Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Step In The Right Direction

One common problem I encounter when horses are brought to me for training is the lack of a lope. It's an understandable issue with a young horse, but after months’ worth of training, I find it inexcusable.

There is no timeline for training horses, and they don't all learn at the same pace, however, loping is a pretty basic skill. If you're having trouble getting a lope from your horse, go back and work on the basics. If they don't understand what you're asking, most horses will tense through the back and up to the poll -- thus the high headedness, which is a matter of natural balance -- when initially asked for upward transitions to the lope, and very few can naturally step off into a lope from the walk without first learning how to do so correctly. You're in luck, because there are a few simple steps to work through this.

By far the easiest way to get that lope every time is teaching the horse to relax, flex and use its body. Much has been written about vertical flexion, though lateral flexion is so much more important. There is also an extremely common misconception that lateral flexion is simply asking your horse to bend his neck sideways (and I've written about this before). That's not the case, and any trainer telling you that needs a much better idea of what the term actually means. Teaching your horse to bend his neck is only the beginning.

Since our end goal is a happy, relaxed horse that carries himself in a balanced manner, we always have to remember that key word: Balance. To achieve a balanced lope, maintaining forward motion is key and having a horse that's supple throughout his body is paramount. So, if we want him to use his whole body, we have to teach him lateral flexion on both sides.

I'll only minimally ask for that flexion at a halt, I prefer the horse to be moving. At the walk, I like to see a slight bend toward the inside on a large (20m) circle. When I consistently get that nice arc without the horse dropping his shoulder, I'll introduce a counter bend in the same circle. From there, we'll perform the same exercise at a slow trot. To finish this part of the process, I'll request slight vertical flexion, asking him to soften to my hand.

These lessons aren't meant to be completed all in one day, but over the course of several days. If relaxing and bending his body is difficult for the horse, I'm not going to rush him. Most horses will let you know when they're ready to lope, though pushing them into it too soon will have a distinctly negative effect. That's where you see the horse who only wants to trot faster and faster, to hollow out his back and not pick up a soft, pretty lope.

Maintaining light contact is essential, unless you're left correcting a problem created by prior poor training. When I've got nice walk and trot circles, coupled with good lateral flexion in each direction at both gaits, I'm fairly assured that with just a little bit of consistent work, I'll have a pretty lope in no time.

By consistent work, I'm talking about 5-6 days per week, once every three weeks won't get you there. Remember our key word? Balance. When the horse feels balanced, he'll be ready to lope, and the ease with which he begins to become comfortable in the lope might surprise you.

At this point, you won't have a slow, collected Western Pleasure lope or a nice collected Dressage horse canter, but you'll have the building blocks, the tools and the foundation to get there.


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