Lunging horses is an art and many things go wrong in riding arenas and round pens with this training method. This article explains how to correctly train your horse on the lunge, in harmony.
I see it all the time: An uptight horse, tied down with side reigns falling in while almost falling asleep walking or pulling out of the circle rushing to get away from this torture.
This variety often comes with wannabe dressage people who have never read a book on dressage training.
The other example: A “natural horsemanship” trainer chasing a wild-eyed horse around a round pen, the horse leaning heavily into the circle like a motorcycle and carrying all of its weight on the front legs with no balance or training effect whatsoever.
Both of the above are what’s wrong with lunging!
I have long promised a post on how to lunge a horse correctly, so here it comes… let’s start with clarifying your tools:
The best, and only correct way of lunging, is to use a Cavesson.
A cavesson does not hinder the horse in its forward movement, encourages a long stretched neck and gives you the possibility to ask for head positioning (“Stellung”) with very little pressure. It is also priceless with horses that are spooky or tend to pull you after them around the arena, as a little Stellung towards you hinders it from storming off.
Make sure to use a soft leather cavesson with D-rings set into the leather noseband and a strap around the fleshy part of the cheeks, ideally set right under the horse’s eyes. This cheek strap avoids rubbing and getting into your buddy’s eye.
Here’s where you can order this beautiful cavesson: http://www.elcaballo.de/kappzaeume
I’ve seen some quite useful nylon cavessons, too – and those aren’t very expensive. Just make sure that they sit tight and don’t rub around the head.
Should you have neither, then see if you can tighten your stable halter (not ideal as it acts backwards on the nose) so it doesn’t slide around on the head or just use the lunge tied in a loop around your horse’s neck – this way you cannot hurt your horse at all, but it also doesn’t allow you to control it very well either.
You will also need a lunge and a whip. To start yourself and the horse with this new training method you might prefer using a 5 m rope instead of a long lunge, this way you’ll have less to handle in your hands, but you’ll need to walk more.
I like to use a long dressage whip for everything, also lunging – or a nice touchier whip is also very useful. If you don’t have either, a long lunging whip will do the job.
Before each exercise session, show the whip to your horse and softly stroke it along its shoulder, then the back and hind legs, its belly, its chest and finally its neck on both sides to make sure it isn’t suspicious or downright terrified of this very useful training aid.
Lastly, I can only recommend putting gaiters or wraps on the front legs as injuries can happen easily while lunging. You might want to use gloves to avoid burns, too.
What NOT to use: side reins, bridles with bits, rope halters or any other gadgetry as those are completely counter-productive to training on the lunge.
Now we’ve clarified what to use, lets start with the start:
Preparing for lunging
To make sure your communication will work 20 m apart from your horse, make sure that your voice cues and body language work well while leading in the partner position alongside your buddy’s neck – practise walking, halting, changing speed and gaits (well, if you don’t train a pony you’ll be stuck with walk and trot while leading) and make sure to practice all of this leading from both sides.
Then practice the same again from a different leading position: see if all of the above works effortlessly when you are positioned in the middle of the horse, where the girth would be when saddled.
When that works, you can start increasing distance between the two of you while walking together. Do this by gently pushing your horse away with the handle of your whip – pointed at the middle of the horse, imitating your leg aid while riding and your squared chest turned towards your horse’s body.
Try not to step backwards, as this will probably cause your horse to turn in and follow you. This might take a while with young horses who still like to sit on your lap or less confident horses – be patient and just repeat your asking it to move away a little, praise any effort immediately.
A word of warning here: Do not try to lunge a horse that is overly agitated, scared or stressed-out by something. You can only teach a calm and concentrated horse!
If you can’t get your horse to calm down by leading it slowly through the arena a few times, then you two aren’t ready for lunging yet.
In your case I’d recommend turning it loose (if arena is empty and enclosed) and let it buck it out for a few minutes, when it has calmed down a little you can engage it in some liberty work which is very useful in building trust, improving communication between you and giving your horse confidence.
First lunging exercises
If you two have mastered the above exercises while leading and your horse is calm and attentive, you can now start with the first lunging exercises.
If your horse is completely new to lunging it might be beneficial to have a helping hand for the first few times. Your aid leads the horse by the side of the cavesson around the circle while you remain in the middle of the circle holding the lunge with a soft contact to the nose and the whip pointed at its hindquarters. This way the horse can get used to the idea of walking around you, without any unnecessary stress or pressure.
Make sure to pick a very wide circle to begin with, 20 m is ideal with three sides of the circle at the walls or fence. The fence helps the horse to balance itself, it sort of “leans” on it. It is very normal that your horse will “fall out” of the circle on the open side in the beginning, gently nudge him back by very fine “tack, tack, tack” movements with the lunge.
Whenever interacting with your aids, remember a horse can feel a tiny fly – so no need to pull with all your might, a finger movement might be enough.
