When we’re horseback on the ranch, we’re constantly moving our horses between gaits–trotting out from headquarters to gather and move a pasture, walking alongside a trail of cattle, or loping after a calf trying to break away from the herd. While we’re working, we often ask our horses for these gait transitions unwittingly, as we respond to the situation around us, but there is plenty of horsemanship technique to explore to help your horse move in a more balanced, collected way.
Here are a few tips for working with a horse on smooth transitions.
Walk to Lope
– Lay the “groundwork.” While most horses are agile enough to easily pick up the lope from a walk, some will have to work at it more than others. You can set you and your horse up for success by making sure you have a solid foundation of moving off leg cues, yielding the hindquarters, and giving to the bit with light contact.
– Be patient. As most horses learn this maneuver, they will likely start with fast trotting in between the walk and the lope. As the training progresses, they will get quicker at picking up the lope cue. Stay consistent with the difference between how you ask for the lope and how you ask for the trot.
– Look for balance. When you move from the walk to the lope, you are moving from a gait that is balanced between the fore- and hindquarters and balanced left-to-right, to a gait that is powered by impulsion of the hindquarters and favors one side—the right or left lead. Therefore, when you ask for the lope, you should consider which lead the horse will be picking up. In the arena, this will be the inside leg; out in the field, anticipate which direction your horse will eventually need to bend or turn. Then, rather than apply pressure with both legs simultaneously (the cue for the trot, as the trot is also a left-right balanced gait), put on pressure with your outside leg, slightly behind the cinch. This encourages your horse to shift the hips over towards the inside, preparing him to pick up the correct lead.
Lope to Halt
– “Putting stop in a horse” is a mental exercise. As with all good horsemanship, you are asking the horse to stop, not manually forcing the stop yourself. Therefore, the reins and contact with the mouth come last, after your verbal and seat cues.
– The universal verbal cue for stop is “whoa.” Give this cue first, to give the horse the opportunity to make the decision to stop. Then, sit deep in your seat and release all pressure. Finally, add contact with the mouth. As training progresses with more and more repetition, all of these cues can become lighter, and elicit a faster response from the horse.
– With young horses, once they make the stop, you can ask for a few steps backwards. Getting them to back quickly and easily will go hand in hand with building a smoother stop.
These tips were compiled with help from Nicole Tolle, a Chico Basin Ranch neighbor who has worked with Tennessee Walking Horses for 30 years.