BY Emily Elek
I believe that every horse should be trained on how to lunge properly. This is a safety issue so that anytime they need to rehab, are stuck in inclement weather, need to stretch off-site, or simply put their mind to work and relax, every horse can have the option to be lunged in a productive manner for the rest of their life.
Unfortunately, lunging often has a similar reputation to bad lunging. Bad lunging is a terrible thing for your horse. It leads to injuries, sour horses, dangerous situations, frustrated staff, and could also land you on a list of barns to whom I (and many others) will not lease or sell ponies.
Correct and proper lunging is all about relaxation and building better fitness, musculature, blood flow, and establishing training boundaries for the next stages. Think of lunging like riding—good lunging, like good riding, is a positive experience for every horse.
- Establish good groundwork and leading in daily interaction.
Good lunging starts the second you see your horse. Having good boundaries about your bubble and your horse respecting you while leading will all come through while lunging. You can start in the aisle or leading to the paddock reinforcing your verbal commands. Use “whoa” to halt from the walk when you arrive at the cross ties, and “walk on” heading out of the stall or cross ties when the lead rope is properly fastened. If your horse is climbing in your lap or constantly in your personal bubble, lunging will always remain difficult.
- Verbally praise your horse or rub their neck at appropriate times.
- Always walk forward before you turn or spin your horse around in a tight space.
- Lead your horse from both sides so that they are comfortable listening to you on either side of their halter or body.
- Feel free to breathe and take a moment at any point while training.
- Take your horse for hand walks around the horse show to look around, graze, and stretch as frequently as you are able.
- Give them treats while in the aisle, leading, or lunging.
- Let them walk all over you or walk into your ‘bubble’- always make sure they respect your personal space and you walk into their space as opposed to them walking into your space.
- Practice lunging.
Your horse should never peel away from you on a tear. If that is their instinct or something they have learned along the way, take the time in the barn or at home in low-stress situations to redefine your expectations. Horses should walk on the lunge line at the start until they are told otherwise. Establishing this reduces injury and helps the goal of having a happy and relaxed horse at the end of the training session. Any horse that is frantic or cross cantering or launching around is counterproductive to the goal of lunging.
- Let your horse walk in both directions for 10 minutes each at the start of each session.
- Request transitions both directions to make sure they are paying attention to you—”whoa” to halt; “walk on”; “whoa”; “walk on.”
- Ask them to trot and work on keeping the entire session civilized. If they want to play, make sure they keep moving forward, are fully on one lead or the other, and are paying attention to you.
- Don’t hesitate to take walk breaks throughout the training session. Your horse is focusing on you and if you are working with a youngster or a rehab horse, frequent working walk breaks are going to keep everyone focused on trotting and cantering with correct form when you get back to it.
- Use the correct equipment.
Most of the lunging I do is to get horses to stretch and relax and so that is usually best accomplished without any tack or gadgets. Given the expectation for good behavior and practice calm lunging at home, I am comfortable lunging with a lunge line clipped to only the bottom ring of a halter on most animals.
With that said, tack (like all training) comes down to individual needs. The young horses and ponies I am starting will often lunge tacked up with a halter over their bridle so that they can grow accustomed to tack and moving around and getting comfortable with their bit, bridle, reins. I will start young horses with the stirrups securely up and then will over time let the stirrups down so that they can calmly be accustomed to a rider’s leg moving around a bit while they’re trotting and cantering around.
If you build a jump on your lunging circle, which can be a great training tool for a horse to learn to study a jump on their own, make sure any tack you use is compatible and safe with jumping.
- Don’t use anything that digs into their body—I often see very tight bungees at horse shows digging into their back or withers. This can cause way more damage than good. Tight rigging of any sort can cause bracing and lead to nerve damage or compensatory postures.
- Don’t tie their head down. This is never productive—either they have the musculature to hold themselves correctly or they will do something to compensate for their inability that could injure them. If you need to build musculature, remember that it will take months or years. Correctly adjusted equipment like side reins, EquiBands, and Pessoa rigs can help a horse to learn to carry itself in a more correct posture. However, you want to start with these devices loosely adjusted and for a short period of time. Gradually increase the time the horse works in these devices.
- For you, always wear gloves, sturdy work or paddock boots, and I recommend keeping your helmet on, especially with youngsters, rehab horses, or in stressful situations.
- Carry a lunge whip or a dressage whip so that you can raise and lower with your voice commands. You might not need it after a few months, but it is always correct to have to raise and lower in the air to reinforce your voice commands.
- Take some deep breaths and calmly start over as many times as you need to during the lunging session.
- Lunge less, more often. Don’t be afraid to take your horse out to walk or walk and light trot first thing in the morning and then a little more later before you ride. Especially with young horses with short attention spans and lower musculature build, rehab horses, or horses stuck in their horse show stall, an extra walk or walk-trot outing in a day—even if only for ten minutes—can work wonders for their brains, blood flow, and muscle and tissue repair.
- Use every inch of space you can to diminish the turning radius. Purchase long lunge lines and be in active motion to keep turning motions to the minimum possible within your space constraints.
- If there is a limited lunging situation at a horse show, wait patiently for the largest lunging pad or the one with the best footing. You can walk and stroll around your place in line to keep your horse moving while you wait or come back later and use your first outing as a hand walk.
- Don’t compromise your plan. Others might try to rush you or stress you out—plenty of people might be in a hurry for your space. You can come back later or determine who has priority based on who is showing soon, or who has reserved the ring space at home. The pressure to ‘get it done now’ versus being calm and purposeful is very real and you need to resist it.
- Be picky about who lunges your horse and how much training they have had.
Lunging should never be a job for someone rushed or a brand new hire to the barn. Proper lunging allows horses to stretch in the morning at a horse show and relax, build muscle and cardiovascular fitness at home and relax, or to get a horse out of their stall during inclement weather and relax. Persons who are not well trained will not be able to facilitate the relaxation part, and persons who are rushed may not spend the proper time walking both before and after the main workout.
If you and your horse are both learning to lunge together, schedule sessions to be under your trainer’s watchful eye. If you are able to learn from your trainer with a more experienced horse, that is always ideal so that you can get comfortable with the expectations for you before you work on a younger, greener, rehabbing, or otherwise more challenging horse.
The more you can relax with your horse, which comes with experience, the better you will be at lunging them correctly. The more you do groundwork and handle your horse on the ground, the more comfortable you will get. Make sure that everything you do before, during, and after lunging, is done with intention and fully present attention.
Emily Elek breeds, trains, leases and sells top hunter ponies from the first ride to Pony Finals winners. She is known for THE SPREADSHEET, which is updated daily. She sells or leases over 150 ponies per year and her passion is starting young ponies for their horse show careers and matching them with appropriate riders.
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