Borrow Some Horse-Training Advice

Learn how to extend your horse’s lope and slow back down.

Circles naturally strengthen a horse’s ability to maintain an uphill balance with his weight behind. Journal photo.

This article is a continuation of last month's update. This month, we show you how to get an extended lope from your horse.

What to Do

1. Use correct aids. Remember, changing speed in any gait is a transition, just like changing gaits. As a rider, you must:

1. Maintain a perfectly balanced position

2. Prepare and clearly cue the horse with coordinated aids for the changes in speed. To properly execute an extended lope and slow it back down, here’s what you do:

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At the lope, your hips swing forward and back, following the horse’s rhythm. To extend the lope, emphasize your hips’ forward movement a little more strongly in the forward swing and use your leg aid lightly on the horse’s sides.

To slow down, bring your shoulders back so you can stay in the center of your horse and keep your balance. Stop the movement in your pelvis by tightening your lower stomach and buttock muscles, which puts weight in the seat. That will help the horse engage underneath and get more uphill.

Keep your legs close on the horse’s sides so the hind legs keep moving.

Let your reins come slightly upward (remember, your outside rein is your brake rein – use it upward if you need more response) to encourage an uphill balance as he slows down.

2. Work on it gradually. If you’re going to develop your horse’s ability to correctly extend the lope and transition back down, you must work on it in three stages.

Beginner: A young horse under saddle needs to develop his natural self-carriage first. This is a training stage many people skip. It means allowing a horse to travel on a loose rein and learn to carry himself while you guide him to go straight and on a curve.

Don’t worry where he carries his head unless it is below his topline; in that case, use your legs and forward motion to bring it back up. If the horse’s head is too high, forward motion and a curving line will help it drop. As your horse gets balanced and coordinated in his three gaits, he will relax his head and neck down naturally.

Any time you start a horse under saddle, the horse will travel in a quick, faster stride, especially at the trot or lope, because he’s learning how to carry your weight and maintain his balance. All horses go fast when they are not in balance, are weak or lack coordination. Slowness comes with relaxation as the horse develops correct balance and strength.

When you first ask him to extend, it’ll take him more strides to respond to your cues, and he’ll travel flatter in his frame. As he gets stronger and more confident at the new speed, his self-carriage will improve.

In teaching a horse to lengthen his stride, I start with the walk and the trot before moving to the lope. The walk is a good mind-settling gait, good for teaching the horse how to respond to your cues to lengthen. The trot is a good fitness-building gait.

At the lope, circles are the best exercise, especially with a young horse. A curving line will always naturally control speed.

I also work on transitions. Doing many short segments of transitions on a curving line will encourage the horse to keep more weight behind, engagement from behind and an uphill balance. This begins with a young horse at the walk and trot before moving to the lope or canter.

Intermediate: At the medium stage of training, a horse will begin to show more roundness in his frame. In this stage, you work on narrowing down the horse’s response time to your cues – using a shorter number of strides to extend or transition back down. The horse is more responsive to your aids in transitions and can execute different sized circles.

Again, circles and transitions will condition your horse for more roundness and collection. But don’t drill them – I recommend not going more than three circles in one direction at a time. Lateral work, such as leg yields, also improves roundness at this stage.

When the horse really starts to get, 1. really confident in and responsive to your cues; 2. on a correct balance in self-carriage and off the forehand; and 3. where his head and neck is correct on a curve (flexed so you can see his eye) or on a straight line, then he is ready to advance.

Advanced: A finished, advanced horse will respond immediately to your cue and will extend with roundness, carrying himself in an uphill frame. When you ask him to extend or slow down, he does either with the same rhythm. It’s like one complete picture – nothing changes.

That’s what you want to achieve, but you can’t do it in a month or a few weeks even if your horse has got a good lope. It just takes time – developing your horse’s athleticism – to perfect this transition.

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3. Circles. Riding circles is great for a number of things, especially helping a horse with body alignment problems such as falling in or falling out.

Circles naturally strengthen a horse’s ability to maintain an uphill balance with his weight behind. They naturally encourage the horse to engage his hind legs on a curving line. And they help a rider to be able to clearly recognize and feel when a horse loses his balance.

Your ultimate goal is to lengthen or shorten the lope stride in five strides. If you can do that, you can do what you need to in any kind of horsemanship or equitation pattern.

Try this circle of cones exercise to help you work on doing that (work at the trot first, then the lope):

Build a track of cones on a circle, 70 feet in diameter, using 16 cones. Riding inside the track of cones helps you to stay straight and maintain your horse’s alignment and balance.

Start by riding one circle at the horse’s natural lope then do one circle extended and one circle slower.

After you master that, drop it down to three-quarters of the circle lengthened and three-quarters slower. Then down to a half circle extended and a half circle slower. When you get to where you can extend or slow down at the quarters of that 70-foot circle, you’re probably at your five strides, or six or seven strides at a slow lope.

Remember, you can’t just go right off and transition up or down in speed every five strides. If you’re starting with a younger horse under saddle, it may take you two or three years of riding to get to that point, depending on the horse.

If you want to do it right, you must train the horse over time, not to teach him the cues, but to develop the balance, strength and confidence to do it. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a long time, just stay positive and realize that it’s a very advanced transition.