Do you find that the only time you begin seriously thinking about lunging your horse is when you are about to ride, and he has just a little bit too much ‘enthusiasm’ for your liking? Or perhaps your idea of lunging is chasing your horse round and round in circles until one or both of you are too tired (or dizzy!) to go any further?
Unfortunately many riders have a completely wrong opinion of lunging. It is thought of as something that, if your horse was fortunate, helped introduce him to the concept of aids, tack, balance and moving forward, but seeing as how he is now backed and riding, it is only used in extreme circumstances – or when the mood for some natural horsemanship takes hold (and I am not quite sure that falls into the lunging category at all!).
Lunging is a wonderful way of adding some change to your horse’s exercise and schooling routine and has many benefits which can be seen and felt for both younger and more experienced horses alike.
Lunging also allows the rider to understand how the horse moves, what motivates the horse to move forward, to visually see how the horse can carry and use his body correctly and also incorrectly and, of course, check for soundness
From the younger horses perspective, lunging helps them to understand how to balance themselves correctly and allows them to become familiar with both the riders aids, particularly the voice aid which can then be transferred over to when being ridden under the saddle, but also it allows them to become comfortable with not only wearing tack, but how it feels to move and work while wearing the tack. Side reins are a great introduction to the concept of contact for young horses and allows them to begin working from behind and into the contact, without having to worry about balancing a rider on top as well.
Just like riding, lunging is a balance that must be continuously reassessed and adjusted for if necessary. Small, subtle actions or non-actions that are thoughtfully carried out is key to successfully lunging your horse
For the more experienced horse, lunging will help them increase their suppleness, both longitudinally and latitudinally. It is a wonderful way to encourage your horse to engage his hind quarter and then connect that energy to the front end, particularly with horses who have become accustomed to travelling with a hollow back. They can really experience how to lift their backs and truly bring their hind quarters underneath them, powering them forward with every stride, rather than being in continuous ‘front wheel drive’, pulling along with the shoulders.
When the horse truly begins to use his back, he can begin to carry himself better, which will help him develop, both physically and also mentally, as he learns about self carriage, again without having the rider on board. It is far easier to then replicate this from the saddle when your horse has experienced it on the lunge, without a rider, first. Lunging is also a great way to communicate with your horse, whether younger or older, the concept of bending through the whole body.
However, the person lunging must first understand the relationship between the horse, the lunge line, their position, the lunge whip and their voice aids
Now, before we go any further I feel it is really important to stress the point that lunging and loose schooling are very different methods of working with horses. They are completely different and I feel that, perhaps due to the popularity of various natural horsemanship methods (which can be a wonderful tool in their own right), the concept and art of true lunging has perhaps become ‘diluted’ in many riders minds.
In lunging, we are trying to replicate different movements that we can later do while in the saddle. In order to do this your horse must be moving forward, however this forwardness must then also be contained in a contact, otherwise your horse will begin to run.
Before you begin actually lunging, make sure you are in a suitable area. A large round pen, and enclosed arena (which I suggest using one end or a corner to lunge in, or if you are in a field or large paddock try, again, to use a corner but if possible build a temporary fence with jumping poles or similar to create a smaller space.
Your horse’s attention should be on you throughout the time you are working on the lunge, and often a smaller, more enclosed space can help to keep the focus on you, your body language and voice
Correctly fitting tack is also essential and I would also suggest the use of brushing boots, especially if it is a young horse you are working with as their balance might not be the best initially! A cavesson can be fitted with the bridle if necessary and of course, you will need a lunge line / rope and a lunge whip. I also strongly urge you to wear gloves and your riding helmet when lunging. A playful buck might just be directed your way and it is always better to be safe than sorry!
Side reins are a great addition to your lunging equipment. However, correct use of them is essential to your horse’s correct training and development. Many riders are tempted to fit them too tightly, so their horse is ‘on the bit’ while being lunged… Keep in mind, on the bit is only the result of a lot of other pieces being correctly assembled or established when your horse is working. Fixing your horse’s head and neck will only result in your horse learning to hollow his back, and also, lean against the contact, both habits being the sort that will take quite a bit of time and expertise to undo once established!
Your side reins should be used to communicate with your horse that the contact will be consistent and, equally as important, he should work into it. Side reins are also a fantastic way, when applied the correct way so as both reins are equal, to see if you horse is truly bending. Just like when riding, the outside rein will ‘fill up’ and the inside rein will become ‘soft’. Don’t fall victim to the temptation to make one side rein shorter than the other in an attempt to ‘bend’ your horse. This will only result in your horse becoming heavy and leaning on the inside rein, rather than being soft and light.
Once you assessed that you are indeed ready to begin working your horse on the lunge line, open every lunging session by bringing your horse to the center of the circle you will be working on. Your horse should have a basic understanding of ‘Go’ and ‘Whoa’ while being led before you begin lunging and this will become useful when your horse is working. From the center begin asking your horse to walk forward, while moving out away from you.
Keep in mind that your position in relation to your horse and also your angle of hips and shoulders to your horse while lunging is constantly communicating messages to your horse, throughout the process
Just like when actually in the saddle, your contact (in this case with the lunge line) and your forward or driving aids (your lunge whip, voice and also body position / language), are a vital part of the equation. Just like when you are riding, your horse must be moving forward before you can begin making any adjustments to what is happening.
Do not allow your horse to cross into your space. I find that a great way to instill this concept with your horse is to make sure that when he halts, to finish his work, he does so on the ‘outer track’. He must then wait for you to go out and ‘fetch’ him, before he can come back into the center of the circle. If you allow him to turn into you each time you want to change rein, you are only serving to confuse your horse and eliminate any boundaries that you are working to create!
I would also encourage you to experiment with your body language and position to your horse while lunging. Notice at what position he associates you with no longer asking for forward. Notice where he associates your location to him with downward transitions. If you can begin to notice how your horse views your body language, you can then begin to refine the communication between you both, to ask for more quality work every time you are lunging your horse.
Lunging truly does require a certain amount of discipline, accuracy and finesse from both horse and rider to be truly beneficial to your horse’s training and your education. Becoming good at lunging takes skill, which takes time and plenty of practice to acquire. However, investing yourself in becoming a master at this particular practice is well worth the effort in the long run, for both your and your horses.