Lunging horses – why bother?

I’ve learned so much about horses by watching them – particularly the countless ones I’ve watched revolve around me on the lunge line.(One at a time of course). I’ve learned to “read horse” by studying the subtleties of body language and facial expression, noting signs of stress, distraction and relaxation.

  Lunging has tuned my eye- comparing the movement of hundreds of different horses, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses in their ways of going. Like a teller who handles countless “sound” bills will be quick to detect a counterfeit, it’s in watching the profile of so many sound horses that even a subtle lameness will be noted by the rider who lunges.  Such minor unsoundness may be missed under saddle. More than a chance to blow off steam, lunging is an extension of your training. In fact, research and experience indicates that letting a horse rip around and “ get it out of his system” is counterproductive and only winds up a prey animal more!

I love Canadian vaulting team lunger’s Alisa Schmidt’s description:

“Lunging is deceptively challenging: countless hours of practice, a great amount of imperceptible effort, and laser-focused attention goes into making a performance look easy and natural. Lungers are judged on a variety of factors beyond just the horse’s directed actions, including position, use of aids, presentation and entry into the ring…The lunger and the horse are one unit. The vaulter can do whatever the vaulter wants to do on top, but it’s the lunger that actually is in charge of the horse – the vaulter has no influence whatsoever. …Furthermore, as the level of competition increases, so must the lunger’s proficiency in controlling the horse – not only to accept more advanced moves, but also to handle more intense atmospheres.”

  1. .Longeing has kept me safe! I won’t climb aboard a horse that’s distracted, resistant to pressure, or way too fresh. In short, I want him to be mentally ready to answer yes to every request by the time I mount up. Otherwise I’m setting the horse up to ignore my cues like a Mom who wants to talk to her teen about his exam study plans at Disneyworld.
  2. Lunging educates the horse. If done correctly, lunging  teaches a green horse mental discipline,  to balance and organize himself in a frame at all gaits and  transitions, without the added stress of a rider. Lunging in an unfamiliar environment says, “Even though you’re experiencing sensory overload right now, let’s remember those skills you’re familiar with in this place, just like we do at home.” The language we use on the ground extends to the conversation under saddle and at a horse show.

Now let’s take a look at 5 LUNGE LINE LAPSES…

  1. Out of control. The horse is oblivious to the trainer and whirls around at his pace of choice (usually whinnying). Remember that groundwork  reminds your horse to be attentive to you, the dance leader, no matter what the environment.. When you move towards his shoulder and point your whip, make sure he yields away from you, widening the circle. Never step back from the horse to keep your lunge line taut – move him away from you.  When you gesture your whip toward his hind end, you should expect him to accelerate promptly.  If he ignores your cluck and raised whip, follow up by flicking him with the tassel -only enough to wake him up, no stagecoach cracking!
  2. Mindless miles on the odometre.  Here, lunging is simply exercise – a way to wear the horse down without thought to any training. Instead, ask your horse lots of questions in your conversation to keep him connected to you…Will you move away from me? Will you move forward? Will you slow down? Change your location – lunge around the perimeter of the ring.
  3. Constant dialogue.  Keep your commands simple. Horses understand tone, more than the words themselves.  Like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, chattering so desensitized your horse to your movement and voice that he won’t respond when you really mean it. Voice commands, ignored by my horse will be followed up with my whip or pressure from my lunge line.
  4. Tug of war. I insist that the horse find his own balance and doesn’t pull on me – the lunge line is always soft between him and me. Leaning on my hand will teach him to lean on my aids under saddle.   My hand communicates a thoughtful “resist and release” – a horse feels no pressure from on his head as long as he stays within the perimeter of the circle. 
  5. Fishtailing and “playing”.  I figure horses can save their bucking for the paddock .Research shows that, as prey animals, the faster a horse’s legs go, the faster his heart and mind go– so expressing the flight response, makes a hot horse even hotter.  If they’re fresh they can trot all they want, but ripping around on a tight circle causes the strain to joints. I keep my horses aligned by “circling” in straight lines if possible (more like line driving) and using side reins to keep his train cars on the track. Finally, I prefer a horse to remain perpendicular to me when he stops. Turning in towards me opens the door to invading my space and possibly turning around.

Focused and purposeful lunging is a great horse training tool, helping to keep you safe, and your horse, sound!