Lungeing Your Horse

Young and green horses almost always start their training on the lunge. Older, more experienced horses are also often lunged. Of course, there are many benefits from lungeing, provided that it is done properly. However, it can also be harmful to your horse. This article is aimed at covering all aspects of lungeing, why it is done, how it is done, how to correct problems, and how to avoid any harmful side-effects.

The Benefits of Lungeing:-

Improves the horse’s way of going. Helps him coordinate his body and find his balance without the weight of the rider.

Aids in teaching the horse initial voice commands: walk, trot, canter, halt.

Stretches and loosens the horse’s body and gets him to engage his hindquarters,

Strengthens and tones the horse’s outline.

Improves lateral flexibility.

Can be used to relax or warm up a tense horse.

Starting the Young Horse

Almost every green horse started his training on the lunge. Young horses can be lunged even before they are introduced to the saddle and bridle. A head collar or a lungeing caveson is usually all the tack they need. The goal at this stage is simply to get them going forward at the voice commands. A whip can be used to encourage the horse to step forward and around you, but I personally prefer to avoid the whip if the horse is willing to go forward on his own. The lunge line should be long enough for the horse to circle 20 meters in diameter. A small circle can be damaging to the horse’s legs since his muscles and flexibility have not yet developed.

When a saddle is introduced, the horse is lunged again to get his accustomed to its feel on his back. Later on, he can be lunged in side-reins as well. There is much more detail to starting young horses, and anyone who attempts breaking a young one should be experienced enough.

Lungeing Equipment

Basic equipment:-

Lunge line or rope, preferably 20 meters long or more.

Lungeing caveson or head collar.

Gloves for you: if the horse tries to pull away, the rope will burn or cut your hand if you are not wearing gloves. Speaking from experience, here!

Optional equipment:-

Bridle with snaffle bit to fit under the caveson.

Saddle with stirrups removed or tied up.

Side-reins. These maintain the horse’s outline and support him with a steady contact on the bit.

Protective boots for the horse. As the horse is constantly on a circle, the chances of him brushing his legs against each other increases.

Lunge whip - as long as you do not use it to threaten the horse. If used, it should be for gently coaxing the horse to go forward.

Adjusting the Side-Reins

The worst thing you can do to your horse is adjust his side-reins too tightly. This can have a number of effects on him. First, he may lean on the bit and fall on his forehand. Second, it may cause stiffness in his neck which could extend to his back. Third, he will either run away from the restraint or will be unable to move freely forward.

So how do you know that the side-reins are fitting properly? The answer is simple: after warming up your horse on the lunge without side-reins, ask him to halt and allow him to catch his breath. Attach the side-reins to the bit and allow enough length to form a straight line from its base at the girth straps to the horse’s mouth. The horse should be carrying himself in a natural outline, his head and neck positioned just as he wanted them to be when he halted. This is what I call the free outline.

Ask the horse to trot a circle or two then halt him again. Walk up to him and take about two inches out of the side-reins. Trot on two circles and watch carefully. Is there excess slack in the side-reins? If there is, halt the horse and take out another inch or two. By now, the horse’s nose should be slightly in front of the vertical. This is as tight as your side-reins should be. Eventually, you will know from the first attempt how much to tighten the side-reins.

Above: Correct length for the side-reins. Photo from
'Dressage Masterclass with Dane Rawlins'.

Remember that the side-reins should be of equal length. The other end of the reins will be attached to the second girth strap as low as the bottom of the saddle flap. See photo on the right, courtesy of Horse & Rider magazine.

Lungeing Without Side-Reins

This method can be useful with horses who are stiff or who take too long to supple up. Lungeing without side-reins encourages the horse to stretch down, which lifts his back and improves strength and flexibility. You should always make sure that your horse is stepping forward with energy because this posture could tempt the horse to drag his hind legs. If you find that you cannot canter your horse long and low without loosing control, you can safely lunge him in the canter without side-reins. I find this particularly helpful before riding a dressage test as it loosens the horse’s body - much like stretching your body before running a race.

If your aim is to improve your horse’s way of going, such as get him to engage and carry himself, then it is best to lunge him with side-reins attached. I also don’t favor the use of other gadgets such as the Chambon, Phillips reins, etc. when lungeing or riding. Yes, they may improve the horse in certain areas, but they collide with classical training principles of letting the horse find his own balance naturally.

