In Cowboy Dressage the goal is to ride our horses in balance, with correct cadence and rhythm. That means the lope has to have 3 clear beats to the footfalls. Only if we understand the sequence of footfalls can we effectively influence and rebalance the horse. Many horses start out with a correct rhythm and then lose it because the rider’s aids are timed wrong. For better understanding, let’s break apart each beat: If you are on the left lead, the first beat will be the horse’s right hind leg pushing off into the lope. All other legs are in the air. Next the left hind and right front (diagonal pair) will strike the ground simultaneously and last the left front (leading leg) will hit the ground. The canter has a moment of suspension where all 4 legs are in the air. The more we collect the canter into a lope the more the airtime is reduced. A correct lope still has a 3 beat rhythm but without the suspension of the canter. A horse that is not correctly rebalanced onto the haunches but instead just held back and slowed down by pulling on the reins will lose the correct cadence, fall on the forehand and have a flattened out 4-beat rhythm, sometimes so extreme that the horse is actually jogging with his hind-legs.
So how can we correctly influence our horse to keep the correct 3 beat rhythm? One of my favorite sayings is: “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken!” In other words, don’t interfere with the way your horse is moving, move with him not against him! Seems like an obvious statement but it is often easier said than done. Many riders tense through their back and legs which then causes the horse to tense and stiffen, or they inadvertently pull back on the reins when the horse’s head goes down in the normal motion of the lope. This will halt the forward movement, the horse will stiffen and instead of stepping under correctly with the hind legs, it will cause the lope to flatten out and the hind legs to trail behind. The lope has a rolling motion, think of it like a wave in the ocean with it’s steady rise and fall. To improve your horse’s balance in the lope you need to use your body to lift the wave up higher, not flatten it out! For this you will first need to be able to ride the lope in balance with your horse: roll with the wave. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to move in harmony with your horse and you should definitely give yourself a pat on the shoulder once you accomplish this. But wait. There’s more!
This post wasn’t just about correctly riding the lope, but actually improving it! Rolling with the wave and being in balance with your horse is fine if your horse’s lope is correct. But what if your horse has a flattened out, 4 beat rhythm? Going with that motion might not make the lope worse, but it is not enough to make it better either. Now we need to figure out how to lift the wave up higher while we are riding it! This requires correctly timed aids and actively riding each stride. No more rolling with the wave, now you have to control it and influence it’s roll and fall. It is essential to know where your horse’s feet are at all times in order to time your aids correctly. This is the part that is hard to explain since it needs a certain amount of feel, but I’ve been told I’m good at explaining, so here it goes: In order to improve the lope we need to rebalance the horse towards his hind-end (lifting the wave up higher). You can not influence the rise of the wave if you ask on the downward roll. So the correct time to apply your aids is when the footfall sequence has finished and starts all over again. As you feel the rise of the wave, you use your core in a uplifting motion while at the same time applying your left leg (when on the left lead). Every other stride you precede this by a momentary tightening of the core (half halt) to get the horse’s butt under you and remind him to engage his hind-end. Then lift the wave up again. It probably won’t happen immediately, especially if your horse is used to traveling on the forehand but it will happen. Practice, practice, refer to the picture above and don’t hesitate to ask questions if something doesn’t make sense!