It's a surprisingly common fear point. If you have it, loping makes you nervous. It doesn't matter that you ride completely at ease at a walk, jog, and even an extended trot. When it comes time to lope, your heart speeds up, your mouth dries out, your breathing gets shallow--if you're breathing at all.
It's a vicious circle. Tension makes you stiff, which causes you to tip and bounce, which unbalances and speeds up your horse, which unsettles you even more. After a few nerve-rattling strides, you come back to a walk or jog, and you're done with loping for the day.
And, even when you persist and lope for longer periods, you wish the gait could become second nature to you. You'd love to be able to move your horse into a smooth, controlled canter whenever you like, minus the high anxiety.
We're going to help you learn to do exactly that. Our experts will give you a dozen strategies that will set you up for success and build your confidence at the lope. With time and practice, you'll overcome your apprehension and learn to enjoy the bounding, rolling nature of your horse's premier gait.
For these tips to work...
...your horse must be safe and able to carry you at the lope. If the source of your fearfulness is your horse's past attempts to buck you off or run away with you, you need professional training, not tips. Similarly, if your horse is green, training will help him learn to stay balanced under your weight at the lope (no mean feat), which in turn will enable you to feel safer and more secure.
You yourself must know how to sit a lope, even if tension keeps you from doing it well. If you don't understand the basics of riding at this gait, you need lessons to establish a solid foundation. If, however, what's holding you back is a niggling, essentially unfounded fear, here are some strategies to boost your confidence. (And to learn more about where your fear may be coming from, see "Why Are We Fearful?," at the end of this article.) Ready? Then let's get started.
1. Re-Label Your Fear
Think of it as excitement, instead. Start by stretching your mental envelope. "Visualize yourself galloping all out, pushing the limits of what you'd ever consider in real life," suggests Peggy Martin, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in helping riders overcome fear and anxiety. "This will make actual loping seem calm by comparison, and expand your comfort zone a bit. As you visualize galloping, note how the physical sensations of fear--butterflies in the stomach, quickened breathing, pounding heart--are similar to those of excitement. Over time, begin processing your feelings about the lope in a different way. Instead of saying to yourself, 'I'm afraid to lope,' say, 'I'm excited to lope.'"
She admits that attitudes don't change overnight. "But," she adds, especially if you also try some of the other suggestions given here, "eventually you'll reroute the pathways in your brain, so that
you come to view loping with more excitement than fear.
2. Check Your Position
Try as you might, if you're afraid of loping, you're likely to find yourself in some version of the dreaded "fetal crouch" when you do lope--hunched forward, head down, shoulders rounded, knees creeping up. It can happen to the best of riders when fear takes over. The worst thing about this position is that it can cause you to hang on the reins and clamp with your heels--a sure prescription to rattle your horse, which only adds to your nervousness.
The best antidote, says Cathy Hanson, a Quarter Horse trainer who works with amateurs, is work on the longe line.
"How comfortable and effective you are at the lope has mostly to do with how you're sitting it, and whether your body is relaxed and following the horse's motion," she says. "A poor position can create problems for the horse, causing him to get crooked and break down from the lope into that super-fast, bouncy trot. A few lessons on the longe line, with an expert eye to correct your position flaws, can make a world of difference."
To cement the upright, deep-sitting, supple-backed position needed at the lope, Cathy suggests you start on the longe at the walk and jog. Ask your trainer for exercises such as "airplane arms," touching your toes, and stretching to pat your horse's croup and poll.
"These will improve your balance and strengthen the muscles you need in your abdomen, back and legs to sit properly," says Cathy. " All this will pay huge dividends in your confidence when you later work at the lope on your own."
3. Prep Your Horse
The last thing you need is a horse with excess energy to express in a buck, scoot, or shy. So, before you ask for a lope, make sure your horse is ready to do so quietly. "Prepare him by longeing him or working him in a round pen before you mount," advises Quarter Horse trainer and Team H&R member Charlie Cole. "Then, if possible, start your ride in an enclosed arena, preferably one that's not too large. Do lots of work at the walk, jog, and extended trot, and lots of transitions to get your horse paying attention and responding to you before you ask for a lope."
