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Slowing Down The Lope

16 August 2011 No Comment

Slowing Down The Lope
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Hello, I have an 18-year-old reg. Appaloosa mare that I have owned for 15 years.

She is a total sweetheart. My problem is that now after being an all around trail, cow and halter horse plus broodmare, I’ve decided to try my hand back in the arena. I originally trained this mare as a long three-year-old, and had no problems. She neck reins, stops, backs, trots and jog trots without problem. I just don’t seem to remember her lope being so very fast. What would the best course of action? I’ve tried loping in circles slowly getting them smaller but then she wants to dip her shoulder and turn like she’s going after a cow or a barrel. I’m also concerned about bringing her into better condition, especially at her age. I did breed her this Spring, how will this affect my riding her this summer? I don’t show on a wide scale, mostly local shows. Please advise me on the best way to get this underway. On one other note, I would like to mention her trot – which is very soft and slow. Most unusual so I’m told, for such a large boned mare, she stands 15’3 and weighs 1350 lbs., and is long backed. This mare can be taken out of the pasture and I can put my seven-year-old on her and enter walk -trot classes and place well, with no training.
Thanks for the information.


It mostly sounds like your mare just doesn’t have the muscle condition to sustain a slower lope for any length of time. Her back and hindquarter muscles probably get fatigued rather quickly and being as large as she is, her muscles fail her a bit. Because she seems to be a “natural” at the jog in spite of her size and longer-backed conformation, there may be some expectation of her lope being easier for her too. However, a slower lope is a whole different story and is the gait that usually proves to be the most challenging to train and maintain if a horse isn’t a “natural” at it.

I don’t think that being in foal will affect your mare adversely because what I’m going to propose you do is a series of systematic transitions that will slowly but surely condition her to being able to do a slow lope for longer periods as her muscles become stronger. She will condition into being able to “carry herself” for longer periods of time in the lope, which is a problem for her now due to lack of conditioning in this area. I don’t ever use smaller circles to initially train a collected canter, slow lope, or for re-schooling or conditioning a horse in these gaits because I believe that most horses have a lot more trouble with balancing on tighter turns and circles then most people realize. I consider small circles more advanced training reserved for when a horse is educated both mentally and physically on larger circles and straight-aways first. Muscles must be conditioned over a period of time to be able to accomplish smaller circles or sharper turns, especially in more collection, otherwise what you have is a horse that will put their head up, hollow their back, put their haunches out behind them and start flailing around trying to regain a semblance of balance and also their “comfort-zone”. This is not conducive to accomplishing collection in the canter or lope. Instead, what I do is a series of transitions between the gaits that I am trying to condition the horse to be able to do correctly. This will serve the dual purpose of conditioning muscles and creating balance and also will maintain more comfort-in-training to the horse. When you look at the mechanics of achieving a correct transition from jog to lope, you will realize that when the horse is asked to pick up the lope out of the jog they will engage their hindquarters further underneath themselves in order to push off into the lope. In order to maintain the slower lope with a rider up, it requires that the haunches continue to be carried well underneath the body and that the horse “carry themselves. The gait is also slower, which means that the weight of the horse’s body and that of the rider will be on each leg for a longer period of time. It’s kind of like slow motion, so there is more “pause” of weight on each of the horse’s legs. This takes a lot of muscle strength that most horses can’t maintain unless conditioned to do so. Because of this, as the rider continues on in the lope, slowly but surely, the horses haunches begin to be carried less underneath them and their body from nose to tail goes from being round to being flatter and more strung-out. When the horses haunches just can’t sustain the slower lope over a period of time, they lose strength and either break gait or get “strung-out” and go faster trying to get the weight off their haunches and stop the “burning” in their muscles. The reason that you don’t see most horses do a slow lope or collected canter when loose in a pasture or arena (notice I say “most” horses because there are some true “naturals” that do a slow lope or collected canter without any obvious effort) is because it requires that they gather their haunches under their bodies to achieve the lope and then continue to carry the haunches underneath and their body round from nose-to-tail to maintain the slower speed. Most horses go into the canter when loose and then level off and canter out across an area without a roundness of body from nose-to-tail and the hind legs underneath themselves. They may stay round for several steps, but then most loose horses cantering will flatten out or break gait.

