In the August '09 issue of Horse & Rider, clinician Karen Scholl helps women understand their horse-related fears. Here, we tell you how to up your confidence at the lope--the gait that typically prompts the most fear--from an article first published in our August '06 issue.
It's a surprisingly common fear point. If you have it, loping makes you nervous. It doesn't matter that you ride completely at ease at a walk, jog, and even an extended trot. When it comes time to lope, your heart speeds up, your mouth dries out, your breathing gets shallow--if you're breathing at all.
It's a vicious circle. Tension makes you stiff, which causes you to tip and bounce, which unbalances and speeds up your horse, which unsettles you even more. After a few nerve-rattling strides, you come back to a walk or jog, and you're done with loping for the day.
And, even when you persist and lope for longer periods, you wish the gait could become second nature to you. You'd love to be able to move your horse into a smooth, controlled canter whenever you like, minus the high anxiety.
We're going to help you learn to do exactly that. Our experts will give you a dozen strategies that will set you up for success and build your confidence at the lope. With time and practice, you'll overcome your apprehension and learn to enjoy the bounding, rolling nature of your horse's premier gait.
For these tips to work...
...your horse must be safe and able to carry you at the lope. If the source of your fearfulness is your horse's past attempts to buck you off or run away with you, you need professional training, not tips. Similarly, if your horse is green, training will help him learn to stay balanced under your weight at the lope (no mean feat), which in turn will enable you to feel safer and more secure.
You yourself must know how to sit a lope, even if tension keeps you from doing it well. If you don't understand the basics of riding at this gait, you need lessons to establish a solid foundation. If, however, what's holding you back is a niggling, essentially unfounded fear, here are some strategies to boost your confidence. (And to learn more about where your fear may be coming from, see "Why Are We Fearful?," at the end of this article.) Ready? Then let's get started.
1. Re-Label Your Fear
Think of it as excitement, instead. Start by stretching your mental envelope. "Visualize yourself galloping all out, pushing the limits of what you'd ever consider in real life," suggests Peggy Martin, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in helping riders overcome fear and anxiety. "This will make actual loping seem calm by comparison, and expand your comfort zone a bit. As you visualize galloping, note how the physical sensations of fear--butterflies in the stomach, quickened breathing, pounding heart--are similar to those of excitement. Over time, begin processing your feelings about the lope in a different way. Instead of saying to yourself, 'I'm afraid to lope,' say, 'I'm excited to lope.'"
She admits that attitudes don't change overnight. "But," she adds, especially if you also try some of the other suggestions given here, "eventually you'll reroute the pathways in your brain, so that
you come to view loping with more excitement than fear.
2. Check Your Position
Try as you might, if you're afraid of loping, you're likely to find yourself in some version of the dreaded "fetal crouch" when you do lope--hunched forward, head down, shoulders rounded, knees creeping up. It can happen to the best of riders when fear takes over. The worst thing about this position is that it can cause you to hang on the reins and clamp with your heels--a sure prescription to rattle your horse, which only adds to your nervousness.
The best antidote, says Cathy Hanson, a Quarter Horse trainer who works with amateurs, is work on the longe line.