Question: I need help with my lope transitions, my horse seems to anticipate the lope is coming and when I do ask for the transition into the lope from the walk he pig-roots or tends to jump into the lope or trots before he takes the lope transition. Can you help me get a clean lope transition?
Answer: Absolutely. A smooth, seamless walk-to-lope transition is, as we know called for in the show pen, however, many riders only seem to work on the jog-to-lope transition.
A horse that can easily strike off without throwing his head up and lunging into the gait, or breaking first into a jog is setting the actual lope that follows the clean transition up for a much nicer, more correct, cadenced lope the whole way around the pen, that will give you those “Kodak” moments that you should be striving for.
Your own position and use of the aids is what will help make the difference between a collected, relaxed departure, and a rushed, anxious one, whether you’re teaching a young two year old or retraining a senior horse. If you do it right, lope departures can feel and look super sweet. But do it wrong and you can throw your horse off balance, frustrate and confuse him — and end up with a horse that equates loping with anxiety and trying to get a perfect lope transition on an anxious horse is near on an impossibility.
Here is what I do…
The equipment I use
First, outfit your horse in a mild bit, such as a snaffle, I also prefer to use my draw reins when I am teaching the transitions to help me gain a softness in the horses mouth while I am concentrating on moving their bodies around. You’ll use two hands to teach this (even the senior horse) because you will be doing some “Callisthenics” you need two hands to position their bodies to get good frame to lope off. Once the horse learns how to position his body when given the cues you can put him back into a shank and go one handed. I like to go back to square one even on a senior horse, they are never too old to go back into a snaffle for training. See my blog on “Using a snaffle bit on a senior horse”.
Training transition’s from the very beginning
On a green broke young horse, once I have done some trot to canter on them (approximately 10 days riding), I begin to start zoning in on the finesse of a transition into the canter. I say canter because for now, a young green horse wont be ready for loping off from a walk or even from a trot yet until they gain balance and strength in their bodies and their movement. It will take time to build the young horse up to the slow lope. Ignoring this training time will only tear your horses movement up and create real bad habits in how your young horse approaches the lope (from any gait).
Many riders, when going into the canter/lope from the walk/jog tend to ignore how the horse lifts it’s head and neck upon moving up into the departure. Lifting the head and neck only hollows the horses back out which in turn blocks the horse from coming through with a clean drive from the hind or the “engine”.
Here is what I train from the very beginning on a green horse…
I gear my horse up (senior horses too) with a smooth snaffle and a set of draw reins. If you do not yet own a set of draw reins, I prefer the Rolled leather draw reins, however, you can get yourself a black nylon set, in my opinion the leather draw reins are better but to each their own. Make sure you wrap or boot your horses legs, especially the young horse because they are more prone to splints and injuries from knocking their legs when learning how to move one leg over the other.
I will, of course, have my young horse trained in moving off my leg and spur and well versed at moving their shoulders and hips before I attempt finessing the walk to lope transitions.
I will warm my horse up by lunging them for around 10 or 15 minutes in the round yard with their inside rein/bungie clipped around to the D on the saddle just enough that they can’t look to the outside of the pen and drop their shoulders. Once on their backs in the arena I go straight into jog serpentines, I then push them up into a canter by just sacking out my lower legs and kissing to them. They will 9 times out of 10 long trot or fast trot for a bit then go into the canter, still serpentining, I will keep them moving with sacking out and just letting them go their own speed. Because I have a plan for the day that I will be fine tuning their departure into the lope. I won’t go for too long, it’s basically covering our ground from the day before, before we move on to something more advanced for them.
It’s only about the transition
I walk around still serpentining for a bit of a cool down then I will put the horse into a counter arc (move the shoulder) into a couple of 360 turns. I pick a side and I will stick with that side until I am happy that the horse fully understands the manoeuvre then I will change over and that may not be until the following day – no drama. For this article I will be going for a right lead lope. I will make sure I mix up the amount of 360’s I do, I don’t want them to catch on and do the manoeuvre without me and start pushing and leaning forward into the lope. I know in my head how many 360’s I will do so just near the end of the last 360 I will take my right leg off from moving the shoulder over to the left and will shift my left leg behind the girth and get my horse to step his hip over a step to the right.
