Diagonal Arena Pattern Improves The Lope

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This mare is rounding her topline and taking more weight on her hind legs. Although the rider is floating the right rein briefly, the mare keeps her balance. This green mare is stiff and tense through her topline and long in her lope stride.

This mare is rounding her topline and taking more weight on her hind legs. Although the rider is floating the right rein briefly, the mare keeps her balance. This green mare is stiff and tense through her topline and long in her lope stride.

If your horse carries his head a little too high at the lope or travels a little too fast, it’s usually due to balance trouble.

To lower his head, he needs to relax, but he can’t relax if he’s off balance. To slow down, he has to transfer more weight to his haunches. That takes practice, suppleness and muscling gained through exercises like this.

Start at the lope on his easiest lead. For most horses, this will be the left, so we’ll use it as an example. Using the horse’s easiest lead first gives you a chance to get used to the exercise and makes it easier for him to keep that lead throughout.

Lope around the arena until he’s settled, though likely he’s still moving too fast. After riding along a short side of the arena, make a gradual curve and ride diagonally across the arena. Keep your aids and balance saying “left lead.” Keep your legs in left-lead position — left leg at the cinch for body bend and impulsion, and right leg back to help the right hind stay engaged and keep initiating that left lead. This leg position goes with keeping your left seat bone a little more forward. You want to keep his body in left-lead balance.

You may need to exaggerate at first by also keeping his neck and nose in left-lead position: Tip his nose to the left with your left rein. This will be helpful if he has learned to change leads. For this exercise you want him to stay on the initial lead.

Be sure you look up. If you look down, and particularly down and to the right, your body weight will follow. Then, his body weight will follow and it’ll be more difficult for him to keep the left lead.

Long before you get into the far corner of the arena, start riding a large-radius right-curving path. Your goal is to get all the way around the short side of the arena on the outside (left) lead.

At first, your horse may have even more balance problems. His lope will deteriorate further. He may speed up, get stiff and tense, and raise his head even more. Your job is to stay soft and to keep supporting him with your left lead aids.

If he’s coping, ride across the next diagonal and give him a breather by riding around on the next short side. These breathers help him rebalance, and you should start seeing a better lope. If he’s doing OK, repeat the exercise in the next diagonal.

As he progresses, ride more along the rail and less of a looping curve on the outside-lead-part of the pattern. Visualize the pattern from above. As he progresses, the counter-lead track will more and more closely mirror the inside-lead part.

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If he copes OK with the curve in the counter lead but is not balanced enough to cross on the next diagonal, ride straight down the rail on the outside lead and come smoothly to trot or jog well before you arrive at the next corner. Praise him and repeat the exercise.

At first, your horse may not even be able to keep the left lead through the first curve. He may break to a trot. He may become disunited, changing either his front or hind legs to the other (right) lead. Bring him to a settled trot, change direction, pick up your left lead lope, and try again.

You may need to make an even more gradual curve to the right around the short side of the arena. As long as he keeps trying, give him another go at it.

If he’s been taught flying lead changes or if he’s been scared by losing his balance at lope, you will have to be crystal clear with your aids and may need to choose an easier exercise first.

For example, if the right curve proves to be too much to ask, back up a step. Instead of riding across the diagonal, continue to ride “track left” but make a smooth curve in toward the quarter line and back out again. This gives him practice keeping his left-lead balance on a much less-demanding curve to the right, followed by a reassuringly familiar left curve onto and around the short side.

The advantage of this exercise is that you’re not trying to get into his mouth to slow him down or to drop his neck. Instead, you’re giving him the chance to improve his own balance at lope. In order to travel to the right on his left lead, his right hind must work extra hard to flex and come up under him, and he must shift more weight back to his hind quarters in order to balance — what he also needs to do in order to travel more slowly and with his head down at lope on the inside lead.

This exercise is hard work for the horse. It will take time for him to further his muscle development and balance in order to be able to do this well. His more difficult lead will take longer to perfect, and you’ll find yourself working on it a greater percentage of the time than the easier lead.

As he progresses, you’ll find him coping much better with the counter-curve track. His hind legs will support more of his weight, he will slow down, he will soften through his body, and he will be able to look in the direction of the curve while staying on the outside lead.

If you practice this pattern on both leads over time, you’ll find his lope is slower, his head is lower, and he’s much more maneuverable.