Be Brave at the Lope, Overcome Fear

Last Updated on February 26, 2022 by Allison Price

Do you find loping nerve-racking? Are you wishing it was more enjoyable and less stressful? Use our tips to reduce anxiety.

You can lope by working at the walk and jog. These gaits will help you improve your balance, posture, and relaxation. Then, move on to the lope when you are ready. All photos from H&R files

It is a common fear. It can make you anxious if you do. You can ride at ease at a walk or jog and even at an extended trot. Your heart rate increases, your mouth drys out, and your breathing becomes shallow when you lope.

It’s a vicious cycle. Tension can make you stiff which causes you tip and bounce which in turn unbalances your horse and speeds it up, which further disturbs you. After several nerve-racking strides, you can return to a walk/jog and that’s it.

Even if you lope for longer periods of time, you still wish that the gait was second nature. It would be great to be able move your horse in a controlled, smooth canter without any anxiety.

We will help you do just that. You will be able to use a variety of strategies from our experts to increase your chances of success at the lope. You’ll learn to love the graceful, rolling gait of your horse with practice and time.

GET THESE TIPS TO WORK…

Your horse must be able to safely carry you along at the trot. Professional training is required if your horse has tried to run away from you in the past. If your horse is young, you can train him to balance under your weight at the trot (no easy feat). This will make him feel safer and more secure.

Even if you feel tension, you must be able to sit on a lope. To learn the basics of riding at this gait you will need lessons. Here are some ways to increase your confidence if you have a small, unfounded fear. (For more information about why you might be afraid, read “Why are We Fearful?” at the end. Ready? Let’s go!

Position is everything when you are confident at the lope. This photo shows the rider sitting straight up, her seat bone deep in the saddle, and her shoulders back. |

1. Change the name of your fear

Instead, think of it as excitement. Begin by expanding your mental horizons. Peggy Martin, a certified clinical social worker, suggests that you visualize yourself riding all out and pushing the boundaries of what you can think about in real life. This will make actual loping appear calmer and allow you to expand your comfort zone. Visualize galloping and notice how fearful feelings (butterflies in your stomach, rapid breathing, pounding heart) are similar to excitement. You will find a new way to process your emotions about the lope. Instead of saying, “I’m afraid to lope,” say, “I’m excited about lope.”

She acknowledges that attitudes take time to change. She adds that attitudes don’t change overnight, but that if you try the other suggestions, eventually you’ll reroute your brain’s pathways.
You will view loping more with excitement than fear.

This photo shows her making the classic mistake of leaning forward while slipping her left leg back. |

2. Check your Position

You won’t be able to lope if you are afraid of it. Your body will likely become hunched forward, your shoulders round, and your knees rising. Fear can take over even the most experienced riders. This position can lead to fear and cause you to cling to the reins with your heels.

Cathy Hanson is a Quarter Horse trainer who works alongside amateurs and believes that the best antidote to this problem is longe-line work.

She says, “How comfortable and efficient you are at the trot depends on how well you sit it and whether you follow the horse’s movements.” Poor position can cause problems for horses, leading to him becoming crooked or bouncy and unable to lope. With an expert eye to fix your position problems, a few lessons on the longeline can make all the difference.

Cathy recommends that you begin the longe at the walk, jog, and sit upright to cement your supple-backed, straight-sitting position at the lope. Ask your trainer about exercises like “airplane arms”, touching your toes and stretching to pat your horse’s croup.

“These will improve balance and strengthen your legs and abdomen muscles to sit properly,” says Cathy. These will help you feel confident when you go out on your own to learn how to lope.

3. Prepare Your Horse

Horses with too much energy to express themselves in a buck or scoot are not what you want. Before you ask your horse for a lope make sure he is calm and ready. Charlie Cole, Quarter Horse trainer and member of Team H&R, says to prepare your horse by longeing or working him in an enclosed pen before you mount. You should then start your ride in an enclosed area, preferably not too big. You should practice the walk, trot, and extended trot. Make sure you have lots of transitions in order to get your horse to pay attention to you and respond to you before you ask for an lope.

You increase the chances that he will give you a lope to inspire your confidence rather than sabotage it.

(For more information about preparing your horse to be a successful rider, please see “Stay safe: Get the Fresh Out,” July 2006.

4. Prevent Anticipation

You can teach your horse to wait until you signal to lope if he gets excited about the idea of loping, even if he has worked off his excess energy before.

Sandy Collier, a clinician and reining trainer suggests that you put your horse in the same frame you used to ask for the correct lead. I tip my horse’s nose and push it slightly to the inside. Then have him walk in this position for a few more steps than lope off. It’s good discipline for him and teaches him to wait for you, not anticipate your lope.

A major trust builder for nervous riders is knowing that your horse won’t move away until you are ready.

Just before asking for the lope take a deep inhale. Then, exhale as you ask. As you are walking down the lope, be sure to synchronize your breathing with the movement. Inhale for two to three strides and exhale for two to three. Find the rhythm that suits you best. |

5. Exhale Into It

Jessica Jahiel offers a clever solution if you, like many riders forget to breathe while you move into a lope. Take a deep, balanced breath just before you ask for the “lope”, then exhale as you cue your horse. It is impossible to hold your breath while exhaling. You will be able to move with your horse more easily if you aren’t stiff and resistant.

Jessica, moderator at Horse-Sense’s popular online Q&A forum and author of the Rider’s Problem Solver: Improve Your Skills, Overcome Fears, Understand Horse (Storey Books 2006), points out that rhythmic breathing calms you down and centers.

She suggests that you practice it at a standing still and at all three gaits. Then, find a rhythm that corresponds with your horse’s strides. This could be done at the lope by inhaling for two to three strides and then exhaling for another two or three. Find the rhythm that suits you best.

