Top 10 lunging mistakes and how to avoid them

Lunging is a great way for horses to exercise and build muscle. But it’s easy to fall into bad habits. See if you’re making these lunging mistakes and learn how to correct them.

As a professional trainer, lunging is a handy skill I practice often – both in the round pen and on the lunge line. Lunging may sound simple – just make the horse go in circles around you, right? But it’s actually much more complicated than that. I frequently observe lunging mistakes in the arena that can have very dangerous consequences. Lunging accidents can result in a horse getting away from his handler or becoming entangled. Equipment can break, and more. This can translate to a traumatic experience that will decrease the trust between horse and handler.

To lunge your horse safely, avoid these common mistakes.

Mistake #1: Skimping on safety equipment

ALWAYS wear gloves. Why? Because gloves are cheap and rope burn HURTS! I even recommend wearing a helmet while lunging, just as with riding. Being complacent is never a good idea when it comes to working with horses.

Mistake #2: Using a halter

Lunge with a cavesson instead of a bridle or halter (see image below). This way, if your horse gets silly, you won’t accidentally pull on the bit or break your halter.

A cavesson, seen here on Roman, puts the lead rope on the nose rather than under the chin – the change in pressure offers clearer communication through gentle hints with the lead rope. Photo courtesy of Cassidy Brooke Photography.

Mistake #3: Allowing floppy reins

If a cavesson is not available and you must use your bridle, be sure to secure your reins. I twist my reins under the horse’s neck until they won’t twist anymore and then secure them using the throat latch. The less loose and floppy your equipment is, the better.

Mistake #4: Forgetting your lunge whip

You need to use a long whip with a very long lash to ensure your horse stays out on the big circle without requiring you to chase him around. Never put your whip on the ground – you may need to use it in case your horse invades your space while lunging.

Mistake #5: Being sloppy with the lunge line

Always keep your lunge line organized in equal loops and never wrapped around your hand. Never let your lunge line touch the ground, as you may risk your horse’s or your own feet becoming entangled in the line.

Mistake #6: Not standing your ground

You must insist that your horse respects your space while you are lunging. Do not back away from him. Instead, use your long lunge whip towards his shoulder and assert your dominance with your body language (the way you would while handling your horse at other times). Your horse should have a healthy respect for, but not fear of, your personal space and the whip.

If you are working with a horse that becomes defensive or even aggressive, keep a safe distance and do not push. You will need to continue working toward establishing a foundation of general respect — but it’s important to do so safely. A large dependable circle is critical to the horse being able to find his balance and build consistency in his frame and tempo, while giving you both the space to feel comfortable.

Mistake #7: Not maintaining a good position

Your lunging position reflects your riding position. Your hips should face your horse in the “pie wedge”, your hands should be soft but ready, your elbows should be in and near your hips, your thumbs should be up and your feet should be a guide (in this case, with one foot firmly planted) to build good geometry.

Mistake #8: Staying the same

You should change direction often in lunging, which can be a pain, so use tack adjustments as an opportunity to switch it up. Never go longer than five to six minutes on one side, and change gaits frequently to engage your horse’s mind.

Mistake #9: Alternating your voice commands

I try to remain consistent in word, tone and sound when giving and repeating commands. For instance, when I want my horse to transition to a faster gait, I say the word “trot” or “canter”, always starting with a low tone and ending with a higher-pitched tone.

Mistake #10: Doing too much, too soon

If you or your horse are new to lunging, it’s best to develop your skills in an enclosed space. I would suggest starting in the round pen first and then moving to a bigger enclosed arena. Lunging takes lots of coordination and it requires time to master.

Additional lunging tips

  • When I lunge my horse, I try to keep him on a 20-meter circle minimum, especially if I’m asking him to do anything more than walk. I usually don’t lunge for more than 15 minutes total, to prevent boredom.
  • Side reins are a great tool for encouraging your horse to use his back while moving. I almost always lunge my horse with side reins, otherwise he’s only getting cardio exercise rather than also building back muscle and improving his balance. If you are unfamiliar with side reins, I encourage you to seek the help of a professional first.
  • I lunge my horses a couple of times a week for just a few minutes as a warm-up, or for about 15 minutes if I don’t have time to ride. Regular lunging has many benefits – it gives me time to connect with my horse, allows him to work for a while without having to carry me, and offers the opportunity for me to check that he’s sound. Lunging on a regular basis also serves to keep the skill fresh, reinforce your dominance and help train your eye.
  • It’s a good idea to put protective wraps (such as polo wraps) on your horse for lunging. This is an inexpensive way to help prevent injury if he scrapes his legs together while traveling on the circle.
  • Never crack your whip. The sharp sound can make your horse and other horses around you nervous. It’s better to practice brushing your horse’s hind end gently, using a very long whip with a long lash. This will help to engage his hind end and lift his back for better balance.
  • Keep in mind that lunging is not a form of punishment. It’s important to know that horses live in the moment and do not understand the concept of punishment the way that we do. The purpose of lunging is to build the horse’s fitness and balance while educating your eye to his movement and soundness.