by Laura Crum
That is the question. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But, in truth, I have an interesting (or I think so) idea to discuss today. As always, when I bring up these horse training concepts, this post is not meant to instruct any one on how to train horses. I’m just raising points I think are interesting in the hope of getting some equally interesting feedback. And, perhaps, to help others to clarify their own ideas, even (or especially) if what that amounts to is “I sure don’t agree with Laura on this; in contrast, this is what I think.”
So, the other day I read a comment on a horse blog along the lines of “to get a good lope you have to spend a lot of hours loping circles”. And I had a very mixed reaction to that comment. First I felt, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” And then I felt, “Yuck, how boring for horse and rider.” And then, being who I am, I tried to figure out the nature of my reaction. Which led to this post.
First off, the comment I read had a lot to do with developing a successful show horse lope—meaning western pleasure. And this is a very specific thing in which I am not interested. But, when I thought about it, I realized that a good lope, or canter, for you English types, is the foundation of a broke horse in all disciplines. And yep, I mean all.
Think about it. A collected lope (English folks just subsitute canter for lope) does not occur in a unbroke horse. Horses running free will walk, long trot and gallop. They will “high lope”, or gallop in a relaxed way, but they don’t collect and lope slow. The skills involved in teaching a horse a collected lope—giving the head, getting the hind legs up underneath, rounding the back, arcing into the circle, being ready to stop at a light cue—these are what make a horse broke.
And yes, there is no other way to teach a horse to lope, but by lots of time spent loping circles. It requires developing some muscle memory and there is no other way to do it. (OK, yes you could teach collection on a race track or loping in a straight line across an open field, but it would be a lot harder to do.)
And I cannot think of a single way to get a horse truly broke that does not include teaching the horse how to lope collectedly. This is obvious when it comes to show horses of most types, but I’m also thinking of trail horses and team roping horses for instance. The foundation of a horse who is “in your hand”, ie “broke”, is the collected lope. Even if, as is the case with team roping, you don’t actually use the collected lope when you compete.
This all sounds fairly theoretical, so I want to give a concrete example. Seven years ago my team roping partner, Wally, bought a very green six year old gelding named Twister. Twister had been broke as a four year old by some not very handy ranch cowboys (thirty days of riding) and then, as a five year old, a team roping trainer made him a “ninety day wonder”. You know, the very green horse who is taught to be a team roping horse in ninety days of training. Needless to say, Twister was not broke in any real sense. You could make a team roping run on him, but his head was in the air and his eyes were bugging out the whole time. He had very little idea about answering the bridle, but he did kind of know what a team roping head horse is supposed to do.
In another horse, this approach would have been disasterous. Many horses are pretty much ruined for life this way. But both Wally and I could see that Twister, despite his ignorance, was trying very hard to do the right thing. And we both really liked him. I wasn’t training horses any more, but I told Wally that I would help him train Twister if he would do the actual riding. So we brought Twister home.
Twister was about as unbroke as you could imagine. He did not know how to give his head at all. As for a collected lope, Twister did not know how to hold the lope in a circle in any way shape or form, let alone collect. He had many, many rough spots as a rope horse and Wally was very keen to address these, because he wanted to start competing on Twister. I told him, “Teach this horse to lope and all those other problems will pretty much disappear.”
Wally didn’t really believe me, but he did what I said. And for about six months, we worked at teaching Twister a relaxed, collected lope. Wally rode Twister three or four days a week and continued to practice rope on him, but he spent a lot of time loping circles, patiently teaching Twister how to collect and be “in his hand”, ready to stop in a gathered way (with his nose down and his hind legs up under him and his back round) in any stride. It took six months to accomplish this and a year to make it solid. By the end of that year, Wally was competing successfully on Twister and the horse was thriving. The very skills that enabled Twister to execute a collected lope enabled him to be an obedient, responsive rope horse.
So, there’s point number one. No matter your discipline, a collected lope is the basis of “broke”. Point two is that it does take lots of loping circles to get that good lope. And now we come to my “yuck, its boring” reaction. Cause once you and your horse really do know how to do this, there is no point in repeating it endlessly. It does no good. Its merely boring for horse and rider.
Nowadays, when Wally warms Twister up (Twister is fourteen), they walk trot lope until the horse is free, and then Wally lopes maybe three laps in a collected frame, max. That’s it. Then they’re on to do something interesting.
I treat my horses (Plumber and Sunny) the same. If we ride in the arena, I always do a couple of “reminder laps” at the collected lope. If they don’t ante up, I work on that lope until I like it. That’s it. I do not drill endlessly, loping those repetitive circles, on a horse that already knows how to do it. It merely makes a horse cranky and its not good for his legs and feet. Though I mostly trail ride on Sunny, I do need the feeling of him being “in my hand” as I lope across a meadow, and I want that gathered, collected, calm lope, not some scrambling out of control hand gallop. So, in essence, even in my trail horse, his collected lope is what makes him a broke horse.
OK—I’ve dissected my reaction to that comment. Now I’d love to hear your theories on this subject. Anybody agree with me? Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong. Cheers--Laura