Good Lope Departures
Refine your horse training: Get correct lope departures with minimal cues.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Leonard Berryhill with Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal | June 10, 2013
A good lope departure is when a horse responds to a minimal cue from the rider with willingness and collection.
It’s important in every AQHA event. In western riding, it’s scored. In western pleasure, a lope departure sets up your lope. It’s much easier for a horse to carry himself after he has departed correctly than it is to have a bad departure and try to correct it as you go down the pen. In horsemanship or equitation, a good lope or canter departure will lead to a better execution of your maneuver.
As a judge, when I see a horse depart to a lope from a jog, I don’t want to see a change in cadence in the jog, but it is all right for that horse to take a step, collect himself and then depart.
I consider it a bad departure if a horse increases his cadence or step at the jog and trots into the lope. If the horse lifts his head, lowers his back, jogs and eventually lopes, that is what I would consider a terrible departure.
From the walk, again, it is all right for the horse to take a step to collect himself, move to the rider’s cue and then step up into the lope. I expect the same thing from a stop – I think the horse has to take half a step to collect and then lope.
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In the past, we allowed horses to kind of rush into the lope. We wanted a horse to go from a dead stop into the lope, and it wasn’t as pretty as it is done today. Today, we allow the horse a chance to set himself and depart correctly, and it looks much better.
Why is it important that a lope departure is pretty? The word “show.” It’s a horse show, and the prettier it is, the better your performance is going to be, regardless of what class you’re in. The better departure you have, the better it’s going to look to the judges.
There are a lot of variables that go into a poor lope departure.
When it happens in horsemanship or equitation classes, it is typically riders who don’t use their cues properly to collect and prepare the horse before asking for the lope. The horse lifts his head, inverts his back, takes a few trot steps and eventually falls into the lope, instead of collecting up, gathering and loping off with some impulsion from behind.
A horse could also be too inexperienced or not trained well enough to do it correctly. The rider might have a too-loose rein for that horse’s ability; that particular horse might require more contact for get a correct departure. Or a horse could be dull and ignoring a rider’s aids.
There are horses that just can’t perform lope departures well, even though drills can improve their abilities. A horse that tends to leave his hocks out behind and doesn’t appear to be strong in the loin or gaskin is not going to be able to lope off as well as a horse with a good, strong loin and hip.
What to Do
What makes a good lope departure different from a bad lope departure is basically the preparation for it. You ask the horse to collect, move off your leg, respond to your hand and then depart.
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For example, if I am moving from a walk or jog into a lope, I slightly lift my hand and ask the horse to flex slightly to the inside; at the same time I squeeze with my cue leg, the outside leg, and push the horse to the lead I’m going to ask for. I want to feel the horse move into the direction I’m pushing him. Then I ask for the lope departure with either an increased leg pressure or spur pressure and a smooch or cluck.
If I’m asking for the left lead, I want the horse’s hip to move to the left. I want to feel a response from the horse to my hand or leg to the left, then I apply an increase pressure, asking the horse to step into the lope.
If I have a horse who wants to trot off into his lope, when he trots off, I immediately stop, back up, settle and then start over. Or I might stop, back, then roll back and start over.
The stopping and backing does two things: It strengthens the loin and gaskin, and it lightens his response to the cues. It’ll teach him to stay back off that bit and lope off in response to my leg. The backing is not a punishment, it’s teaching him to respond, getting him back onto his hocks so he can collect properly to step off into the lope.
I’ll also do a lot of leg yields, teaching him to two-track, moving his hips around. Those drills work on teaching him to collect with my hand and move off my legs. All that will make the lope departure much better.
Stronger on One Lead
A large percentage of horses are naturally better on one lead vs. the other. I try to concentrate on the weaker side with the drills I’ve talked about.
But if a horse is dramatically different from one side to the other – he’s great on the left lead and cannot perform on the right lead – the first thing I do in that situation is call my veterinarian. There is always the possibility that the horse has a medical issue or soundness problem. If my veterinarian tells me the horse is sound, then we go back to the training and try to improve it as best we can.
You also might need someone to watch you ride both leads and tell you whether it looks as bad as it feels. I’ve had horses where one lead doesn’t feel as good at the other, but somebody on the ground will say it looks good. It might just be the way the horse moves.
If I’m dealing with a horse who wants to travel over-canted – either naturally or due to training – I stay square in the saddle and move that horse over with inside leg pressure, straightening that hip back over.
Use your leg to push your horse straight and think straight. You can almost do it just by thinking about it.
Over-Canted, Side View
When I judge, I try to position myself on the rail so I can look down the rail and see if a horse is traveling over-canted at the lope.
You can see it in a profile, too. A tell-tale sign to me when a horse is over-canted is when his outside hock, the hock on the rail, never goes up under the hip and always hangs out behind the hip. So, it he’s on a left lead, the right hock never goes up under the hip. If that right hock is just dragging along behind him, he’s not loping collected and he’s going to be over-canted.