In this article I am going to teach you how to teach the young horse to lope right off. A great horseman once told me it takes 1,000 transitions to teach a horse to make an excellent transition. Even if that’s stretching it, it for sure takes hundreds. Practice makes perfect and I feel you need to practice your transitions a lot not only for the horse but for your own timing and to establish relationship between your leg and his response. Any maneuvers you teach your horse will take practice and repetition to achieve perfection.
Remember, your horses are like kids in school. They need to practice new things they are learning over and over. So allow the time and teach your horses!
In order to perform a good transition you need to have control of you horse’s body. Since your leg cue is your primary signal to lope, you need to develop in your horse a good understanding of this signal. I spend a lot of time on young horses developing an understanding and acceptance of my leg. Many horses start out resistant to your leg. As young horses in a pasture, when one horse pushes against another horse the horse either runs or pushes back. I often get the same reaction when teaching the young horse to accept my leg cue. Some run or jump off of it, but most resist or push back against it. To develop acceptance of this cue I move my horse over off of my leg over and over again. One good exercise is to isolate the hindquarters and teach him to move his hindquarters over while keeping the front end still or relatively still, similar to a turn on the forehand. Side passing is good also but I do more of the isolating the hindquarters and moving around the front end and moving only the hindquarters. I feel I can identify if my horse is allowing me to have control of his body and determine if he’s running off of my leg, sticking on my leg or accepting my leg and stepping willingly off of my leg. One of the key components to a great transition is that my leg cue will drive him and he will match his step to the amount of pressure I apply. I want to have control of his hind leg with my leg.
The next key component to a great transition is the horse must have lift. In order for the horse to softly lift up and lope off, his body weight has to be on his hindquarters. If his weight is on his front end he will have to pull his body in to the lope and it will not be pretty. Lift and balance are the keys to everything you do with your horse. You need to be aware of where your horse’s body weight is at all times. If you feel he is falling apart, most likely he is on his front end. Most of the time I just stop, get his body weight back where it belongs and try again.
So to perform a good transition, build the basics that you need to have control of the hindquarters and acceptance of your leg. You also need to have control of where his body weight is and where his front end is. I will teach you my favorite exercise to teach the young, green horse to lope right off. Let’s work on a right lead for example. Start at the stand still and ride two handed. Pull his head to the left and apply your left leg asking him to move his hindquarters over. Pay attention to his response. Your goal is to be able to mash or push your leg and control each step with your leg. Look for willingness or resistance! How he takes your leg will be very similar to his attitude in the lope off. This is a huge secret to fixing older horses that are pin eared or pissy or that jump off into the lope. It usually starts with acceptance or resistance to the initial leg cue. Remember your leg is another mode of communication between you and your horse. It is a form of relationship with your horse. I want my horses to respect my cue but also to accept it., whether it is my hands or my legs or my seat. Taking the time to evaluate how you are asking and how he is responding is very important. If you encounter a lot of resistance you may need to be sharp or punish your horse, but ride mindfully and evaluate if you are giving more cue than you need or not enough. Once you are happy with his response and you can freely step his hindquarters around his front end, stop him. Notice that as his hindquarters are moving and his front end is still, his body weight is on his front end. So let’s bring his body weight back to his hindquarters. I will do this by attempting to keep his hindquarters still and I bring his front end over to the right performing a turn on the haunches. I lead off with my right rein keeping his nose tipped slightly toward the right, my left rein needs to keep his body straight and not allow his hindquarters to move back into my left leg as I just worked to move him over off my left leg. My ideal is for him to be light in my hands and rock his weight back on his hindquarters. I will turn him until I feel his body weight where it belongs. I keep a little left leg in him to block him moving into my leg. If at any time he moves his hindquarters over back into my left leg, I stop and start over by pushing his hind end back off my leg then rock his front end back around in a turn to the right, keeping his nose tipped into the direction of the right lead that I will ask for. I want him to wait for me to direct or drive him. If he’s trying to beat me to it or out thinking my cues I will stop him and make him wait for me. Once I like his feel I will ask him to walk forward making sure he doesn’t throw that hip back into my leg and I will then smooch and mash or squeeze my leg and ask him to lope off. If he refuses to go I may get tougher with my leg and I may make him trot his hip around his front end to show him I want forward motion. Then I will ask him again. If he jumps forward into the lope I’ll let him lope a minute to show him that was good. Then I’ll stop him and push him around again until he accepts my leg and try my lope off again. If he takes off trotting fast I will try to kick him into the lope to show him what I wanted. Then I’ll stop him and try again. When a horse just trots, often they are lacking lift, so pay careful attention to your turns on the haunches that he is light and soft and truly putting his weight on his hindquarters. He may also be trotting because he is leaning into your left leg and not stepping over to lope right off. Some horses are weaker than others and you will need to practice this over and over to build their strength. Other horses don’t have a lot of natural lift and lope off transitions are difficult for them. You can improve them over time. I recommend working on one side until you achieve some results before switching to the other side. Make your cues clear and give your horse a break., when you see they are trying for you. When you want to switch to the left lead simply reverse the cues to the other side. This exercise I gave you will build acceptance and knowledge in your horse and keeps the horse’s body on the correct arc for each lead. Understanding the importance of the arc will help you to identify what went wrong if he doesn’t lope off when asked. The horse’s body always needs to follow a slight arc when loping. This exercise over accentuates the arc in order to help him to learn to lift up and lope off in one stride. Good luck with your horse and if you need more help I recommend my training DVD Maximizing Your Western Pleasure Horse Vol. 1. It goes into detail on developing control of your horse’s body, to perform any maneuver.