I’ve had several people tell me, “I would be so scared to try that with my horse, you are so brave.” It makes me chuckle when I hear this because here’s the truth: I’m the world’s biggest chicken.
Having a well-trained horse does not make me brave, it just means I’m too much of a chicken to get on one that isn’t well-trained. I’ve got a spinal injury and nerve damage in my left arm (lessons hard learned on why it is important not to get on a poorly trained horse), so there is no way I am taking unnecessary risks.
This is the beginning of a 3-part series that will cover my 3 most important exercises that every horse needs to know to make them a safe riding companion:
In this first section, we will cover lunging. No, I’m not talking about running around like a giraffe at the Kentucky Derby. I mean walking calmly in a circle without the poor lunger (is there even a noun for that?) flapping along behind like a cartoon kite. I’m talking about, what I will refer to as, classical lunging, the kind used in classical dressage (or a simplified version of it anyway).
The Purpose of Classical Lunging
Too many of us have gotten used to using lunging as a scapegoat cure-all too “take the edge off” at shows and “run them down” before lessons, but, when used properly, a horse should be able to, at bare minimum, walk and trot calmly on the lunge with the saddle and bridle on before being ridden.
This is important because it helps the horse associate a saddle and bridle with being calm. This sounds like such a simple thing to do, but it is the closest thing I’ve found to real magic.
- Lunge line
I prefer a nice flat one. It is easier to hold and control. Some of them have those heavy rubber stoppers on the end through. I just cut those off because all they do is tangle up the lines.
- Lunge whip
Having the saddle on is important because it allows the horse to associate the saddle with being calm and relaxing. The whole point is to teach the horse to relax under saddle and it won’t work if you don’t put the saddle on every time you lunge the horse.
- Bridle with snaffle
We’re talking about ring snaffles here. Bits with any type of shank are not snaffles. I usually use a nice western D-ring, but if you have a horse that pulls a lot you might want to try one with a half- or full-cheek to keep it from sliding through the mouth.
- Boots if your horse needs them
- A fenced in arena if you don’t know how your horse will react to lunging
- Lots of time and patience
That last one is key. Don’t try this when you’re on a time limit. If you have a deadline you will get tense and worried. That tension will transfer to your horse and the whole thing will only take that much longer. Don’t think you can lie to the horse either. Horses are the world’s most accurate lie detectors. Don’t try to bluff your way into relaxation. Trust me. Just don’t.
If you truly have no time limit and are able to just stand there like “ok, Sparky, I’ve got all day, canter away,” he’ll get the hint pretty fast. He’ll try and call your bluff. But, in my experience, horses are far less patient then they want us to believe.
Stage 1: Concept Lesson
When putting the horse on the lunge for the first time, I prefer to run the line up over the poll.
This makes sure the bit stays centered in the horse’s mouth if he decides to pull.
Next, pick the direction you think your horse will go best in or just flip a coin. Send the horse off in that direction at a walk. Now, here’s the tricky part. In my experience, this is the part where a lot of horses will say “oh, I know how to do this!” and bolt off at a trot or canter. Resist the urge to crank on them and try to force them to come down. As long as no one is in any danger, let them trot or canter it out. Talk to them. Lots of “aaaaand waaaaaaalk, eaaaaasy boy.” Keep your body posture calm and relaxed.
Don’t get frustrated! I promise, you will win. Patience is key.
Some horses may prefer if you just let the whip on the ground for now. The longest I’ve had a horse canter in the first session was 25 minutes (yes, you read that right, 25 minutes), but that was back when the little arab-cross in the photos was still hopped up on alfalfa and a complete nutball. Several weeks of this exercise did her a world of good. During her initial training, she spent another 25 minutes after she stopped cantering doing this weird little hopping half canter half trot thing. Fortunately, she no longer does that. During this photo shoot, she didn’t canter at all and it only took 3 minutes for her to come down from the trot. Most horses take 5 to 10 minutes of trotting then give it up the first time and figure out that walking is way easier.