This way, you up the odds he'll give you a lope that inspires your confidence, rather than sabotages it.
(For more information on preparing your horse for a successful ride, see "Stay Safe: Get the Fresh Out," July 2006.)
4. Prevent Anticipation
If your horse gets keyed up at the prospect of loping--even when you've worked out his excess energy beforehand--teach him to wait to lope until you give the signal.
"Put him in the frame you use to ask for the correct lead--I tip my horse's nose and push his butt slightly to the inside--then have him walk in that position for a few steps rather than lope right off," suggests reining trainer and clinician Sandy Collier. "It's good discipline for him, and it teaches him to wait for your signal rather than anticipate the lope."
For a nervous rider, knowing your horse isn't going to move off until you are ready is a major trust builder.
5. Exhale Into It
If, like many riders, you forget to breathe as you're moving into a lope, Jessica Jahiel has a nifty solution. "Check your position and balance just before you ask for the lope, take a deep breath, then as you're cueing your horse, exhale. You can't hold your breath while you're exhaling, so instead of being a stiff, resistant rider, you'll be soft and better able to go with your horse."
Jessica, moderator of the popular online Q&A forum "Horse-Sense" and author of The Rider's Problem Solver (Improve Your Skills, Overcome Your Fears, Understand Your Horse) (Storey Books, 2006), notes that deep, rhythmic breathing calms and centers you.
"Practice it at a standstill and at all three gaits, finding a rhythm that corresponds to your horse's strides," she suggests. At the lope, this may mean inhaling for two or three strides, then exhaling for two or three. Find the rhythm that works for you.
Make sure, too, that your breath is coming all the way from your diaphragm--the muscle that crosses the inside of your body beneath your rib cage. If your abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe, you're using your diaphragm. If only your chest moves, you're not.
6. Think: 'Lean Back!'
At the lope strike-off, nervous riders tend to tip forward, which puts their shoulders in front of their hips, closes the angle of their hip and thigh, and sets them up for stiffness and bouncing. This is especially problematic, says Julie Goodnight, a horsemanship clinician who's done much work with fearful riders, because "there's a moment in the canter stride where your shoulders should actually be behind your hips. If you're leaning forward, you'll be thrown up and out of the saddle at this point, when instead you should be leaning back as when pushing a swing."
To help her students avoid leaning, Julie tells them to think about sitting a little behind the vertical to compensate. "It sets them up to be able to follow the horse's motion and stay relaxed," she says.
7. Go Straight for Balance
Many nervous riders ride the lope only in circles, believing it gives them greater control. But Julie suggests a straight line has its own advantages.
"It's often hard for a horse to maintain his balance on a circle, especially a smaller one, and that can set him up to break stride, or speed up, or do other things that will rattle the rider. Instead, try asking for the lope down the long side of your arena. Lope straight for three or four strides, then come back down to a walk, then pick up the lope again. Advance to where you're loping all the way down the long side, then walking or jogging through the corners."
Eventually you'll find yourself loping through the corners, as well, which will prepare you to lope smoother, more fluid circles.
8. Try Two-Point
Peggy Martin says many of her students develop confidence at the lope by riding it part of the time in a two-point position. "When you're inclined slightly forward, with your seat just out of the saddle and your weight sinking down into your legs, the whole issue of keeping with the motion of the horse is simplified," she says. "This gives you a chance to concentrate on the feel of the lope and acclimate to it without worrying about following with your seat and keeping your lower back supple."
Before you try it at the lope, ride in two-point at the walk and jog to develop your balance and strengthen your legs--because you mustn't use your reins to maintain your out-of-the-saddle position. When you're confident at the slower gaits, try riding in two-point for a few strides of canter, then sit for a few strides, then go back to two-point, gradually extending the time spent sitting.
When you do sit, remember to sit all the way down, with your spine vertical and your shoulders back.
