Confident Lope Departs

Does loping sometimes make you anxious? If so, you’ve got lots of company. I’ve written articles with scores of horsemanship clinicians over the years, and almost to a person they say loping is the most common fear point for riders.

Credit: Alana Harrison Are you a free spirit at the lope? Or a nervous Nellie? Use these lope-depart tips for a confident strike-off.

I struggled with this myself. I was fearless as a child and young adult, but began to experience nervousness–especially picking up the lope–under the influence of a bullying gelding named Strider

I eventually overcame that fear. Here are some of the strategies that enabled me to learn to pick up a canter with confidence.

E-x-h-a-l-e. Steady “belly” breathing (into your abdomen) in general promotes a feeling of calm in the saddle. But here’s an extra tip: As you prepare to ask for a lope, take a deep breath, then just as you’re cueing your horse for the lead you want, let the breath out in one long, steady exhalation. This prevents you from holding your breath—a common fear reaction—plus helps your horse stay calm, too. (As a prey animal, he can sense your breathing—or lack of it.)

Lean back.’ Nervousness can make us want to lean forward into a lope depart, starting that dreaded fetal crouch. To counter this tendency and maintain an erect and confidence-boosting posture, just think “lean back,” as you ask for the lope. Imagine that you’re sitting in your favorite recliner and are about to push it back. This helps keep your seat sitting down in the saddle where it belongs, and your shoulders over your center of balance—instead of coming forward.

Look ahead. This seems obvious but is surprisingly powerful. Uncertainty of our horse’s response often causes us to stare down as we ask for a lope–at our horse’s head or the ground immediately in front of him. This traps us in the nervousness of the moment. Instead, look ahead to where you’re going. This draws your attention into the lovely, forward-flowing motion of the lope, plus helps signal to your horse where to go. That way, he focuses on settling into a lope rather than fussing up at the moment of the depart.

Let ’im lope. As you ask for the depart and for the first few strides into it, be sure to give your horse his head so he can lope. Jitters often cause us to hang on the reins, so we’re saying, in essence, “Please lope—no! Don’t lope!” This frustrates and confuses a horse, plus signals to him that you’re nervous. If you know he’s ready to lope (that is, you’ve prepared him with whatever groundwork or warm-up is necessary to get him mentally “right”), then go ahead and trust him to do so.

Give these tips a try and see if they don’t help. (Plus check here for more confident-loping advice.)

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