Also, ensure that your breath comes from your diaphragm, which is the muscle that runs underneath your rib cage. Your diaphragm is activated if your abdomen contracts and expands as you breathe. Your chest may not move, but your abdomen will.

6. Think: ‘Lean Back! ‘

Nervous riders often tip forward at the lope strike off. This puts their shoulders in front and closes their hip angle. It also makes them stiffer and more bouncy. Julie Goodnight, a horsemanship specialist who has worked with many fearful riders, said that this is a particularly dangerous behavior. “There’s a point in the canter stride when your shoulders should be behind your hips.” You’ll end up thrown out of the saddle if you lean forward. Instead, you should lean back like you are pushing a swing.

Julie suggests that her students sit a bit behind the vertical in order to avoid leaning. She says, “It helps them to follow the horse’s motion and remain relaxed.”

7. For balance, go straight

Nervous riders often ride the lope in circles believing that it gives them more control. Julie suggests that a straight line can have its advantages.

It can be difficult for horses to balance on a circle, especially one that is smaller, which can cause them to lose stride, speed up or do other things that could rattle the rider. Instead, ask for the lope along the long side of the arena. After three to four strides, lope straight down the long side of your arena, then walk back up and pick up the lope once again. Continue loping along the long side. Then walk or jog through the corners.

You’ll eventually find yourself gliding through corners. This will help you to lope smoother and more fluidly.

8. Use Two-Point
Peggy Martin believes that many of her students gain confidence riding the lope in a two-pointed position. She says, “When your horse moves forward slightly, and you have your seat just out the saddle, your weight will sink into your legs, it makes it easier to keep up with the horse’s motion.” This allows you to focus on the lope and to acclimate to it, without having to worry about how to keep your lower back flexible and your seat in place.

You can start by riding in two-point at a walk and jog before you attempt it on the lope. This will help you to improve your balance and strengthen legs. You can start to feel more comfortable riding in two point for a few strides. Next, sit down for a while and then ride back to two point.

If you must sit down, make sure your spine is straight and your shoulders are back.

9. Use Your Legs

Too many riders pump their upper bodies too much to help their horses move forward in the lope. Jessica Jahiel suggests that riders should keep their upper bodies still and let their legs move the horse. To keep your horse moving rhythmically, sit up straight and follow his movements.

Jessica explains that if you sit up straight and use your legs to support your horse’s back, it encourages him to lift his shoulders and stay upright. If you lean forward and pump your upper body, it will make your horse move quickly and flat, which Jessica doesn’t recommend.

Sally Swift, a veteran clinician and author of “Centered Riding”, suggests that you visualize your legs reaching the ground. This improves the effectiveness of your legs on horses’ sides, stabilizes your lower body and increases your security in saddle.

10. Take control of your eyes

Julie Goodnight says, “When you lope, keep your eyes focused in the direction that you are going, and not at your horse’s poll.” Fear can make you stare down to the point where your eyes glaze over. You lose your focus on everything else when that happens. Instead, focus on where you are going and plan your route. This keeps your mind positive and helps to eliminate fear.

As an added bonus, your horse will be more impressed by your leadership if you look where you want him to go. Julie says that horses can sense when you look down and will follow you, naturally moving in the same direction. “If you look down, it signals that you are afraid and you lose your leadership position.

11. Sing a song.

Julie suggests that talking out loud to your horse or singing a song can help you forget your fear. She says, “This is a common trick I use with my lessons students.” Talking or singing can engage your mind with something fun, force you to breathe, and go a long way in counteracting fear.

12. Keep it fun

Our experts recommend that you keep the pressure off and enjoy riding and loping. This is one of the best strategies. You should only go as fast as you are comfortable. If that means you have to walk and trot until your horse is ready to lope, then so be it.

Jessica Jahiel says that posture, balance, relaxation, and relaxation during the walk and trot are all part o your ‘canter homework’ and will pay off later. She also says that it’s okay to lope in small amounts. As a guide, use arena markers to plan where you will walk, trot, and canter.

She adds that “Above all,” riding is about learning skills, having fun and building a relationship with your horse. It is not about following a set schedule, following a certain timetable or doing what others think you should do. Push yourself to expand your comfort zone. But don’t push yourself too far. Remember that this is all for fun.

WHY DO WE FEAR?

Julie Goodnight, a clinician, has made it her specialty to deal with fearful riders. She addresses fear issues in her books, videos and website articles (www.juliegoodnight.com) as well as in her horsemanship clinics. She believes that riders who are afraid should not feel isolated.

She observes that “it’s a bigger issue than people realize.” “Riding is a dangerous endeavor and nobody wants to talk about being afraid. My fear management clinics have shown me that there is no one-size-fits all profile of fearful riders. This includes age, sex, and ability. There are many points where fear can kick in. The most common is the lope. It’s the fastest, most powerful and has the greatest suspension. This gait can also trigger horses’ flight response. Horses can practice their flight response at liberty by taking off with their tails in the air, bucking, and playing.

A canter can be the first step to the flight response and is something that fearful riders are very aware of. Their fear usually falls into one of these two categories. Post-traumatic anxiety is a result of being run off with, bucked off at, or any other mishap. Generalized anxiety is a worry about all the possible problems at the lope. As people age, this type of fear tends become more severe.

Both types of fear can be overcome. Post-traumatic fear is a form of anxiety that can’t be erased. However, it’s possible to overcome it through training and practice.

“Most fear of riding on the lope is a result of general anxiety. Riders are constantly imagining what if scenarios. You can overcome your fears by paying more attention to your riding and less on your fear. It takes practice and time.

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