9. Use Your Legs
Riders too often pump their upper bodies to keep their horses moving forward in the lope. Instead, says Jessica Jahiel, "Keep your upper body quiet and use your legs to keep your horse moving. Sit up tall and let your lower back follow your horse's movements as if your tailbone were connected to your horse's spine, and squeeze briefly with your legs as needed to keep him moving forward rhythmically."
Sitting up and using your legs, Jessica explains, encourages your horse to stay round and lift his shoulders; leaning forward and pumping with your upper body urges him to move fast and flat--what you don't want.
A helpful image with respect to legs is the suggestion from veteran clinician Sally Swift (author of the "Centered Riding" books) to visualize and "feel" your legs growing all the way down to the ground. This enhances your legs' effectiveness on your horse's sides, helps stabilize your lower body, and boosts your security in the saddle.
10. Control Your Eyes
"As you lope, look in the direction you're heading, not down at your horse's poll," says Julie Goodnight. "Fear can cause you to stare down, even to the point that your eyes glaze over. When that happens, you lose focus on anything except your fear. Instead, look where you're going and plan your route--it keeps your mind positively engaged and edges out the fear."
As a bonus, looking where you want to go signals your intention to your horse and impresses him with your leadership. "He can feel when you turn even slightly to look, and he'll follow your lead, moving naturally in that direction," says Julie. "When you look down, you give up your status as the leader and signal that you're afraid."
11. Sing a Song.
Another way to keep your mind off your fear, Julie suggests, is to talk out loud to your horse, or sing a song. "This is a standard 'trick' I use with my lesson students," she says. "Talking or singing engages your mind with something playful, forces you to keep breathing, and goes a long way toward counteracting your fear."
12. Keep It Fun
One of the most important strategies, and one suggested by several of our experts, is to preserve the fun of riding in general and loping in particular by keeping the pressure off. Proceed only as fast as you're comfortable, and if that means staying at a walk and trot until you feel ready to lope, so be it.
"Position, balance, and relaxation at the walk and trot are all part of your 'canter homework,' anyway, and will payoff later," says Jessica Jahiel. And when you do lope, she says, "it's OK to take it in small doses. Use arena markers as points of reference, and plan where you'll walk, where you'll trot, where you'll canter.
"Above all," she adds, "remember that riding is about acquiring skills, having fun, and enjoying a relationship with your horse. It's not about a schedule or a timetable, or what someone else thinks you should be doing. It's good to push yourself so you're always expanding your comfort zone, but don't go so far that you travel out of your comfort zone. Never forget that we do this for fun".
WHY ARE WE FEARFUL?
Clinician Julie Goodnight has made a specialty of dealing with fearful riders. She addresses fear issues in her books, videos and website articles (www.juliegoodnight.com) as well as in her horsemanship clinics. She says riders struggling with fear shouldn't feel alone.
"It's a much bigger issue than people realize," she observes. "Riding is a macho endeavor, and no one wants to talk about being afraid. At my fear management clinics, I find there's no predictable profile of a fearful rider in terms of age, sex, or ability level. People do have different points at which their fear kicks in, and the lope is one of the most common. That's because it's the fastest and most powerful of the three gaits, and has the most suspension. It's also the gait that can trigger a horse's flight response. At liberty, horses practice their flight response by taking off, tail in the air, bucking and playing.
"A canter can be the first step into the flight response, and fearful riders are acutely aware of this. Typically their fear falls into one of two categories. The first is post-traumatic, resulting from being bucked off at the lope, run away with, or some other mishap. The other is generalized anxiety--worry over any of the things that could possibly go wrong at the lope. The latter type of fear tends to become more pronounced as people age.
"The good news is that both types of fear can be overcome. In the case of post-traumatic fear, you may never erase the 'fear memory' that's lodged in your brain, but you can learn to override it with training and practice.
"Most fear of the lope, though, is general-anxiety related--riders playing out 'what if' scenarios in their head. Once you learn to pay more attention to your riding, rather than allowing yourself to focus on your fear, you begin overcoming your anxieties. It just takes time and practice."
This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.