Saturday, March 6, 2010

To Lope or Not To Lope?

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


Shanster said...

Hmm - I hadn't really thought of it other than when people say they canter lots of circles it DOES sound incredibly boring... ha! And this comes from a dressage rider who lives in 20, 15, 10 meter circles... geez.

BUT if the horse isn't cantering along in balance and correctly, then yeah, I guess ultimately it does sort come down to that repetition.

Tho I don't see it as repetitive because there is a lot more schooling going on.

Shrug. I think the alphabet song is boring over and over as an adult who knows her ABC's.

I bet when I was a kid and learning them, that I relied on that repetition and starting again when I made mistakes to understand my alphabet.

So maybe it's that it IS really boring and repetitive when the horse knows it, but not so much when the horse is learning it?

Laura Crum said...

Shanster, I think you just said what I was trying to say. Young horses need that repetitive loping until they learn how to execute a collected lope--reliably. Older horses who know how to do it don't benefit at all from constant drilling. Its like adults singing the alphabet song. I always flinch when I see some well broke horse being asked to lope those endless circles. In my view, it only makes them cranky...and lame.

Oh, and thanks for the "suprise". I'm really enjoying it.

Mrs. Mom said...

I love these posts Laura. They always bring out things long forgotten...

My old mentor once said, "A horse that can't walk, won't run. He can't do a proper trot, or a proper canter, and you can forget about winning a race with him." (Mr Hulbert won a lot of races with his horses...) I'm embarrassed to say just how long it took for me to understand what he meant....

Today, I try to work Sonny along those lines. We work on a true, strong walk with varying strides and speeds, the same with a trot- from pleasure jog to strong trot, and soon (I HOPE) we'll move into a lope. My hope is that he'll already have some decent muscle memory from the work we have been doing, so that learning to lope properly with a rider up will be easier on him. (He isn't the most graceful horse at times...)

Thanks again for a thinking post!! Keep them coming!

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom, Thanks for taking the time to comment--and my thoughts are with you and your husband. Everybody, send good wishes for Mrs Mom's husband to recover quickly--she has posted on her blog "Oh Horse Feathers" that he is in the hospital. And as for that collected lope, these days I'm working on the steady walk, as my riding ring is far too sloppy for loping. But I did ride Henry bareback in a halter today (at the walk/jog), trying to keep the old boy going. I'm grateful that we have some sunshine and I was able to ride at all--it was non-stop rain all last week.

Susan said...

I can add only two things. One is that horses, like anybody else, learn at different rates, so it's not a one formula thing (as in it takes X number of circles to make that collected lope). The other thing is that people who insist on being perfectionists can bore the heck out of horses by repetition when the horse doesn't need it.

Laura Crum said...

Susan, I agree. Some horses learn a collected lope much more readily than others. However, I have found it is the one essential ingredient in training a broke horse. If you have that collected lope rock solid, almost everything else will fall into place. But once you really do have it you don't need to "perfect" it all the time. Its just boring the horse, as you say, and making him cranky. I also think too much loping circles will definitely contribute to lameness issues. Thanks for your insights--I always enjoy your comments.

Unknown said...

A wonderfully done post like this shows me how much I have to learn. Both our horses have a lovely collected lope, but I realize how they got it. And how our mare loses it so readily without practice. I have to learn how to work her in that collected lope to keep her in shape.

Mel said...

You just made my day. My horse sounds
exactly like twister. Tried rally hard but had bonuses how to lope or give she head. I always felt thy there was something wrong with her and even now after six months of me taking lessons with a good trainer, I get a bit frusterated since it seems so hard for her. You are the first person I've heard speak of how the collected or slow lope isn't exactly something they do natually. You are totally right. It is hard and I needto recognize that and also not feel embarassed, after all, Thera nothing wrong, she just never got shown how to do it!

Susan said...

Laura,you raise your own beef, so check out my last post.

Anonymous said...

However, some horses do seem to like it. Mocha gets cranky with too much jog schooling, but she snorts her way happily through lope (although sometimes it's an--ahem--rather energetic lope, especially right now in spring). I think she's channeling her ancestress Poco Lena (I found the stories amusing about how frustrated Lena used to make Don Dodge because she'd want to run as hard as she could, not do a slow, collected lope. Um--her several greats-granddaughter's the same way at times).

One dressage instructor I rode with commented that we always need to figure out what it is that warms our horse up best--and there was at least one horse in that class that needed to warm up at the canter. I've found that a good relaxed lope on a long rein warms Mocha up better than anything else. I can skip circuits of walk or trot, but if she doesn't get several good circuits of lope/canter in her warmup, it takes longer to get her to bend and give. That said, in English tack, she'll take the rein all the way to the buckle and drop her nose to the ground during the canter phase of the warmup--something I've seen her do on the lunge as well.

Our big thing is getting her to relax and settle. But we also do a lot of figures, not just circles and figure 8s. but cloverleafs and other such stuff, including up and down transitions, loping half circles, quarter circles, and the like.

That said, she does need a lot of lope work for conditioning. I've found that the more loping we do, the better her condition is overall.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

That is a great post and so true! Lots and lots of circles of varying speeds and widths are very important in horse training.

stilllearning said...

As others have said, it depends on your horse and his training level, personality, muscle type, age, goals for the day, his condition, your condition, your mood, your surroundings, etc.

The problem with most training articles is that there is never one-size-fits-all.

