Once you are comfortable riding your horse at both a walk and trot, the next speed is a lope. The nice thing is that a lope, although faster, is actually easier and smoother to ride than a trot.
Since a lot of our guests are here in Utah visiting Zion or Bryce Canyon National Park, and are quite new to horseback riding, I have come up with a few strategies that greatly improve a horseback rider;s ability to ride a horse at a faster speed, even if he is quite new to horseback riding.
1. The easiest way to learn how to lope is to lope uphill. When the horse is loping uphill, it creates an angle that makes it almost impossible for the rider to fall off as long as he simply leans forward. The way I teach a beginner to horseback riding to sit is to lean quite forward and put one hand directly on top of the saddle horn to protect his chest from hitting it, and give the horse his head until he is all the way at the top of the hill. Personally, I very rarely lope or even trot a horse up a hill because it is very good for a horse's mind and muscle building to walk up the hill instead. However, if the horse is quite used to the trail and is not of a high-strung temperament, it will not hurt him to lope uphill every once in a while.
2. If we are on flat ground, I will often tell the rider to lean forward a little and to stand up in the saddle just barely so that his back pockets touch the back of the saddle (called the "cantle"). Leaning forwad a little and standing up just a little as the horse lopes will cause you to bounce only slighly, and in a back-and-forth rhythm somewhat like a rocking chair instead of bouncing up and down right in the middle of the seat. Since we often lope in areas that are full of grass, anthill mounds, small logs, and other obstacles, the horse will probably not lope in a perfect rhythmic motion and may even have to jump over a few small things. Leaning forward a bit as the horse lopes allows the rider to be just a little bit more prepared for these kinds of sudden movements.
3. If the horse is loping in at a collected lope, with his body quite underneath himself, the horseback rider should sit in the saddle, weight totally in the seat, and simply ride with the horse's motion, never leaving the saddle even slightly. Many horseback riding schools will test their students by having them lope around the arena with a small piece of paper between them and the saddle seat. If they lose the paper, they fail the test. This may sound difficult, but I assure you it is really quite easy provided the horseback rider is relaxed (forcing himself to breath) and provided the horse is moving in a collected manner.
4. Loping a horse downhill, if done at all, should only be done very sparingly. Just like it would to a human, loping or running downhill can hurt a horse's joints and tendons. In addition, it is much more difficult to stop, and the stop you do get will be far from correct and will also be a stop that is quite hard on the horse's front legs. There simply is no real benefit to loping or running a horse down a hill, which is why I only do it if it is an emergency (which thankfully has not happened for quite some time.)
If you are ever in Utah, and especially if you come to either Zion or Bryce Canyon National Park, I hope to have you out here for a horseback riding adventure you won't soon forget!