Does loping make you a little bit nervous? If so, you’re not alone. It’s a common fear point for riders, and it can even create its own vicious circle: Tension makes you stiffen up, which causes you to tip forward, grip with your legs, and bounce. All that unbalances and speeds up your horse, which serves to unnerve you even more.
To counter this, I use a special exercise to encourage my students to relax and sit the lope properly—and actually enjoy it. I call it doing the hula-hoop at the lope. Everyone knows how to work a hula-hoop. It requires a certain smooth, continuous movement of your hips in a steady rhythm. Sitting the lope requires essentially the same things, which is why thinking about hula-hooping as you lope will help you loosen up and follow your horse’s movement as you should.
Before you begin. Make sure your horse is ready to give you a nice, steady lope. For that, he needs not only to be thoroughly warmed up, but also worked enough to get any edge off so he can relax, settle in, and be responsive to your cues. Groundwork in advance and/or plenty of work at a steady trot will get him primed to perform well.
How to ‘hula.’ Inhale deeply, think “long and tall” throughout your body, and exhale smoothly as you ask your horse to pick up a lope. As he does, keep breathing deeply and regularly as you look ahead to where you’re going. Stay loose, sink your weight downward, and think about working a hula-hoop, relaxing your middle section and pelvis. Focus on the lope’s rhythm, letting the saddle and your horse’s movements carry your hips in a rolling, circular motion. The goal is for your bottom to stay anchored to the saddle as your middle section rhythmically flexes to make this possible.
What to avoid. Don’t “go fetal”—that is, hunching forward, rounding your shoulders, pulling up your legs, and looking downward. Think instead of letting your hips follow the motion forward as you keep your upper body erect, almost behind the motion. Let your weight sink all the way down to your heels with each of your horse’s strides. Don’t let the small of your back stiffen; you need to be supple all the way down your spine in order to “hula” in perfect synchrony with your horse’s motion.
Keep at it. The more you practice riding the lope this way, the easier it will become. The muscles you must use will become stronger and more supple as needed, plus your balance will improve. As these changes take place, your confidence in your ability to ride smoothly at the lope will increase.
Michelle Chapman is the 2013 NRHA North American Affiliate Championships rookie professional champion. She coaches amateurs and youth in reining and all-around events, attributing her success to humane training methods based on natural horsemanship and “patience over pressure.” Her Chapman Performance Horses is located in Eaton, Colorado (cphreiners.com).