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Question of the Week: Finding the right loping speed

My horse either trots fast or gallops. How do I find the middle ground?

28-Sep-11

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Q: I have a six-year-old gelding and I only ride him on the trails. I can’t get him into a comfortable, controlled lope. He’s basically very slow, and if I push him with my legs to speed up, he’ll just do a fast, disorganized trot. Then sometimes, if we’re in an open field, he’ll eventually break into a rough gallop. How do I get him to just do a nice lope?

A: Unfortunately, horses don’t naturally lope, which is the western version of the English canter. We create the lope or canter by teaching the horse to collect (shorten) their galloping stride. The horses you see quietly loping down the trail on a loose rein no doubt spent years doing ranch work, competing in the show pen or otherwise learning the basics that your horse apparently missed. So while your plans are to “only” trail ride, the only way to teach your horse to lope is to spend a considerable amount of time in an arena. If you don’t have access to an arena, then a flat, open area with good footing, where you can work consistently in a large circle, will do.

Your primary job on your circular track is to improve your communication with your horse. A slow, laidback demeanor can be an attribute in a trail horse, but your gelding still has to respect your leg cues. When you press inward (squeeze) with your legs, he should respond promptly. He should skip the strung out trot and go directly into the gallop. Then you must have the confidence to ride the gallop for a few strides. Increase your contact on your horse’s mouth by holding gently with both reins. After a few strides, he should respond by collecting his stride and slowing down. If he breaks into his disorganized trot instead, send him back into the gallop, keep circling, and ask again for collection and slowing. Your goal is to create energy (the gallop) and then package it better (by collecting it into a lope). Staying on a circle will help. Because your horse is perpetually turning, he must shorten his stride to remain balanced around all those turns.

If your horse continues to struggle you have to contemplate how your riding might be contributing to your horse’s behavior. Do you kick with your legs and then, once he bursts into a frantic pace, grab the reins with your hands? Are you unbalanced in the saddle, with an insecure seat? If so, every gait will feel rough and uncomfortable until you learn to sit deeply and move with the motion of the horse. Consider taking some lessons from a local instructor, one who works with recreational riding horses. Not only will you get some help in your quest for that nice lope, but you’ll also get some input on how to become a better, more effective rider.

-- Cindy Hale

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Question of the Week: Finding the right loping speed

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Reader Comments

JT    Mather, MB, MB

10/13/2011 7:32:40 AM

Regarding the comment about every article involves hiring a trainer, instructor and not having a trailer. I am in the same position and have learned a lot from reading and from asking friends with more riding experience. One friend comes over periodically, watches me ride and gives some tips. My specialty is cooking and baking and she has a lunch and something to bring home....fair trade.

Lisa    Henderson, MD

10/11/2011 4:27:29 PM

I sent my 7yr old mare to a trainer to fix her, I was the one that needed fixing. I took five lessons and he showed me that my mare was very well trained. Then he trained me to ride her. And this advice is right on the money. Ask for the collection and you get that lope that you can set to. Best think I ever did, learn how to ride my mare, the respect that I get from her is a lot better. I can get her to do anything.

CJF    Henderson, KY

10/3/2011 7:58:27 AM

Every article I read always say consult/take lessons with a professional horse trainer. I can't afford to do that and besides, I don't even have a trailer to transport my horses anywhere. So what would the REAL advice be?

i    i, ID

10/1/2011 11:51:18 PM

Great advice

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