There’s no faster way to a low score in a reining class than your horse loping in the incorrect lead. Since you will deducted one point for every quarter circle that you are not in the correct lead, and there are twelve circles in every reining pattern, the penalty points can add up! And before we go any further, if your horse is correct in front and incorrect behind, he is not “half right”!!
The lope and leads are hand-in-hand. When a horse lopes, he will be in the right lead, the left lead, or disunited (not ever desirable!) If you watch a horse loping, it will appear that either the left or right fore and hind legs are carried more forward. He is in the left lead if the left legs are extending forward; he is in the right lead if the right leads are extending more forward. If he is disunited, he will be in the right lead in front and left lead behind or vice-versa.
The “correct” lead for left circles is the left lead; the correct lead for right circles is the right lead.
I expect my horses to learn to lope a lot of circles. After my horse is well warmed up with basic suppling exercises, jogging and trotting, I will usually (always on the youngsters) ask for the lope from a posting trot. On the two-year-olds, if I am trotting, I sit down (but lightly – not hard enough to stop), keep some weight in the outside strirrup, move my hands forward and say “lope”. Then I make a “kissing” sound. This works like a charm on a colt that I have never loped but have asked to lope on the lunge line with a “kiss”. Later, and on my trained reining horses, I school the lead departure in the correct lead from a walk or stop (a future post on Reining Training Tips) so I don’t incur penalty points by starting my circle in the wrong lead. The following video demonstates the lope and leads:
What can go wrong?
Sometimes a horse does not seem comfortable in one lead and always uses the other – even when it is the outside lead e.g. he lopes in the right lead on a left circle. This often happens on a two year old that is just learning to lope. If he picks up the incorrect lead, I do not punish him. If it is the first time we loped, I want to make sure to reward him for loping! But this can’t go on for long, of course. After I know he will lope when I ask, I want the correct lead too. I drop back down to a trot if he picks up the wrong lead and try to feel his natural balance and use that to my advantage. There will usually be one part of the circle where I can feel he is more likely to be correct. If he has missed the lead several times, I make sure to change the place in the circle where I asked because he has “learned” to miss it in that spot. Also, I make sure I keep outside rein pressure on him to keep him on the track and help with the outside leg. So much of this is timing – feeling when the horse is in a position to automatically take the correct lead.
I like a pretty loper. There can be quite a difference in the way horses lope. Some of it is training and the different styles of the trainer – very collected or natural way of going for instance. That is personal preference, but the way a horse lopes – the way he is built and the way he uses his body – cannot be changed. My opinion is: Ride a good loper because a great portion of the time the judge is watching him in the reining pen, he is loping!