Attaching the Lunge Line

There are different ways of attaching the lunge line to the horse’s head. Each method serves a certain purpose or corrects a problem. They are explained below:-

Head collar or caveson - The lunge line snaps on to the bottom ring on the head collar or on the top ring on the caveson. You can also snap it on to the side ring of the caveson, provided you change it to the other side when you change the rein. This is the simplest way of attaching lunge line and works well with young horses since it exerts minimum pressure on the horse’s head.

Caveson over bridle - Remove the noseband from the bridle and fit the caveson over it. Attach the lunge line to the top or side ring of the caveson. There isn’t any more pressure on the horse than the first method but the addition of the bit gives the horse something to think about. It isn’t one of my favorites, though, because the weight of the bridle and the caveson can be uncomfortable for the horse.

Bridle only - In Germany, horses with sensitive mouths are lunged with the lunge line tied around the snaffle bit ring and the noseband. If your lunge line has a buckle end, you can buckle it around the bit ring and take the noseband with it as well. This method would not work if your lunge line has a snap end. Another way to lunge in a bridle only is to run the lunge line through the snaffle bit ring, over the horse’s poll, and attach it to the opposite bit ring. This is method gives you more control than the previous ones described. If the horse tries to pull away, the pressure on the bit and over his poll will be too great, so be careful when you lunge in this manner. Bear in mind that the lunge line should be snapped to the outside bit ring, meaning that you will have to re-attach it every time you change the rein.

Preparing to Lunge

Check that all your tack fits properly. The girth doesn’t need to be too tight. The stirrups must be tied up or removed. Remove the martingale if your horse wears one. Now, deal with the reins. You can either unbuckle them where they split and then slip them through the D-ring on the saddle, or you could do the following: unfasten the throatlash on the bridle; hold the reins behind the horse’s jaw and twist them 5 or 6 times then run the throatlash through the loop you made; fasten the throatlash again. This locks the reins in place. If you are lunging only in a caveson or collar, disregard this paragraph.

Above: Caveson fitted over bridle. The reins are twisted and secured with the throatlash.
Below: Stirrups secured. Photos from Horse & Rider magazine.

If you are using side-reins, forget them for now. Make sure you have your gloves on. You can lunge your horse anywhere but it would be better if there are not many distractions around. A round pen is ideal but a rectangular arena will do. Beware of lunging a young, spirited horse in an open area; he could get excited and run away

If you are carrying a whip and about to lunge on the left rein, hold the lunge line in your left hand. Excess slack and the whip will go in your right hand; and vice versa for the right rein.

To get your horse going, it is best to lead him onto a small circle first. Gently walk your horse on a 5 meter circle then slowly step away from him to the center of the circle. If he turns in, lead him back to the circle. If he stops and looks at you, urge him to keep going by using your voice or the lunge whip. Once he is established on the small circle, give him some slack and encourage him onto a bigger circle. Let him walk freely for about 5 minutes before you begin his workout.

Active Work on the Lunge

If your horse is new to voice commands, you will need to back up your requests with the whip. Read the next section to learn how to use the whip correctly.

Ask your horse to trot. Let him maintain a steady trot for a few circles then ask for a transition to walk. From walk, trot again, then canter. Change the rein and repeat the process. You will not have attached the side-reins at this stage. The goal is to loosen and relax the horse before serious work begins.

Halt your horse. Walk up to him and reward him with a pat and a ‘good boy/girl’. Attach the side reins and ask him to walk on. Give your horse a couple of minutes to become accustomed to the contact on the bit before asking him to trot on. From now on, focus on transitions and include plenty of walk in the exercise. Change the rein only once with the side-reins attached.

Try to keep the circles big when the horse is cantering. You can also vary the size of the circle when the horse is trotting. I am assuming that your horse has reached a fair level of training already; if he is still green, keep the circles big. At all times, ensure that he is going actively forwards; falling on the forehand on the lunge can cause stiffness in the horse’s back. A swinging back and over-tracking foot falls are signs that the horse is working properly.

Finish by removing the side-reins and allowing the horse to walk freely on a large circle. For a better cool down, take your horse out of the arena and lead him around in a leisurely walk for 5 or 10 minutes.

