Cow horse trainer Doug Williamson swears by one drill that teaches his horses to collect, neck rein, and roll back.
Story and photography by Kate Bradley Byars
Circle, stop, sweep. In three easy steps, California trainer Doug Williamson says he can teach a horse the basis for any cow horse or versatility maneuver, and he is willing to share his winning technique.
“I do this with a young horse at home or to warm up my show horses,” said the veteran trainer. “A horse has to know where its feet are or it is not going to perform very well.”
Williamson’s horses are known for executing snappy turns and collected lead changes that have helped him win more than $1.2 million in cutting, reining and cow horse classes, and also earned him a place in the National Reined Cow Horse Association Hall of Fame.
Using his trademark “circle, stop, sweep” strategy, Williamson prepares a horse to learn how to stop straight and collected, neck rein, and roll back. The exercise conditions a horse to collect itself in the middle of the arena and prepare to change leads or go from a large fast circle to a small slow.
“Lope and sweep in the same direction. Lope a circle to the right, stop and sweep to the right, picking up the right lead again,” he explained. “You are always in the same lead, but the horse is gathering itself in the middle and learning to pick itself up where you will eventually have a lead change or a slowdown from a large fast [circle] to a small slow.”
Here, the master trainer and showman shares his technique to learn and utilize the circle, stop, sweep.
The simple exercise begins with loping a basic circle. Williamson suggests working on one side for some time before moving to the other direction. Just like you would start a figure eight in the center of the arena, start your circle there. Then, use only one side of the arena for the exercise or choose to alternate the circle direction with every sweep. The key though is to work on only one lead at a time.
The first step sounds simple, but riders need to establish a well-balanced circle. A horse that carries itself in a collected manner has a better stop, sweep—or rollback—and lead departure. In addition to maintaining the horse in the correct position, Williamson also says riders should check their own body position.
“A saddle needs to be rode like you are skiing, with feet underneath you and your weight evenly distributed,” Williamson said. “My stirrups are kept short so I can keep a snow-ski stance. Your heels, hips and shoulders should all be in line.”
Williamson says that upper body position is almost more important than lower body position, because if a rider leans forward through the circle, the horse can be heavy on its front end. As Williamson rides the circle he is constantly collecting the horse, using his legs, seat and hands, and adjusting his position in the saddle until he feels he is riding in sync with the horse and it is ready to move on to the stop.
The stop portion of the exercise is vital to complete a balanced sweep, and by stopping in the center of the arena routinely, a horse learns to begin to collect itself in the middle of the arena, or center of where two halves of a figure eight meet.
When stopping, Williamson concentrates on his body position and timing. Williamson’s secret is not to randomly initiate a stop by saying “whoa,” first he needs to time his cue.
“I think a rider’s shoulder should be where the back cinch sits on a horse when you ask for a stop,” he said. “But, in your lower body, you don’t want to squeeze with your knees in the stop. If you squeeze with your knees, it is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste from the middle—you will shoot out the top. When you stop, think to step down on your skis and sink into your stop.
“I don’t say ‘whoa’ until the front feet hit the ground. If you say ‘whoa’ when the hind feet hit the ground, then the horse’s front feet have to go back up and to the ground before the horse can begin to stop. You should already have your shoulders back where the back cinch is, and when you say ‘whoa’ the horse’s hind feet will land roughly in that spot underneath you. When the horse stops, you will go with that movement.”
Williamson says that the exercise should be completed in a fluid, circle-stop-sweep motion, but a horse that isn’t stopping well should not immediately turn around. Instead, back the horse, then sweep around when it is in a collected position.
With proper timing, the horse learns to stop when the rider sits back and says “whoa,” not with pressure from the reins. Only pulling on the reins teaches the horse to stop on its front end and possibly resent the exercise.
“If I pull to stop, the horse will cheat me,” Williamson said. “Use your weight and voice cues to get the response, and spur and pull only to scold the horse.”
When the horse stops, Williamson’s hands are near the cantle, evenly spaced on either side of the saddle horn, allowing him to use his reins to guide the horse into the sweep. His shoulders are centered over the back cinch and he is in a snow-ski stance, just as he practiced in the circle.
Like Williamson’s skiing position, a balanced seat is important in all three parts of the exercise. In the sweep, the bridle reins aid in telling the horse how to roll back, not in forcing it to do so. Williamson uses his weight to signal the horse to turn.
“You would be surprised how many horses will lean toward one direction and not come out of a sweep in the proper lead,” he said. “Doing this in the same [lead] teaches the horse to stay in line with its hip, and a rider who uses stirrup weight to help direct the horse sends clear signals.
“To do a proper rollback, you need the horse’s inside [back] foot to come up under your foot to stop. If the hind leg goes out instead of up under your leg, the horse is not going to execute that maneuver very well. This teaches a horse to stop underneath itself and then push off from the sweep with the outside hind foot.”
Williamson prefers his horses to push off on their outside hind foot in a sweep. He uses his reins to signal the horse’s feet: The neck rein is the signal, or “execution” rein, and the direct rein guides the horse.
“People get too much direction in their horses, meaning they are too bent around,” he explained. “All I want to ask for with my direction rein is to see that horse’s eye, and no more. That will [signal] the outside hind leg that I want it to move and follow my direct rein. Then, when I bring my execution rein, or neck rein, back and across toward my hip, that brings the shoulder around and plants the horse’s inside foot so the outside can move around it.”
After starting the sweep, Williamson follows through by turning his head, and when the horse has straightened out of the turn, applies his outside leg to pick up the same lead in which the horse was loping prior to stopping, does a small half-circle and returns to his original circle path.
One reason Williamson’s young horses learn to neck rein quickly is because of this exercise. Though he practices the circle, stop, sweep often with his horses, Williamson says he mixes up trotting and loping circles, and lopes one, two or three circles in a row before he stops and sweeps.
“The circle, stop, sweep gives a horse a job to do that it can enjoy,” he said. “You can teach a horse a lot in one exercise. The horse learns to stop and do a 180-degree sweep like in the boxing, and it helps a horse that needs to stop better, roll back in the reining or pay attention to its feet.”
For more on Doug Williamson and his training methods, visit championcowhorses.com. This ran in the July 2013 issue of Western Horseman.