Once your horse is used to the idea, you can begin by shortening the lunge to about 5 m distance, position yourself at the horse’s belly, facing him. Between your horse’s body, the lunge line in your right hand (horse is walking on the right hand) and the whip in your left hand (pointed at the tail, same height as lunge) there should always be a triangle.
Try not to get behind the horse or in front of it by accident as these are driving and slowing aids respectively if used intentionally.
NOTE: If you horse is whip-shy or suspicious of the long stick, quite common in youngsters, make double sure to show it and do the stroking routine. With these horses you might want to avoid pointing he whip at their hindquarters until they are completely fine around it as this might provoke them to kick at it.
Then let your horse walk at a steady pace around the arena, it’s easier for the young or poorly-trained horse to walk on straight lines first as this doesn’t require bend and you can avoid false bends, balance issues, falling out or in by practising around the arena fence first. Now you have time to get used to handling your equipment and using driving aids correctly.
Once this works you can go back on a wide circle.
If your horse falls into the circle, leaning in like the aforementioned motorcycle, you can use the horizontal whip more towards its middle, again mimicking your leg aid, to drive him out while simultaneously using the very soft “tack, tack, tack” on the lunge to ask for Stellung.
If your horse falls or even pulls out of the circle, probably its neck bend excessively inwards, but its body dragging outward over the shoulder, you are probably to strong with your lunge aids or the circle is too tight for it to manage the bend yet. Slow down, widen the circle or go straight for a bit, then ask for a little Stellung and bend again, while also gently driving it forwards with the whip.
Congrats! Now you guys can start to work together on the lunge proper!
While in the middle of the circle, don’t stand rigid turning around your stationary inside leg. This is what it should look like some day, but we’re not in a rush and your horse still needs you to help it moving around the circle smoothly. So keep your feet moving! Ideally you would describe a small circle of about 5 metres while your horse keeps to the outside of the arena on as big a circle as possible, still benefiting from three cornered sides.
Anything to make the task easier!
The big circle we start out on has several reasons:
- It’s easier for your horse to move along the fenced outer line which helps it balance itself correctly.
- It goes easy on the joints as the forces aren’t as intense as on smaller bends.
- It helps both of you achieving correct bend little by little. Your horse is not used to walking in a bend, it’s still somewhat stiff and needs to build the right muscle structure for this kind of exercise first.
Next, you start practising transitions on the lunge. Again, with a young or lesser trained horse you can’t expect perfect transitioning yet, so we work with longer periods in one gait to start with. First it might be a full round in the walk, before we go to trot, then two rounds trotting before we go back to walk. Once that works well on both sides, we can decrease the periods in a specific gait.
Also with these horses the transitions, especially the downwards ones, will not be immediate. With patient practice they will come quicker and more promptly.
Always make sure to change hand often and practice the same exercises and time periods in each direction.
With a young horse we will practice walk-trot / trot-walk transitions and then changes of speed at the trot for several weeks, before starting work at the gallop. It will be much easier for you and your buddy if you give him some time to find his balance and rhythm before galloping.
Only after all three gaits are performed steadily in all speeds asked and transitions work effortlessly, can you start decreasing the size of the circle and start increasing bend.
Throughout all of your lunging work, you want to encourage your horse to not only move balanced and rhythmic, but also encourage calm but energetic forward movement which improves the swinging of the back and the action of his hindquarters.
You’ll notice he’ll step under and over and reach further with each practice as he learns to carry weight as well as propel forward using his hind legs.
Most importantly we want a relaxed and engaged horse stretching forward-downward frequently.
Here’s what the ideal trot looks like:
After all this explaining on how to do it and what to use for lunging, I still owe you the reasons for actually doing it at all…
Benefits of lunging
Why do we actually lunge horses?
What lunging is definitely NOT for is to cool off a hot horse before a ride. You won’t have an enjoyable ride on a tired-out horse that’s been chased around a circle for half an hour. Please see my “word of warning” and recommended exercises above for this purpose.
Lunging has many benefits to training your horse:
- It’s a great way to build relationship and improve your horse’s confidence.
- It improves your communication, body language and overall harmony.
- Lunging gives you the opportunity to observe your horse from afar, assessing its training progress, making sure it shows clean gaits and moves freely.
- By use of this training method you can prepare a young or rehab horse for riding as it builds muscles and greatly improves balance.
- Lunging is very useful in making your horse more flexible by asking for correct Stellung and with it the correct bend: a perfect line from poll to tail
Finally, I’d like to remind you that also with lunging a proper warm-up is required by walking your horse at least 10 – 15 minutes and then letting it trot easily for another 5 – 10 before asking it for “work”.
And most importantly with all training you do, do not tire your horse out!
That cowboy wisdom “a tired horse is a happy horse” is complete BS.
Think about it: In nature, a flight animal like the horse that is too tired to run away from the tiger is a dead horse.
After all, horses don’t play on the meadow until they are completely exhausted either.
So, make sure to always train your horse in harmony!