A couple of Springs ago, a group of barn friends and I went down to the 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. 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. 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 “hoa!”
Chip froze in place and just blinked at me, the same look of bewilderment in his eyes. 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 pet 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 “Hoa”
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 “hoa” to Chip, he became still and looked to me for the answer, despite the apparent panic in his expression.
To make “hoa”, the universal “stop,” a life-and-death command to 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. By conflating “hoa” 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 – How to Teach “Hoa” on the Ground, on the Lunge Line, and Under Saddle
On the Ground: This is the first place where we need to perfect the “hoa” 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 “hoa.” 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.
Practice walking with various hoas, starting with consistent intervals [walk-hoa-walk-hoa-walk-hoa], then moving to more unexpected stops [walk-walk-hoa-walk-hoa-walk-walk-walk-walk-walk-walk-hoa-walk-hoa-]. 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.
On the Lunge Line: Of the three places to perfect “hoa,” 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 “hoa,” 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.
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 “hoa” 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 “hoa” under saddle. I call it the Five-Step Hoa:
- take a deep breath
- sink into your seat and heels
- freeze your hips
- say “hoa”, and finally
- 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 “hoa” command.
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 am 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 untended. 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 “hoa” into every aspect of their life, and you will surely not be sorry.