When the horse starts walking, you need to make sure they are walking forward. This means they should not be slouching along slower than a crippled snail, but actually putting a little effort into walking. Bear in
mind though, if your horse was hot, spooky, and took a while to come down to a walk you need to be subtle about how you push them forward in the walk. If you accidentally push them a little too far and they start trotting again, it’s ok. Talk to him. Ask him to walk but don’t force it. Open the door and let him come back down on his own. Remember, horses are lazy critters at heart. Once you open that door, they’ll go through, it just takes some of them longer to figure out than others.
Once the horse is walking on the lunge, you want to look for signs of relaxation. The first sign is putting the head down further. The next signs you look for, and the signs that signal you horse is ready to stop for the first session are sighing or licking and chewing. With sighing, you are looking for a deep, full body sigh that is sometimes followed by a shake of the head. The other option is licking the lips and chewing. Even a little lick of the lips is a sign of relaxation. More importantly, it is a sign of thinking. Any of these are signs that the first session should be ended so that the horse can think things over. But you should never just jerk him to a stop. Prepare him to stop. I like to say “Aaaaand whooooa.” This is usually accompanied by stepping out in front of him slightly, not far enough to get run over, but enough to catch his attention. Repeat the whoa, but let him take his time stopping. Let him stand a moment before unhooking him and officially ending the session. Don’t turn around and go the other way. This is a concept lesson. Going the other direction will come later.
Stage 2: Tracking Up While Lunging
Start the next session going the same way as Stage 1. Some horses will need to have the concept lesson from Stage 1 reinforced a few times before moving on to the next step. That’s fine. Take your time. You know they get the concept when you send them out on the circle and you see that moment of hesitation before they pick up a trot. That is good. Even if they trot, that means they are thinking about what they are doing and that probably means that it won’t take more than a few minutes for them to come back to a walk. The difference in Stage 2 comes when they drop to a walk and start showing those signs of relaxation. Rather than quitting, we move on to the next stage. This is often where I’ll move the lunge line from over the poll to on the inside ring of the bit because we’ve gotten the horse over the pulling and are ready to focus on the walking.
Note in the left photo how our model’s (Pascal’s) neck is taking on that rounded curve and her front right leg is really swinging forward, but it is loose and relaxed, not stiff and tense. Now look at the right photo. Note how Pascal’s head is level with her withers and how far forward Pascal’s back leg is coming under her. That is how you know she is relaxed but still putting effort into the walk. You can see how the back hoof is actually landing in the exact spot that her front hoof just left. This is called tracking up. This is a sign that the horse is walking correctly. Now, many horses are not going to be tracking up this far to start with. Some horses are naturally blessed with the ability to do this quite easily while others have to work hard to get anywhere close to this good.
The picture from stage 1 is more what many will be seeing in the early days of this exercise, so don’t get discouraged too quickly. These are just to show you what you are working towards. This is something that will simply develop as your horse practices walking correctly. This is also the stage where we work going both direction around the circle. For this exercise to be most effective, I do not recommend riding your horse until you get through Stage 2. This may take a few days for some horses.
Once you get your horse starting to track up, it’s time for the final step.
Stage 3: Putting It All Together
When you are ready to move on to Stage 3, you lunge the horse like in stage 2. However, once you get the horse moving good at the walk in both directions, it is time to hop in the saddle for short rides. This is a test to see how well the lunging went. If you did the first 2 stages correctly, your horse should relax fairly quickly under saddle. A big key for success here is not to let yourself get tense. If you get tense the horse gets tense and you throw all that hard work out the window. You need to trust your horse. Try riding in an enclosed area to start with so you can feel comfortable putting your horse on a loose rein. You will be amazed how quickly many horses will step up and take responsibility for themselves if you just give them a chance and stop worrying and micromanaging.
If you have successfully gotten through this stage it is generally a matter of practicing and continuing to do your homework. Keeping doing the lunging, start taking longer rides, start practicing relaxing at the trot on the lunge and use the same steps to transfer it to under saddle work. You will be amazed at how well most horses respond to this type of relaxed, methodical, training.
Modeling credit for all the lunging photos goes to Pascal, the little arab-cross mare who has quickly transformed herself into a solid citizen after several days of lunging. Credit for the stock photo at the beginning goes to Moose.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Lateral Flexion at the Poll (not in the neck)!
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