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Starting your horse on the lunge

by Michelle Holtmeyer
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Working on the lunge can form an important part of your horse’s training. It will give both you and your equine partner a different perspective from riding. When done effectively, lungeing allows horses some responsibility and encourages them to move and think in a different way from when they are under the saddle. Here are our top tips for successful lungeing.

First of all, set it up for success by using well-fitting equipment just as you would when riding. Is your communication with the horse clear when you’re in the saddle? It will be even more important when you’re communicating via a lunge line using vocal cues. It takes time to build the rapport at a distance, but once you achieved it, you can reap the benefits in a fitter, well-muscled and more responsive horse.

What is lungeing?

Lungeing is working the horse on a long line known as a lunge rein. You guide the horse’s movements at a distance as it circles around you. The lunge rein attaches to the bridle, also known as a lunge cavesson, and you place yourself in the centre of the circle.

What are the benefits of lungeing?

Lungeing improves the horse’s balance and musculature. It can be particularly beneficial for the development of the back muscles, which has great benefits for when you are riding. It’s much easier for the horse to move freely without a rider and gain the elasticity from circling on the lunge without having to carry weight and focus on the aids the rider is transmitting as well.

Working on a circle is not something that a horse would naturally do. To begin with, they tend to fall inwards on the circle. Your priority at the beginning is to encourage your horse to move without falling in towards the centre of the circle with his or her shoulder. Once they realise that they can move on a curve without having to do that, the back begins to become more elastic and the hindquarters gain more energy. The result is greater impulsion from behind with the quarters under the horse’s centre of gravity.

How to achieve this? To begin with, work on smaller circles and move alongside your horse, so you can help to correct any tendency to fall towards the centre of the circle. As your horse starts to bend more correctly on the circle, you can encourage your horse to move further off while you move less. To begin with, the horse can be quite tense in the neck. The next stage is, therefore, to encourage the horse to relax, lower the head and extend the neck, while maintaining a smooth motion as it circles around you. Lowering the head automatically encourages the back and abdomen muscles to come into play. As you develop your skill, you can add new elements and new ideas.

What is needed for lungeing?

A good set of lungeing equipment is relatively inexpensive and a good investment. You’ll need a lunge rein (flexible, soft canvas-like material is best) and a lunge whip to encourage forward movement. Always wear gloves when you are lungeing. You make a V-shape with the rein and the lunge rein as you lunge your horse.

There are three basic types of bridle you can use. These are:

1. The halter. Simply clip your lunge rein onto the ring at the back of the chin, not onto either of the side rings. Clipping it to a side ring may result in uneven pressure that will unbalance the horse. It’s fine to use a halter when you’re starting out, but it doesn’t have great precision.

2. A bridle is better, but clipping the lunge rein to the bit can be uncomfortable for the horse. An alternative way is to pass the rein through the bit ring, over the horse’s head and down to clip onto the bit ring on the far side. Take care when using this method and the horse should be relatively experienced.

3. A lunge cavesson is ideal for working on the lunge. It has several rings on it and the rein is usually clipped to the ring on the bridge of the nose. There’s no risk to the horse’s mouth with this method.

Additional equipment

You can also use a lungeing roller which fastens around the horse’s body. It can be of great benefit when you are preparing a young horse to wear a saddle for the first time. Again, the roller comes equipped with rings in various positions to attach reins and other equipment. Whatever equipment you use, ensure the horse is comfortable with it.

What about side reins?

This is quite a controversial topic, with opinions differing widely on whether they are helpful or even harmful to the horse. Any kind of equipment, whether reins, bits or spurs, can cause the horse harm if used incorrectly. Horses don’t forget these negative experiences. If at all unsure, work with a trainer or an experienced friend, or see if you can have lungeing lessons.

Side reins should at first allow the horse to move freely and only be shortened slowly and with great care. You may want to encourage your horse into a compact, collected shape, but forcing the horse into an unnatural posture puts great strain on the neck and unbalances the horse. This is especially true in young horses. Start each session without side reins and the horse working with lowered head and relaxed neck, then use the side reins once the horse has warmed up and is supple.

Keeping things interesting

It’s too easy to fall into a routine with lungeing, but there can be far more to it than the horse simply going round in circles. Work on both reins, in walk, trot and canter, with plenty of transitions to keep your horse listening out for what you want next. You can create moving circles up and down the arena, by stepping along the centre line as the horse circles. Try to keep those circles as shapely as possible.

This is excellent practice for riding circles and serpentines. The lungeing whip should only ever be used to encourage, by carrying it pointed to a spot just behind the horse’s quarters.

Lastly, make sure your vocal cues and body language are clear and unambiguous. Adopt a confident stance and encourage and praise your horse. Clever horses begin to anticipate what’s coming next, so always keep your sessions fresh and bring in new elements. Imagination is an important part of training, so bring it into play when you are working your horse on the lunge!

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