Use of the Whip

If you are teaching a young horse to respond to voice commands, or if your horse is slow in his response, you can use a lunge whip to reinforce your request. Voice the command first, and if the horse not respond, immediately touch him with the whip just above his hocks. Notice I said ‘touch’. Any harsher action can cause kicking, bucking, or just general misbehavior. Following this touch, repeat your voice command.

To encourage him to step forwards with activity, you can choose any command such as ‘forward’ or ‘go on’ or ‘active’. Get the horse used to these by combining them with a touch of the whip. When the horse has learned the meaning of these words, you will no longer need a whip.

How to hold and use the whip is important. It should be always pointing just behind the horse’s hocks. When used, the motion should be at an angle towards the horse’s eyes. In other words, when you touch the horse with the whip, move it as if drawing an imaginary line from the point of the hock to the eye.

Problems with Lungeing

The horse is rushing on the lunge.

Slowly decrease the size of the circle and speak softly with your voice low to your horse. Never pull your horse sharply onto a smaller circle, just take a little at a time from the lunge line until the circle becomes smaller. The horse will be forced to slow his pace down. Once he is going at a steady, rhythmic pace, you can slowly increase the size of the circle again.

The horse is rushing through the transition.

This is a common problem often occurring under saddle as well. However, when the horse is ridden, it is often the rider’s seat and aids that result in this rush, but when on the lunge, it is usually due to a number of reasons, 1) The horse does not understand your request, 2) The horse does not want to work harder, or 3) The horse is sore or physically uncomfortable to perform the transition or work at the next gait.

If the problem is due to either of the first two reasons, you can solve it by going back to basics and teaching your horse how to respond to voice commands. If he is sore, then it is best to have a chiropractor look at him. Almost all horses could benefit from a visit from the chiropractor.

The horse turns in on the circle.

If your horse cuts in on one side of the circle, cut him in on the opposite side and urge him on. This means that if your horse habitually makes one side of the circle too small, make the opposite side too small for him by taking in some lunge line, then give him a little slack on the side on which he cuts in. Ask him for more forward activity. You can use the whip in the motion described above, only without actually touching the horse.

The horse tries to run out of the circle.

This is usually associated with a little bit of bucking and kicking. The horse is either too excited or he is scared of you. Whichever the reason, the key to solving it is to calm the horse down. Walk and trot him on a small circle until he has settled. But if he is turning away and kicking at you, watch out! This becomes a matter of respect - the horse does not respect you. At this point, your best option is to remove the lunge line, free lunge your horse, that is, ask him to walk, trot, and canter without a lunge line attached. This is best done in a round pen. When he turns away and kicks at your direction, make him run around in circles until he is out of breath. You can do that by either waving your arms or by swinging a lead above your head. Eventually, the horse will start looking for ways to get out of this exhaustive situation. When he reaches that stage, show him that you are the only place of refuge by retreating a few steps every time he looks at you. Inevitably, most horses choose to settle down and approach the handler in submission.

This method is similar to Monty Robert’s Join-up, but it is actually adapted from Mark Rashid’s studies on passive leadership. In simpler terms, it is natural horsemanship, that is, training from the horse’s point of view. What you need to achieve is gain the horse’s respect as a result of his personal preference not out of his fear of you.
You may need to repeat this process two or three times before the horse has accepted you as his chosen leader. You can then bring him back on the lunge.

The horse is leaning on the bit and is using the side-reins for support.

Ask him to step forward with more energy and get his back swinging. The side-reins may be too tight, adjust them and give the horse more slack. This is similar to the horse leaning on your hands if you were riding. It is a sign that he is falling on his forehand. Get his hind quarters active and he will stop leaning on the bit.

The horse tries to change the rein on his own.

This mostly occurs with young horses who don’t know better. If the horse suddenly pivots and changes direction, calmly ask him to halt. Walk to the horse and lead him back to the track on the rein he was originally traveling on. Keep the horse framed from behind by following his hocks with the whip. If he does it again, just lead him and turn him around. In time, he will learn to stay on the current rein until you decide to change it yourself.

The last thing you should keep in mind is that perfecting your lungeing technique takes practice, but it is relatively easy to grasp. Don’t lunge your horse excessively with no particular goal in mind. You should always be focused and lungeing with a purpose. Horses get tired quickly on the lunge so limit the session to about 20 minutes.


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