Everyone has either ridden a horse or watched one being ridden and thought: “Whoops, should have lunged that camel!”
In its most basic form lunging can be an effective tool for dispersing excess energy, while more advanced lunging techniques can help the horse to improve transitions, build responsiveness and stretch the top line. BUT, be mindful that lunging is only one component of good groundwork – it’s not a short cut to the miles necessary for a calm school master.
Does lunging calm the horse down?: Lunging is no silver bullet. Quite often it’s the horse who lunges the poor rider who just gets dizzy, exasperated and bucked off anyway. If your pampered, and possibly overfed, pony is a little too animated, you may think that the best way to get rid of all that vibrant energy is to lunge them.
Mmm … let’s be a little more scientific. Let’s try to identify what might be causing your horse to behave like an energizer bunny inside a pinball machine.
Firstly, check the feed is properly balanced and appropriate for the work you’re doing. Unless the Melbourne Cup or an Olympic cross country course are on your horizon, lower the intensity of energy and protein – less pellets, more roughage. Hay is your friend. Get some expert advice (but not from the local grain merchant!).
Remembering that regular lunging for long periods will just make your horse fitter so that they can bounce around for longer, changing the diet could be a better long-term solution to bad behaviour!
Secondly, try to have a longer ride the day before the competition, and on the day, consider a short ride before loading up and heading out. This can really help with a young or a hot horse, although some horses just aren’t calm by nature.
Appropriate lunging can improve the horse: Make sure lunging is interesting and requires the horse to concentrate. This way you can work through excess energy while also improving your horse’s work.
While your horse is walking and trotting around the yard pay attention to the way their body moves. On which part of a circle do they drift in or out? Do they fall in on the left or the right rein? Most horses will have one side that’s a little more convex than the other, and lunging can really help the horse develop its straightness.
The other thing to focus on is the horse’s consistency of tempo. Don’t start looking for the perfect frame ‘working over the back’ straight away – get the basics down first.
Lunging area and equipment: A great lunge yard is 20m across, but some are as small as 12m. If your horse is really fresh, a fenced yard is preferable so that you don’t get towed around the paddock. A dressage arena also works well. Use the extra space and move your circles up and down the arena while your horse is working on the lunge around you. This will show if they are drifting to the gate or if they are listening and following you.
Lunging can incorporate different tools, including cavessons, side reins, Pessoa, flag, carrot stick … the list goes on. It’s easy to get confused about what’s best. Similar to other areas of riding it’s not the tool so much as how you use it, and a well–schooled horse might happily lunge at liberty.
Make sure you have thoroughly habituated/desensitised the horse so that it’s not afraid of the gear you are using – especially the long whips. Instead of being in flight mode, a horse should be calm when you enter the lunge area, which will minimise the likelihood of bad behaviour.
Go straight before upgrading to circle work: To focus on a horse’s tempo and line, make sure you can back the horse up and bring them forward off the halter pressure easily. If this is hard then chasing them around in a circle won’t be helpful.
Always give the horse a chance to respond to the lead pressure before using the whip. Let’s say your horse is remaining stationary looking at you with a puzzled expression wondering what’s going. Now you need to motivate your horse with the tool. Start by a quiet wave of your wand. If the horse needs a little tap on the rump, aim for a smaller reaction in the beginning rather than sending them straight into a canter or gallop. Our objective is a calm, well–mannered walk to start.
Don’t be surprised if your horse does overreact a little. This is when it’s important to reinforce the stop button and limit any flighty behaviours like zooming around the yard. If the horse learns that small periods of wild conduct are acceptable, then your hope of a calm horse has just gone out the window.
Work calmly to get the adrenalin level down and gradually get the speed under control. A young horse that has just learnt to walk a calm circle on the lunge deserves a scratch and a night out in the paddock. Perhaps tomorrow start on trot if your ‘walk to stop to walk’ is near perfect.
Remembering the basics: Remembering one of the basics of how horses learn – negative reinforcement (pressure followed by release) – is important before any training session. Positive reinforcement is also hugely beneficial but let’s stick to one thing at a time.
Be careful using a lot of the lunging systems or side reins that aim to put the horse’s head in a particular position. This can lead to a poor stop response from the bit when ridden. You just have to watch someone like Warwick Schiller or Manolo Mendez (check them out on YouTube) to realise that you don’t need fancy gear to get a horse using their back. When the horse does the right thing, we want to release or soften the pressure. If a horse stretches forward and down with side reins on, the pressure will increase – which is both counterintuitive and counterproductive.
Unfortunately, it might take more than ten minutes to develop a well–balanced horse that can move through all the gaits on the bit – but setting a rein length and expecting all the work to be done on that exact length is often not helpful for long term riding balance. Use this for particular issues, but not for all your lunge work.
Lunging may not be appropriate when rehabbing a horse from injury, so always take veterinary advice. Straight lines or turning at slow speeds are always better in the beginning. That may mean a bit more walking your horse in hand, which is good to get the rider back to fitness too.
How to start your first circle: Stand in the middle of your lunge circle and imagine you are in the centre of a clock. Face towards the horse so that your first circle is to the left. The horse should be standing calmly a metre or two in front of you at the twelve o’clock point, and looking towards ten o’clock.
The lunge rein should be folded across your left hand, never wrapped around it. Now point your left hand towards ten o’clock with gentle pressure on the lead rope. Some instructors say to get behind the eye and drive the horse forward with a gentle whip touch. I believe it is better to reinforce the responsiveness to the halter pressure if possible. Then, if necessary, step behind the shoulder/eye to encourage the horse to step forward.
Don’t miss Part 2 of Lunging: It’s a circular question in our next issue.
Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.