Trot-Free Takeoff

Trainer Crystal McNutt helps a reader who struggles with setting up her horse for walk-to-lope transitions.

Q I have a hard time setting my horse up to pick up a lope from a walk—he always trots into it. Can you tell me how to properly set up his body for a lope departure and how to get him to lope off instead of trot into it?

By maintaining correct body position—shoulders square, sitting up in the saddle, looking where I’m going—I help my horse maintain his position to lope off, too.

Amanda Billings, Kentucky

A I have three steps to help you remedy your transition woes. These tips can also help with lope-depature problems, as when loping off in a reining or horsemanship pattern. The first tip deals with your own mental blocks, and the other two have to do with your horse and re-training him to lope off without trotting into it.


Fail to Commit, and Commit to Fail

I often find that riders who struggle with something like this transition problem you mention are fighting their own heads. Their horse has made the mistake, refused, or responded incorrectly over and over, and so they set themselves up to fail by anticipating the problem. Because of this, my first suggestion to you is to fully commit to the walk-to-lope transition.

By fully committing your body to the transition, you’ll have clearer communication with your horse. Your body will be in the proper position to cue for the transition, whereas if you anticipate a failure, you’re more likely to be in position for the correction rather than the actual cue.

For your body position, I stress to not lean forward. You might think that leaning forward encourages your horse to move, but it causes more problems than it does good. If you lean forward, you often will disengage your legs, which are critical to getting your horse properly set up to strike off on the correct lead and lope off in position. Instead of leaning, sit up, look where you’re going, press with your outside leg, and move him into a lope.

Straightness First

You’re already struggling with the transition to a lope anyway, so you want to ensure that you don’t create any other bad habits as you go through the training process. To keep from causing other problems with transitions and departures, achieve straightness in your horse first.

LEFT: When asking for a transition, straightness in your horse is the key to success. RIGHT: I’m walking my horse into the bridle as we prepare to transition to a lope. He’s straight, and he’s giving at the poll, two signals that his body is ready for the transition.

To do this, work on standing up your horse’s shoulders and keeping him aligned between your reins. Be sure that he’s not leaning. Most often, a horse will lean to the inside of the circle, so take time to get your horse off your legs and carrying himself squarely for the transition. Take your time to get organized, think about what you have to do, and execute it. You don’t have to run off into a fast circle from the first walking step; instead, ease your way into it, especially when you’re schooling the transition or departure.

Additionally, focus on walking your horse up into the bridle as you prepare to transition to a lope. Maintain light contact with your horse’s mouth, push your horse forward with your legs and seat, and continue until he breaks at the poll. Then cue for the lope.

Stop, Back, Try Again

Even with straightness and perfect preparation, your horse might resist loping off right away, and instead trot into the lope. When this happens, you need to get his attention. You’ve already given him the benefit of the doubt by checking your own habits and then setting him up for a proper transition or departure; now it’s his turn to hold up his end of the deal.

When my horse trots into the lope, I draw him into the ground (stop without a verbal cue) and back a few steps. This makes him think about how much easier it is just to lope off, as well as puts him on his hindquarters for more drive from behind for the next departure attempt.

If he trots out, immediately draw your horse into the ground—that is, pull him to a stop without saying “whoa.” By not giving him a verbal cue, he’ll be caught off guard and really have to work to stop. When you draw him into the ground, immediately begin backing him, quickly. This process requires much more effort on his part than loping off correctly. And it also shifts his weight back over his hindquarters for better impulsion on his next attempt.

After a few quick steps backward, ensure that your horse is straight. Then, walk him up into the bridle, and then ask hip to lope off again. If he successfully lopes off, make a few circles and then let him rest. If he trots into it again, repeat the stop-and-back drill.

Crystal McNutt trains reining horses and coaches amateur riders in Scottsdale, Arizona. She’s had especially notable success showing Arabians and Half-Arabians in NRHA and Arabian Horse Association events, but she also shows stock breeds. In 2011, she was inducted into the Arabian Professional and Amateur Horseman’s Association Working Western Trainer Hall of Fame and named the Horsewoman of the Year for that group. Learn more at

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