We all have passions in life. And when it comes to the world of horses, there are countless facets to grab our attention and time. Some enjoy riding or training. Others appreciate daily grooming or feeding time. Still others love those quiet moments; just you, the horse and stillness. I enjoy all of them, but another great often overlooked way of connecting with your horse is through long-lining.
You may be wondering if long-lining applies directly to you. After all, it’s quite the forgotten art. But once you realize its true benefits, you’ll want to build it into your routine. Long-lining has often been described as “riding from the ground” and brings with it a multitude of advantages.
Young and un-started horses
A few months ago, I started my young Spanish Mustang colt, Excalibur (“X” for short), under saddle. In preparation for his “big day”, X had practiced a number of exercises pertaining to long-lining including neck yields, single line yielding, head-drops and disengaging the hindquarters. We began our session by “Reaching Out” to one another, which established clear communication and created a mutual understanding for the upcoming event.
Without hesitation, and showing great interest, X accepted his first saddle, displaying extreme signs of relaxation as he wandered about the round pen with his neck stretched to the ground. The most difficult request that day was to convince him he needed to explore the saddle and his environment at a slightly more engaging speed! He appeared so settled and trusting that he felt little need to distrust the saddle, even though it was now fixed to his back and hugging his stomach. My intention was to allow X to explore all three gaits with his new saddle; even though he felt content, it was extremely important he experienced the sensations of this equipment through different muscle movements.
The goal was achieved very quickly and gave me the opportunity to see that my colt did not consider this a challenge of any kind. So instead of boring him in what was our joint classroom, we raised the bar. Now it was time to try the long-lines.
With both lines attached, X was asked to choose in which direction he preferred to explore the long-lines (which were attached to the halter), and become accustomed to feeling them along his sides, hocks and body.
At first, this new sensation can desensitize a horse to the motion of lines and the signals you are sending. At times, the horse may even stop when he feels this sensation, since when he stops so does the movement. Encouraging him forward without fear and force is the key.
I believe long-lines are one of the best ways to introduce a young horse to pressure on the face, nose or bit. This creates a safe environment for him to learn left, right, forward, slow and stop. In the highly sensitive and vulnerable area known as the mouth, the horse will begin learning to receive aids from your hands rather than taking each cue from your body language on the ground.
Initially, a young horse will show signs of being “into pressure”. This means he will lean into the pressure he feels rather than moving to release it. When attaching long-lines, the pressure is considered to be direct (i.e. when you want to turn left, you apply pressure to the left rein). Being an “into pressure” animal, the horse will push (in this case pull) towards the pressure he feels on his mouth or nose so it increases.
In this instance, towards pressure is considered an opposite and incorrect response. You want the horse to come off the pressure. A horse will instinctively turn right when he feels pressure on the left side of his mouth (to increase the pressure) unless he has been educated to turn left. Once he learns how to release himself from the pressure by seeking the source, he learns direction as well as slow and stop.
These lessons also help the horse become more comfortable with movement on his back and around his sides, while gaining confidence and not having to be exposed to the rider at the same time. And unlike the lunge, long-lining will introduce your young horse to the feel of your hands.
Within moments, X learned these vital lessons, which were repeated a number of times for him to digest. The lesson was kept informative, short and interesting so we could build on it the next day. The most important factor was to teach X something new and yet not overload him in the process. Each day, he learned steps leading up to his successes, and long-lining provided him with the tools needed to promote balance, direction, speed control, focus, patience and more.
• Consider the times when your horse has been stalled for any duration and has pent-up energy. For the hot-blooded horse, just one day without exercise can result in a rather exciting ride! Long-lining allows you to warm up your horse (preventing injuries) and eliminate excess energy (removing that “edge” for a safe ride).
• You can build your horse’s muscle tone on both the left and right sides, encouraging natural balance and increasing fitness levels while maintaining rhythm. It’s a wonderful way to bring your horse back into work after taking time off for an injury or vacation.
• For the spooky horse, those lacking confidence and self-esteem, long-lining will help you gain mutual trust and understanding, build focus, patience and self-control. It also assists with introducing and exposing your horse to new objects. Try creating your own natural long-lining obstacle course by incorporating trotting poles, jumps or other obstacles such as the famous yet dreaded tarpaulin.
• For horses that are hard to keep occupied and need mental stimulus and diversity, try taking this experience out of the round pen and into another environment – like the arena.
• Long-lining helps deal with equine challenges such as rearing, bolting, balking, or when your horse is barn sour.
What you need to begin
Think about what you would like to achieve. In its simplest form, you really only require a head collar and two long-lines. You could add a pressure halter, surcingle or roller, saddle (most kinds will do), bridle and a leather strap. You may also place boots on your horse if you prefer.
Consider wearing a hard hat on the ground. You may also want to use gloves to protect your hands from rope burns. I keep this option open to my students; I personally don’t wear gloves because I like to feel the rope through my fingers. It helps me feel more connected to my horse. If you have soft skin, however, I would highly recommend you wear gloves.
Remember that anything new should be introduced to your horse in a safe environment such as a round pen. He should feel like the round pen is a place of safety, a place to learn, and also a place to relax.
I have worked in round pens ranging from 35’ to 75’. I am most comfortable in a 50’ round pen and have found this to be a suitable size for most horses. Most long-lines are 30’ in length and therefore just the right size for you to be in contact with your horse while making it less likely you will loose him.
No round pen? No problem. Set up a small enclosure, sand paddock, grass area, small arena or picadaro. You want it to be small enough for your horse to be safe and not run off with you, but not too small that you might cause too much pressure or get kicked. Also, never forget to ensure the correct footing in an area free of obstructions.
Now you’re ready to go! After reading this article, I hope you’ll begin to explore longlining yourself. I am convinced that once you really start using this technique, you will see the benefits and become as passionate about it as I am!
Anna Twinney is an internationally respected Animal Communicator, Equine Specialist, Natural Horsemanship Clinician, and Reiki Master. She has been featured on TV, radio, and in national and international magazines. Working in the horse’s own language, she travels the world educating people and horses. As the founder of the Reach Out to Horses® program, she remains on the cutting edge of equine training, promoting genuine, gentle communication techniques. Anna can be regularly heard on her popular podcast, Reaching Out with Anna Twinney. For more information, visit reachouttohorses.com.