What I propose you do is begin by warming her up with about ten minutes of nice, forward walk on a longer rein on a large circle (about 20 meters or so). Let her stretch her nose out, down or up and loosen her muscles up. After ten minutes, I’d pick up the reins a bit and motivate her haunches with my legs to help connect her back end to her front end. When she walks forward from the motivating leg, tell her where you want her to carry her front end by adjusting your length of rein and hand position depending on what you want. Once you feel that your horse is walking in a “connected” way, then begin asking for smooth transitions from walk to jog and then from jog to walk. What the transitions do is cause your horse to gather her haunches underneath herself to achieve the transition to jog and after several steps, help keep her haunches underneath her as she does the transition back to walk. Transitions will begin to condition her hindquarter muscles, making them stronger over a period of time and will also help create more balance and cadence in gait.

Once you feel that the transitions between walk and jog are smooth, round and attentive, then you will be ready to begin the transitions between jog to lope on your large circle. The reason for the large circle work is that by being on a circle, your mare won’t feel the need to get in a hurry because after all, we’re doing a big circle and not going anywhere, so what’s the rush? It will also allow her to maintain her balance easier so that she won’t start flailing around in a disorganized way. Same principles apply now as when you were doing walk/jog work except you will be cueing her for canter with inside leg at the cinch to direct her straight in the transition on the circle and indicating to her not to lean in and fall on your leg. Your outside leg behind the cinch will shift her haunches slightly over to ask for inside lead lope and also to encourage her to bend her body slightly around your inside leg on the circle. When you ask for the lope from the jog, she will organize her legs underneath herself to strike off into the lope and it will create more roundness from nose-to-tail. When she achieves the lope, ride her forward in a slower lope for 5-8 strides and then before she becomes fatigued in her haunches from “carrying herself”, or begins to get quick or strung-out and loses her roundness, ask for the transition back to jog. To do the downward transition correctly, she will still have her haunches underneath her where they belong. Now you will jog on the circle in a balanced way for 10 steps or so and then do another transition up into lope. Go on about 5-8 strides again and then transition down again to jog. I would do a series of 8-10 of these transitions and then cool-down by then walking on a loose rein for 5 minutes or so before you finish for that session. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always better to stop sooner-rather-than-later when training because I know that if I stop on a positive note today, the next session will be even better. Too often, I believe people push too hard and the session becomes negative. Always end on a positive with your horse.

What these transitions over a period of several sessions will do for your horse is allow her to condition and regain her hindquarter muscles so that she can do the kind of work that you’re proposing she do, without getting sore and tired. In addition, what these transitions will do for you is to help keep you from having to get in a power struggle of trying to hold her together as she is loping and her muscles get tired and sore and she either tries to get quick, or breaks gait to relieve the burning. It’s a win-win situation for both of you. As she becomes stronger and more balanced, you will add lope strides and do less jog steps and then begin to do straight-aways until she is able to do laps at the lope and maintain collection.

Loping endless circles for a horse that is not in condition is not only physical torture, but is also mental torture and is the reason that many performance horses become ring sour. I’ve not one time in 30 years of showing ever had even one horse become ring sour. My horses don’t mind performing because they are both mentally and physically conditioned and prepared to perform the task-at-hand and they don’t view being ridden as a negative experience. It’s all about being fair and compassionate to your horse and not asking them to do something that they are either mentally or physically able to do.

Following the course of training that I propose will help keep your relationship with your mare more harmonious and comfortable for both of you.

Good Luck and Enjoy!

Laura Phelps-Bell

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