I got a training inquiry from a young woman who wants to slow her rope horse down. He's got one speed and it's fast. She's not asking for the moon here, just a nice, relaxed lope every once in a while.
I like rope horses. The well bred ones are big, pretty in the fat cheeked, old timey way I originally fell in love with, congenial and have solid bone.
They go where you point them, move out when they're told and can behave themselves when tied to a trailer all day.
We used to get rope horses in periodically to soften their shoulders and generally lighten their front ends for their roper owners. Other times we got them in to help them change careers, this mainly entailed teaching them to get comfortable on both leads, lightening and limbering their front ends and getting controlled speed on a loose rein.
Because I was low gunzel on the totem pole I was picked to ride most of these horses. Resolving problems like these taught me a bunch as a trainer and left the cow horses for my boss. So he won on both sides and I pretty much came out ahead too.
The biggest aspect I needed to keep was their forward motion. Rope horses move out, and with all the rinky dink stuff we teach our reiners and reined cow horses, it's easy to create a very bendy, twisty thing and not have enough forward. I didn't want to lose all the lovely forward motion, I wanted to shape it.
Stop and go, circling, backing up, these are all things that happen as part of the routine for a rope horse and he's not going to equate this with slowing down. Running until he's tired can be difficult, again, because he's been run until he's tired on a pretty regular basis and it's just part of the days work.He's not bolting, he's doing what he thinks you want.
Special equipment won't work either, he's used to leaning his way through tie-downs and mechanical hacks, so martingales and draw reins will just fold him over, and he'll run that way.
Keep in mind, these horses weren't being bad, they were just working the way they were taught to work. They will go straight and fast no matter what's tossed at them, it's just another day at the Idiot Human Demands Factory and they want off the clock.
I learned through trial and error to keep things simple. First I put the horse in a ring snaffle. The snaffle is my primary tool in teaching shoulder control, so every horse I rode spent time in it, no matter the age or the head gear used prior to the horse coming to me.
I would start making sure I had a turn on the forehand. Then go to the walk and trot with a lot of bends to the left and right. Lots of serpentines and spirals, working to get a light feel through them and control of the shoulders, hindquarters and ribs.
Through all this I didn't pull back. I only went to the left or right. Yes, I got going pretty fast sometimes, but I still only used one rein or the other. The turns would eventually get them slowed down and then I would relax my rein even more, get my legs off and let the horse travel straight for awhile.
Depending on how hot the horse was I might be pulling left or right every few steps, but I always released when the inside shoulder followed my hand and led into the turn.
The sequence I was after is hand, nose, shoulder, foot. I like to get to where the horse will step in the direction of my hand with the inside shoulder leading without pressure from me.
I kept this up for days if needed because it got the horse used to and seeking a loose rein.
Once I had all the parts responding the way I needed them to I moved into transitions. Transitions, transitions, transitions.
At first I didn't have stop and back as part of the deal, just walk, trot, fast walk, fast trot, slow trot, walk etc. I didn't want to lose my momentum and again, a rope horse stops and backs all day and then takes off at a run, this doesn't equate as a discipline to him, at least not at first. My reins stayed loose, I wasn't going to pull back on him, no matter what.
Every time I wanted him to transition up I would squeeze with my legs as a cue. He might over-react at first, but I did it anyway. My reins stayed loose.
All lot of ropers are not ridden with leg contact, rope saddles are designed for the rider to get up and off the horse, not for close contact. So squeeze can mean take off, but I kept asking consistently for what I wanted, if I got too much, I just went to bending until he got back where I wanted him. I needed and expected him to learn a squeeze is a conversation, not a shout.
When I wanted him to transition down I'd exhale, relax my seat and legs, give him 10 seconds or so to respond and then start going right and left until he slowed. I released my hold as soon as I felt him begin to slow. My reins only came in contact one at a time and I didn't switch over until the the nose followed my hand and the shoulder followed the nose. My legs stayed active and helped position him inside or out as needed.
I didn't say Whoa and I don't take my legs completely off, not yet. My reins stayed loose.
When I finally stopped him I relaxed my seat, took my legs completely off and then brought in my hands, if needed, left, right, left, right, in rhythm with his trot, not worrying about the shoulder, just alternating pressure until he stopped. When he stopped I released all pressure and said Whoa. Yes, after he stopped.
Transition, transition, transition, for days if need be. Quiet, consistent, friendly.
When I had control of his body, he could calmly transition up and down, and hold the asked for speed for at least half a lap around the arena, I started thinking about loping.
When we loped I only thought about the lope. I didn't care about a lope depart, I preferred he trot into it at the moment. I didn't care about leads, that's another training issue and I wanted him comfortable at the slower gaits before I worried about leads.
I clucked to signal a trot and kissed for a lope. When I kissed to my rope horse I squeezed at the same time and my reins were what? Loose you say? You betcha!
If (when) he took off I simply sat there. I didn't pick up my reins for at least six or seven strides. Then I'd exhale, relax my seat and legs and began to work his mouth. If he slowed, I released, if he trotted I released, if he stopped I smooched him back into the lope. I didn't say Whoa, I asked him to slow down.
Now I went back to transitions.
I'd warm up at the walk and trot, then go to my lope. When I got a good slow down at the lope I'd quit for the day. Our hard work was still at the walk and trot.
My final step was to lope up the long side of the arena, on a loose rein, and then transition down to a trot about 10 ft. before the corner of the short end. I'd trot through the corner and smooch him back into the lope on the straight away. Pretty soon he'd be thinking about the transition through the corners and he'd slow down on his own.
That's when I'd ask for a Whoa now and then. I'd still relax my seat and take off my legs before I said Whoa, but I didn't wait until he stopped on his own. I'd go ahead and pick up my reins and work his mouth, left right, left, in rhythm with his stride until he stopped.
There's a good start for you. Be careful, be patient and what about those reins???? Stay loose!