The Meaning of Whoa

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 ear drums. 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 for 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, my 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 ideas 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– it all passed him by. Whoa.

Those years of Portuguese horses and clucking Guinea 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 my buddie Mark’s young stallion. I don’t recall how the circumstances aligned for me to be in the dark arena at 9pm 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 this 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 looked like! The word did mean something! Granted, I’ve decided since then that “whoa” is like a Holy Grail and only precious few know its real identity.

Step-by-Step… Yeah, Right!

I’m not trying to shoot myself in the foot here, since I am after all someone who writes books about training horses. However, I flipped open a catalogue yesterday and was dumbfounded by the number of books, DVDs, manuals, workbooks, and other materials on the market allegedly to help people train their own horses and to ride better.

By page 40 of this catalogue with products promising results, I thought to myself that either horse people need things explained to them in a thousand different formats OR we trainers must have a compulsive desire to write books even though we agree that nobody learns anything about horses from a book. My mentor, for one, gets really feisty about this topic. He spews and sputters and paces around in circles waving his arms, trying to make horse owners realize they need to learn things from their horses, not from a book.

I tend to agree with him, especially since training horses is a never-ending learning process. Even after a lifetime with them, old masters still something new every day from their steeds. However, I also have observed how blissfully full of hope most amateurs and riders are. No matter the frustrations and setbacks, regardless of the financial sacrifice and marriage turmoil, their hope never dies. They have a will to improve their skills and master tricky riding techniques. And where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?

This optimism must be what keeps those horse book catalogues in business. Despite the fact that the last five years’ worth of equestrian magazine subscriptions haven’t given a rider one morsel of tangible, measurable, useful information about working with her specific horse, she will keep renewing. Never mind that the last dozen training books purchased at a recent equine trade show was so confusing that she never got around to reading them. And those instructional DVDs about how to be a better rider in four weeks? Those were both boring AND confusing, so they’re now collecting dust next to an old collection of Star Trek VHS tapes.

Yet the average horse owner still hopes that someday one of these books or DVDs or pod casts will give her just the information she’s searching for. And that hour in the saddle every day will suddenly take on a new level of clarity and progress. So we trainers keep writing books and horse owners keep buying them.

We do have very good intentions in writing our books. We want to be useful and helpful and to give the average rider an “ah-hah!” moment. But the gritty truth is that each individual horse is SO darn different in nature, ability, and behavior that no matter how good a respective book might be, its message will never be 100 percent applicable too all horses. Thus, Jane Doe the average horse owner buys the book on-line because it has a groovy title or at a trade show because its author gave an inspirational demo and goes to the barn intending to follow its instructions line by line.

After perhaps the first chapter, she is very confused and frustrated. She has followed all the steps so far in, say, “Finding Your Inner Dressage Path” but now it’s becoming clear that her Mustang-Belgian cross actually doesn’t care too much for the counter canter exercises called for in Chapter 2. And if she can’t get through Chapter 2, does she just skip ahead to Chapter 3 or 4? Confused, she picks another training book off her shelf to cross-reference and hopefully find an answer to her puzzlement. But this other book suggests a lot of lateral bending, which her horse only does well in one direction. So, should she do those lateral exercises in that one direction and then attempt the counter canter in that same direction?

Even more confused, she consults her magazine subscriptions and finds an article that sums things up this way: if she sits perfectly straight with proper weight in her seat bones, her horse will execute a nicely balanced counter canter all day long.

Later that day, with two books and multiple magazine articles splayed out on the arena fence, she sits perfectly and yet her horse still turns into a chomping, agitated beast when asked for a counter canter.

Huh. Now what to do?

At this point, she might consult her friend, who will confide that she is in the same quandary. The friend may suggest a few other books to contribute to further confusion, or she may simply throw up her hands and admit that she’s given up on books and other such information. But to admit this is nearly sacrilegious in the horse world. To admit that you’re no longer buying and trying to navigate your way through manuals intending to guide you to the Holy Grail of horsemanship is akin to admitting that you’re flunking yourself out of the community. Surely, no amateur horseman can find his or her way along without the step-by-step manuals that actually only work in an imaginary time and place where everything goes according to plan. Surely, stumbling along on one’s own cannot be as productive as getting mired in confusing instructional texts, can it? Not in an industry with so much hope, that’s for sure.

