Lunging: It’s a circular question

In Part Two of this three-part series, resident columnist CHARLIE BRISTER goes deeper still on the subject of circles and how to perfect them.  

I’m hoping that you made it at least halfway around the circle after reading Brister’s Brief in the September/October issue of HorseVibes! But before we dig into the next instalment, let’s take a look at some key points from the last article to save you from having to read it all again: 

  •     Lunging is no silver bullet, it will help rid your horse of excess energy, and depending on the way you do it, it can also help to encourage relaxation on a deeper level.
  •     Check that feed and turnout is suitable for your horse’s needs. Calm the energizer bunny behaviour with feed that’s properly balanced and appropriate for their workload. 
  •     Pay attention to your horse: which rein do they fall in or rush more on? Remember, developing straightness begins on the ground. 
  •     There are lots of choices in regards to what equipment to use. Experiment with what works best for you and your horse. It’s not about the tool but more how you use it. 
  •     Aim for a calm but responsive horse.
  •     Focus on tempo and line.
  •     Avoid using lunging ‘systems’ that pull the horse’s head down and diminish the stop response from the reins. 
  •     For rehab horses, go for straight lines before lunging.

Now your memory has been refreshed, let’s get into Part 2.

Developing a smooth, even circle: Your horse may be more interested in what’s going on outside the lunge yard. If that’s the case they’ll be working with their nose out and their shoulder falling in. They need to pay attention to the centre of the circle – you!

Gently squeeze the lead asking them to look to the inside. Release when their head turns in even a little bit. This may reduce the circle size but it’s better to have a smaller circle with their focus on you than a large one with no focus.

One thing to watch out for is who is moving whose legs? Is the horse moving your legs, or are you moving the horse’s legs? If the horse falls in and you back away that’s rewarding the horse for falling in. Instead, stand your ground in the centre. Try pointing your tool at the shoulder so they are more likely to stay out on the circle. When you start walking backwards with the horse following you on a circle, the horse has succeeded in lunging you!

How do the aids work for stop and go? Horses can learn through Pavlovian, also known as classical, conditioning. This means that the horse will start to link different cues together. For example, if clicking with the voice always comes before use of the whip, the horse will start to react to the initial clicking.

Always saying ‘whoa’ before putting pressure on the lead to slow them down can teach them to respond quickly to your voice. It’s important to use the lightest cue first whether that be voice or body position, before you use a physical aid.

Work on transitions: Lunging can really help to improve transitions as the horse has the opportunity to move without a 50-120kg load bouncing around on their back. Watch your horse make a transition on the lunge. Do they raise their head (which hollows their back)? Do they fall in towards the centre? Analyse the shape of the horse and their circle and work on improving both.

Trot to canter should be a nice, calm, upward transition. If the horse tosses their head and speeds up their trot, gently ask for them to come back to a slower trot. When the trot is in balance again, repeat the transition to canter. Don’t do an upward transition if the horse begins to rush in the current gait.

It’s important that the horse is waiting for you to give an instruction, not just forging ahead on its own. Sometimes you might have to return to walk/halt transitions. Each time they halt, walk over and give them a scratch on the wither to reward the halt. The more you can reward them, the more they’ll want to listen.

Also, try doing transitions within the gait – a slightly faster trot to slower trot. They should move to the new speed and stay there without you needing to chase them. Remember, the focus is on tempo and line control. To develop a calm horse we have to be careful not to confuse the horse.

Good brakes from the bit are fairly essential in my book. A calm horse that can maintain the tempo and the line you ask them for from soft pressure will start to use their back on their own.

How much is a good thing? The time you lunge a horse is totally dependent on your situation, but horses are not meant to be going on a small circle for extended periods. Start to think that that’s enough after ten to fifteen minutes – definitely not an hour. If you find yourself having to lunge your steed at trot and canter for half an hour just to get someone into the saddle, then maybe professional help from your coach would be useful.

Six of the best – top tips for happy lunging:

  1.     Check your gear, and make sure your horse is familiar with the longer rein and any whip or flag you might choose to use.
  2.     Work your horse in hand on the straight before you send them out to work on a circle.
  3.     Aim for calm transitions in both directions without drilling the horse. Finishing on a good note is always advised.
  4.     Start smaller to make communication simpler. It’s easier to make a necessary correction if the horse is only two to three meters away from your hand.
  5.     As soon as they’re comfortable and responding to your aids for walk, stop, and trot, enlarge the circle. Working a horse for long periods on a small circle is not advised.
  6.     Make it interesting and keep them paying attention by changing the pace at least every couple of circles.

How can lunging improve the rider? Once a horse is calm and responsive on the lunge, it can be used to help the rider’s seat. There are many different exercises you can build up to on the lunge – from trot poles to jumping. Lunging is often used to help a rider with their seat and balance sans stirrups. The use of side reins in this situation can be useful for stabilising the horse until the rider develops an independent seat.

The ultimate form of this work is vaulting. Check out the Australian vaulting team on YouTube to see how some of our young equestrians hone their skills riding on the lunge!

If you and your horse emerge from the lunge arena relaxed and happy, then your riding days are likely to be more calm, happy, and more competitive!

Don’t miss Part 3 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.

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