used to have a problem with “go”, my current problem lies with “whoa”. I still find myself talking to my horse on course, mostly just telling her she’s a good girl. My current coach thinks it distracts me, but I’ve also been told that using my voice might help relax my hotheaded mare.

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Because we all know horses don’t understand the finer points of the English language, I’ve often wondered what it is about voice commands that is so effective. What exactly is the value of “whoa” ?

I found out, one day, during a flat ride when my mare was being a bit strong. This isn’t exactly uncharacteristic of her, but you could say we were having an “off” day. As she got stronger and stronger, I frowned and clenched my teeth. I got stiffer and stiffer until we were in an all-out tug of war.

We started with some transition work to try to re- open that line of communication, and I started talking to her. I started asking her why she was suddenly spooking in the far corner, reminding her that her mane needed pulling, promising a trip down the back road if we got our act together. Most importantly, I started saying whoa.

As we have established, horses do not have a firm grasp on the English language. But I think the word “whoa” itself is somewhat magical. Try saying it right now, softly, in a low tone. Whooooaaaa. Feel how the word forces you to exhale, which relaxes your entire body. Try this the next time you’re in the saddle! The tension in your seat and shoulders will release.Your horse might breathe a little sigh.


So I said whoa, and in doing so, my whole body relaxed. I softened from the tip of my boots to the top of my helmet. My seat muscles unclenched and I sat deeper, but softer. As her transitions started to melt like butter, I was reminded of how our horses can often act as a mirror of ourselves. I actually cracked a smile, and she stopped swishing her sassy little tail. When I stopped saying whoa, I just focused on continuing to breathe deeply.


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Consider my ride simplified! Do you have any tricks to get back in tune with your horse?


3 thoughts on “A Word on Whoa

    • Thank you so much! I’ve never been able to wrap my tongue around that “trill” sound but my coach does (: it’s funny, I was going through a grid today and my coach actually told me to talk to myself in order to slow my mind…maybe he reads this blog! Haha.

  1. Mum always told us it’s impossible to sing and be nervous so whenever our horses got a bit hot or we got uncomfortable in a situation we would sing . I’ve been known to sing my way around a cross country course because it kept me calm and my horse calm.

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