My older tb was born to canter (actually, gallop and race) and he needs to get to canter in his warmup as soon as possible to loosen up his back enough to walk and trot with ease. No lunging, he has hard-raced ankles, you just need to ride a nice soft canter with some transitions within that canter and then he's ready to give you his back.

Other horses I've owned warm up best with a long-reined walk. Some want to trot figures, including but not limited to circles. Cantering a collected circle requires a certain level of fitness and strength so that's a factor. They're all different. Cantering repeated circles is a tool I'll use at times, but never for long. I get too bored. ("Yuck" is right.)

Way back when I rode hunters I jumped courses almost every ride, seeking calmness and steadiness via habit and dullness (in hindsight). Maybe loping hours of circles is the western pleasure equivalent?

Sorry for rambling...interesting post.

Laura Crum said...

stillearning and joycemocha--I agree that all horses are different. My horse Plumber likes to walk a few laps and then lope. He has a sweet little rocking chair lope and he warms up doing several laps of this. When he's warmed up enough that he's ready to make a roping run, he starts trying to drop down to the walk--very persistantly. Twelve years of being a competitive team roping horse have made him very clear about what he wants in a warmup. He hates to trot. Henry, on the other hand, likes to walk and trot (happy to long trot), but doesn't like to lope. They're all different, as you say. I still maintain that the ability to do a collected lope is fundemental to being "broke", but certainly once a horse can do it, some don't need or want to "practice" it very often. Others do.

Breathe--I agree. If your mare can do a nice lope, and then is hard to get into that gait, a little practice is in order.

Mel--some horses find the collected lope a challenge. Doesn't mean they're not good horses. My old horse, Burt, hated the collected lope. He liked to lope fast--more of a hand gallop. He would spin, slide, work a cow really well, and was great outside--he was my ranch horse. I could collect him well (after a lot of work), but it was never something he liked, nor did it come easily to him.

Joy said...

I've always hated arena work, but it became very obvious that my first horse (an ottb mare) needed it. She loved arena work and would settle right down to business.

My current horse was awesome with arena work. It really seemed to make his brain engage. And as he got better at it, like you said, we would could just do a 20 minute warmup and he would be ready for anything.

Now though he has a very difficult time doing circles. Even large ones. (because of his injury) Right now with all the rain, I think he starts out sore and not just stiff. When it's very warm and dry we can usually do 20 or 30 minutes in the arena, but he still comes out a little sore. I never thought I would miss arena work, but I do a little.

He can still walk, trot, long trot, lope and run. It's just a lot easier for him to do it on trail in more or less a straight line.

He still collects very nicely for the lope out on trail, a result I think of all his learning in the arena.

Good post Laura!

Laura Crum said...

Joy--I'm like you--I don't really care for arena work any more, and both Henry and Sunny prefer trail rides--they sure make that plain. But Plumber hates the trail and is happy to lope around an arena and make a few team roping runs. Horses are all different, as so many have pointed out. And I, too, after many trail rides in a row, like to get back in the arena and do a little loping. Maybe its all about variety. Ya think? I do think going in a straight line (as in down the trail) is much easier on horses than circles in an arena--I can see why Willy (that's his name, right?) would prefer it.

And Voyager, didn't mean to ignore you--thanks for the nice comment--I always enjoy your comments.

Susan, I tried to go to your blog but my ancient computer froze up (it does this a lot). I'll try again.

Laura Crum said...

Susan, I went to your blog and read your post. I tried to leave a comment (honest), but blogger wouldn't let me-this is one of the reasons I seldom try to comment on other blogs. But I am sad to hear that you are letting your cows go. Will you continue to raise your own beef? I have never tried to sell the meat I raise--I raise it for myself, both to get good, clean meat and because I want to give the steers a good long happy life. I am very particular about how they're slaughtered--they're not hauled--shot dead as they're grazing in their field by an experienced ranch killer--and I try in every way to make it win/win for all of us. I know all about what goes into commercially raised beef and how the animals are treated and I won't buy it any more. Where I live it is pretty easy to buy homegrown grass fed beef, but I live in Santa Cruz County CA--a very "progressive" area. I agree with all you said in your post--I feel the same way. I'm sad to hear that you have to sell your herd.

Joy said...

yes laura, he's willy, willie, billy head bob, billy bob amongst others. mostly he's my luuuvvvv.

I took him to a wilderness park today. He did big hills, up and down, lots of big water crossing, rocks, the works. He did so well. I'm so happy with him.

I love that you raise your beef and how you slaughter them. Husband and I are trying to get a small piece of land here and raise a calf a year. So we can feed it well, treat it well and then humanely slaughter it.

little K said...

I'm totally agreeing with what everyone has said so far and am dealing with the issue of developing a balanced lope in my young horse right now so this couldn't be more timely.

I totally agree that a good lope (I come from hunter world so am now going to refer to it as canter) is the key to a broke horse. Collection in the canter is what allows hunters to jump round and in perfect form and jumpers to make the tight turns and big fences. If you watch a puissnace (high jump) competition, the horses practicallly crawl up to the fences. I think that getting control and balance in the canter is part repetition (those dreaded circles) but I find that transitions in canter and the other gaits really help as well. They help balance the horse and keep them engaged. I also think lenthening and shortening the canter and trot strides help a horse learn to balance their weight back on their haunches and collect. Using those tools I find I can do less canter work but make the work I do more intense, engaging and helpful in collecting my horse without stressing his little legs and brain too much.

little K said...

(I cannot spell to save my life, I wish I could blame a head injury, but alas...I just confessed to always wearing a helmet)