Thoughts on Lunging
Whatever your reasons for lunging, perhaps you’re starting a youngster, training an older more established horse, rehabbing or just exercising, it’s worth having a think about the fact that whatever your reasons, you are ultimately asking your horse the same thing; to work, usually at speed on a relatively small continuous circle for some amount of time.
Lunging on various sizes of circle can be extremely therapeutic for the horse and can greatly enhance his gymnastic training. However, this is only the case if done with careful thought and understanding of the horse’s nature and biomechanics. When the horse is asked to work on a continuous circle in bad form, it is always detrimental to him. It is damaging to joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and causes stress to his over all physical and mental health.
We are not only training the stuff we like to see.
Horses are incredibly easy to train, that’s why they domesticated so well, and this is worth considering the next time you take your horse out for a blast round on the lunge in a head collar.
Every step the horse takes is a step that you trained. So in effect, each circle the horse completes in brace and out of balance on the lunge is a step that you re-enforced this body state and trained the horse that this is the way it should be done. Ultimately, over time these body states lead to breakdown rather than enhancement. So whatever your reason for lunging, what matters to your horse is the ‘how’ as well as the ‘why’.
By nature, when circling or turning at speed the horse will load his inside shoulder, brace his back and take his head and neck to the outside in order to counter-balance. This is fine for nature as these instances are generally short lived before the horse is travelling straight again or is back to head-down eating the grass. This body state was not designed to be maintained for periods of minutes at a time and is detrimental to the horse when it is.
In training, it is our aim to change this natural posture to one that we know is better for the horse, and necessary in order for him to carry a rider with ease. A key to achieving this new posture ultimately requires that the horse learns to become inwardly focused on a circle rather than outwardly as is natural…
So how do we train the horse to change this naturally offered posture? It’s pretty hard-wired and can feel as if it needs some convincing!
First of all it is crucial that we never attempt to shape or fix the horses neck into an unnatural, inward fixed or ‘rounded’ position; however tempting it feels. This action immediately takes away the horse’s ability to find balance, causing detrimental muscle and joint compensations throughout the whole body. In turn this causes stress to his mind, as he feels trapped and unable to balance naturally. What we must do instead is aid the horse into a better posture and balance, helping him to release the braced neck muscles, while showing him how to de-contract and balance himself throughout his entire body. (All parts of the horse’s body, from nose to tail, are linked and we only talk about working with one part as far as it is useful in gaining access to or relating to the whole)
To lunge well, requires a number of skills in timing, body positioning, feel and tact and it takes practice. To begin with, your horse will not understand what you require in terms of his body positioning on the circle and will adopt the natural ‘flight’ posture. It is useful then to start your training with some close in-hand work first in order for both the horse and handler to begin the process of communication necessary for successful lunging.
Learning to work in-hand with your horse is a wonderful way of improving both you and your horse’s balance, coordination and communication. A great amount can be learned about the horse from the ground, which you can then translate to your ridden work later. You might find that your horse is not the only one who struggles with his balance. 😉
A balanced horse is a happy horse.
Here Willow has learned to lower and soften her neck to the inside on a large circle. She then learns to yield her shoulders and haunches to my request. Gradually this work will translate to understanding these requests whilst further away from me, out on the lunge.
Once this work is understood by the horse, there is no need for side reins or any kind of auxiliary equipment. These would only serve to block the horse and take away the ability to use the whole body.
There are an array of opinions on lunging relating to the ‘how’ and the equipment used. Always Lunge off the bit… Never lunge off the bit… Put the rein under the chin… Put it over the poll… Clip it on one side of the bit… Always use side reins… Never use side reins… Use a Pessoa… Use a rope halter…. The list goes on… What I seldom see is the horse being lunged off a simple quality cavesson. Nothing but a well made, well fitted cavesson with the line attached to a centre ring enables the handler access to the effective alignment of the head and neck in relation the whole horse.
The lunge-line should never be attached to the bit!
The mouth of the horse is sensitive and precious and any discomfort in the mouth always leads to tension, fear and resistance. In the first instance, no matter how skilled we feel we are, it is impossible to ensure that no harm will come to the mouth while the horse is out on the lunge line. And in the second instance we will see from the picture below, that lunging off the bit more often than not, causes to horse to adopt incorrect horizontal and lateral flexion.
(Note: I often see the horse lunged from the bit prior to ridden work because the rider doesn’t want to faff about with changing equipment. This is just lazy)
Note the incorrect flexion and bend to the outside, the loading of the inside shoulder and bracing of the neck, barrel and back muscles with stiffening of the hind leg. So although the neck has a round appearance, we can see that attaching the rein to the bit and using side reins has achieved nothing towards our aim of helping the horse to soften to the inside, use his back or flex the hind leg. The neck is a bit ’round shaped’ though. 😉
There are several other variations of attaching the rein to the bit, all of which tend to result in incorrect flexion, and leaning on or sitting behind the bit, not to mention the discomfort to the horse.
So what about lunging in just a halter? Is this kinder as it doesn’t involve the horse’s mouth, or fixing the neck into unnatural positions?
Well, if we take a look at the picture on the right, we can see that in the loose fitting halter we are unable to aid the horse at all with his poll release or neck alignment, and further to that, any pressure on the rein from the underside results in the halter slipping around to the inside whilst tipping the horses nose inwards and the poll outwards.
As with anything we require the horse to learn, it should be carried out over time by way of a step by step training program accompanied by the correct equipment. Below are some examples of how gadgets, pullies, and restrictive pieces of equipment are not only unnecessary in order for the horse to develop gymnastically and build top-line but are actually a hindrance to that process. At best they give a false impression to the uneducated eye, at worst they are painful and debilitating over time.
To the left, a young horse on a circle working in a naturally unbalanced frame with a hollow top-line, and unless he is educated, he will continue to function this way. This is the very same posture that induces people to fiddle about with the horizontal head and neck positioning, usually in a restrictive manner.
What lowers the neck over time is the correct use of whats behind it.
Prior to lunging for the first time Jonjo had completed some education in-hand. This prior work enabled me to communicate with him ‘out there’ right away and help him to begin investigating all possibilities available to him with his neck and body.
With appropriate aiding and no restrictions he becomes more confident and able to discover how to balance himself on the circle.
Here we can begin to see glimmers of what we are aiming towards. Jonjo is beginning to find a little more ‘posture’ and horizontal balance.
It is vital for the horse that we understand that ’roundness’ comes from the horses back, and his ability to balance and use his entire body free from restriction. it is simply not a function of the neck alone.
Sadly, In-hand work and lunging are another dying art in the horse world today. Good equipment is difficult to find and all to often gadgets are used where instead, skill and horsemanship should be learned. Carried out correctly, In-hand and lunge work is an invaluable part of your horse’s training, having the most therapeutic effects on his body and mind. It can be used to strengthen, balance and supple the young horse in preparation to carry the rider, rehabilitate the horse back to work after injury, train new concepts without the added complication of the riders weight and yes, even to get the beans out 😉 provided it’s carried out mindfully.
So next time you go out there, perhaps give yourself a bit of extra time to think about the ‘how’ What it is you are achieving when you lunge your horse and how it’s affecting him.
And finally to leave you with another example of the lack of need for gadgets in training to achieve you’re desired effect. It’s about understanding the goal, learning the skills and believing…