Most of us, if we've been around the arena a time or two, know how to ask for a lope departure.
Inside rein, outside leg behind the girth, moving the hindquarters over just a bit so that the outside hind leg is primed to push off.
If getting the correct lead is a problem, riders are often advised to ask for the lope in a corner or while on a circle.
Easy peasy, right? Yep. Until it isn't.
Some horses are stiffer on one side than the other, making it difficult to catch a certain lead. It's important to make sure that there are no medical issues--such as sore hocks--at work. And from there, sometimes we have to start thinking less like a horse trainer and more like a horse.
When riders use a mechanical set of cues as outlined above, "it doesn't always work," says trainer and clinician Joe Wolter of Aspermont, Texas. "Especially with a young horse or an inexperienced horse, there are too many little commands that get in their way if they're not real clear on it."
As a young man, Joe says he didn't know the mechanics--the prescribed steps of horse training-- so he thought instead about what made sense to the horse. As he grew in his horsemanship, working for renowned horseman Ray Hunt and then learning from Ray's mentors, Bill and Tom Dorrance, Joe learned those step-by-steps that would allow you to, say, pick up a given lead or change leads at a particular point in the arena. But he and those great horsemen he worked with never stopped thinking about how to make it the horse's idea.
"Another way to talk about taking a lead is to just get the direction to be the horse's idea," Joe says. "For years, I didn't know how to change leads with a horse, but I could get a horse to want to go the direction I wanted to go. I found that if it was his idea to go that way, he'd take the correct lead. If it was his idea to change directions, he would change leads, see?
"Sometimes we work on mechanics before we work on changing the horse's mind, and that's when problems can creep in. We have good intentions, and we think we're helping, but we're not. We're slowing the learning process down by being horse trainers.
Joe outlines an exercise that sets it up for the horse to succeed, in this case by picking up a formerly tricky left lead. Trot the horse energetically toward a solid structure such as a barn, at about a 45 degree angle, so that as the horse gets close to the barn and feels the need to change course, she'll naturally veer off to the left. But don't steer. Instead, just as you feel the horse about to commit to the left turn, ask for a lope.
If she picks up the right lead, don't make a fuss. Just wind her down easily to the left, making a smaller circle as she trots and then walks. Flexed to the left, she gets to slow down and relax, making that a good place to be.
But don't be surprised if the horse very quickly finds out that the left lead is more comfortable in this setup. There's no positioning the hindquarters, no pulling on the face.
"You used the barn so you could get less involved. And when you got less involved, she had it," Joe says as he coaches a rider through the exercise. "You set it up so she wanted to turn to the left. You didn't make her turn to the left; you didn't ask her to take the left lead. You just got out of her way when she wanted to."
The same principles can be applied using a fence or brush, or even the edge of a road or trail.
"You know how horses want to travel in that track?" Joe says. "I'll tip their bodies just a little bit to the edge of the trail or the track, where they're wanting to get back in the trail, and they'll pick up the correct lead right there. It doesn't take much."
It's a fun way of thinking: How can I, as a rider, make my horse's natural impulses work for us, rather than against us?
"If I was waiting for somebody, and say my horse was stiff to the left, I'd position that horse so that when those other riders came over the hill, he'd hear them, and my horse would have to look off to the left.
"I think there are tons of opportunities to do stuff like that, to help get your horse balanced. The key is to get the horse operating without her knowing that we're "working" on her."
Another opportunity might come if two riders get separated on the trail and the one left behind needs to catch up. His horse, of course, is going to be drawn to that other horse. So set her up by angling her body to the right and asking for a lope. Odds are, she'll be willing to take that left lead easily.
"Even in a 60-by-100 indoor arena, there is still a place that horse wants to be," Joe says. "It's probably by the gate, probably next to his buddies. So use it! Don't be asking her to take the lead leaving that gate. Instead, let her pull toward the gate give you the energy for a lope departure.
"Pretty soon, she won't want to be at that gate; pretty soon, she wants to be someplace else, so use that. Pretty soon, she just wants to be right with you.
"And when she's there--when her mind's with you, wondering what you might ask of her next and being ready to respond--that's a good feeling for both horse and rider.
Visit www.joewolter.com to learn more about Joe and his clinic schedule.