Because the horse is in a counter arc you will now see that the horses face and hip are facing the same side and this is the perfect position for a right lead departure.
When you lope off…do not steer off to the right – head straight.
You will feel like you need to actually turn to the right as you cue for the lope/canter, but you have to resist this feel, all that will do is have your horse dropping in on the right shoulder – do the departure straight on.
Working with young, green broke horses you are going to get some trot steps for a little while, don’t stress it yet at least, the harder you push for perfection the more likely you are going to get tail wringing, ears pinning and agitation. Ignore these trot steps until you feel your horse is proficient at the shoulder/hip/move off manoeuvre, then it’s time to finesse it.
When I finesse the trot steps out of the departure into the lope, I go through the motions of the calisthenic’s I will allow two trot steps then I will say “whoa”, back up a few steps, go back into the calisthenic’s ask for the transition – repetition, repetition! Until the horse understands what I’m asking I will keep repeating the above. This will clear off those trot steps into the lope.
Click on the link to read more on Draw Reins… Using the draw reins will help you if you do have one that throws their front end up before loping off. You in no way have to hold the draw reins firm and equal in both hands. I will start them with clipping the draw reins to the D on the underside of the girth – the reins must go to the outside of the horses front legs, never to the inside. If you find as you are working with your horse that he is too low with his head and neck, bring the clips up to the D on the side of the saddle. I like to give it a go low if I do have a horse that wants to lift into the lope but I wont keep them there every ride or you will have a horse that shows too low all the time, same as training full time with the rings on, if you continually train with rings and bring those reins in tight, you will get a horse that looks intimidated by holding his nose behind the vertical or travel low out of the shoulders. Don’t let the draw reins become a crutch for you, they are a handy tool in the tool box for helping with these sorts of manoeuvres, however, they are better left in the tool box most of the time.
These common problems are usually down to pilot error. If you’re having a problem, try these fixes.
- If your horse drops his shoulder and darts to the inside, you may be trying to turn right when asking for the departure, concentrate on keeping your horse travelling straight on even though you have them in an arc.
- Another problem for dropping to the inside is you may not be using enough inside rein. Try again and this time lift your inside hand slightly, or even lay the rein against his neck and block his shoulder.
- If he has a hard time loping off at all, you may have pushed his hip in too far, you want a slight arc in his body not an actual C shape.
- He baulks and wants to argue with you when you attempt to move his shoulder over can mean that you haven’t done enough with the “Calisthenic” exercises before you have advanced to the lope transitions or you are pushing too hard for your horse to get it right.
- If he breaks into a trot, after you repeatedly stop and go into calisthenic’s and he’s still trotting before he lopes after I would say 5 days of training this, you’re either not applying enough pressure with your outside leg, or you have too much of a hold on his head. Don’t clamp on his mouth or apply the reins too tight, draw reins are just that “draw”, they are not meant for pulling too tightly.
- If he backs up, throws his head or even goes to the extreme of rearing, you’re probably holding the reins too tightly. — Don’t hold so tight that you block him. Think outside the box…how are his teeth?
- If, on the other hand he bolts, kicks out or even bucks, you’re probably using your leg aids incorrectly: You might be bringing your leg in too quickly and jabbing him with your spur, or using too much outside leg. You may be slamming him into a stop too quickly when you are smoothing out the trot steps, this could be agitating and confusing.
- If you lean too far forward which happens very easily because you are concentrating on your transition, and you still use your leg and hand cues correctly, he may still go, but he is liable to get a hurried departure or trot off because your seat needs to be deep, you need to over-exaggerate the drop in your left butt cheek, we are working on the right lead and the pressure all the way down your left leg. You need to be pressing down to encourage your horse to use his hind end to drive up. If you are not getting this feeling you have no pressure in the seat.
If you would like to read more on how to train your own horse, purchase my book “From Go To Whoa” .
From Go To Whoa- Training Your Own Horse