Stumbling along on one’s one is just that: stumbling. Amateurs’ vibrant hope, however, is an invigorating spark that lures horse owners into continuing to try things they’ve already tried and proven not to work. Just because all they’ve met with so far is frustration and confusion, it doesn’t mean one more book or DVD won’t cure this streak, right? On this note, I highly recommend that everyone should purchase my forthcoming book about Equine Fitness in the fall of this year.

It’s either in your blood or it’s not

breyer-appyMy friend Carmen’s adorable daughter Simone is, against all logic, horse-obsessed. I, too, suffered horse obsession as a child, but unlike Simone, I lived on a farm, so my craze seemed mostly normal. Simone, however, lives in a condominium in a high-density neighborhood in a populated metropolitan area. Neither her parents nor friends share her equine enthusiasm; it developed in her apparently out of the blue. This charming little blond-haired girl now has horse pajamas, pony coloring books, Breyer models, a wooden stable, horse-themed Valentine’s cards and cookie cutters, etc. She is afflicted so severely that all the non-horse people around her can only scratch their heads.

To me, Simone proves a hypothesis from my trainer in Portugal. He said to me one day, “It’s either in your blood or it’s not.” He meant it didn’t matter what any person’s financial situation, environmental influences, or anything else happened to be. If horses were “in your blood,” you were fated to have an undying affection for them. Some folks might not actualize this fate until later in life, he pondered, while others seize on it immediately at birth. Simone appears to fall into the latter category, which warms my heart because so did I.

As a young child on our farm and surrounded by horses all day, I still wanted to play horse games at night, read horse books, or make horse drawings. I couldn’t get enough. My elementary school teachers telephoned my parents on several occasions to express concern over my potential neurosis. Meanwhile, I submitted book reports about The Black Stallion, science projects about veterinary topics, history essays about ancient breeds, and I invented four-legged games at recess. My teachers panicked about this single-mindedness and told my parents to make some kind of intervention. As if they hadn’t tried.

Indeed, they gave me Barbie dolls, bicycles, mini baking sets, and Lincoln Logs. But I only wanted horses, horses, and more horses. My parents had to give up and pray that I matured– magically somehow– into a well-rounded adult. And mostly I have. Or at least I trick myself into believing that. Then, moments like one last week rattle me out of that comfy daydream. I was chatting with Carmen on her couch when suddenly I noticed across the room a small stable filled with Breyer horse models. Childlike, I bolted off the couch mid-sentence (I believe we were discussing grown-up stuff like politics) and ran over to it. Simone joined my side instantly and I begged her to show me the little stable.

draft-horseShe obliged but only after her tiny hands showed me her “favorite” member of the barn, a thick-necked plastic draft horse. My favorite was the Appaloosa with splotches painted on his rump, although Simone didn’t get around to asking me which one I liked best. She was excitedly relaying the details of her pretend farm to me, like the fact that all twelve of her horses were stallions. And the Palomino one didn’t get along with the others. And that her horses had just gone into the stable for the night before I came over. “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” I followed along, instantly a four- year- old again myself. Oooooh, my chest filled up with joy when I remembered my own Breyer stable and teeny weeny pasture fences and the endless hours of “playing horse.” I was starting to feel like Simone and I were birds of a feather, never mind the nearly thirty years between us.

Then she offered to show me the ‘rocking horse’ that she’d received for Christmas, which I agreed to in a heartbeat. We skittered upstairs to her bedroom and within a moment, I gave thanks for the nearly 30 years between us. A lot has changed between the days of making up four-legged galloping games at recess and today. Namely, technology has intervened. Had I owned a rocking horse of the likes that Simone now possessed, I never would have stood a chance at being a well-rounded adult. In fact, I’m pretty sure I never would have left my bedroom.

Simone’s “toy” horse is frighteningly lifelike. “Rosebud” stands as tall as a Shetland pony, is able to swish her tail and move her head and neck. She even chomps carrots and makes chewing noises. She is able to carry a grown adult on her back and when the rider swings her arm overhead and says “giddyup,” the horse actually does. Its body starts herky-jerking and the fuzzy little technological beast makes clomp-clomp noises. When I pulled on the reins, it stopped.


Wide-eyed, deeply envious, and truly speechless, I curried this almost-real horse’s hair and assured Simone she was the luckiest girl on the planet. As for whether she stands a chance of ever “out-growing” her horse-obsession, I’d say there’s no way. But I secretly hope she does because I’ve got a place in my house already picked out for Rosebud.