lunging your horse

Lunging doesn’t have to be boring for you or your horse. Here are some fun ways to switch up your lunging routine!

You might love it or hate it. You might think it has nothing to do with your own equine activities. But almost anywhere you go in the horse world, you will see horses lunging in circles. Dressage horses, western pleasure horses, recreational horses, ponies and mules – every type of horse in every discipline typically learns how to be lunged. But what is this technique really all about? Is it of any real value, and if it is, how can we make the most of this time with our horses?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of lunging horses, but until recent years the technique was more common among English disciplines. Lunging is commonly viewed as just another chore, something that must be done to take the “edge” off before riding. It’s not uncommon for especially “hot” horses to require an hour or two (maybe more) of lunging just to keep them manageable in the show ring!

Observations on traditional lunging

While every horse benefits from physical conditioning, traditional lunging does very little for conditioning his mind. Horses may become physically stronger from lunging in circles, but many remain mentally detached or confused simply because not much is being asked of them except to go forward in both directions, reaching their cardio fitness goals or expending excess energy. Then they’re done and off to the next thing.

While every horse benefits from physical conditioning, traditional lunging does very little for conditioning his mind.

If we consider that the easiest direction for a horse to go in is forward, and that flight from fear is the primary survival mechanism for prey animals, the sight of someone lunging a horse looks similar to a predator nipping at the heels of its prey. I’ve even seen the person doing the lunging get almost as much cardio as the horse during the session, with both finishing in a sweat and sometimes frustration if things didn’t go well.

Please know that this observation is not meant to be critical. I received the same traditional instruction for lunging horses, and used it for many years. It’s what I knew at the time, and my horses were quite impressive in their level of fitness. What I didn’t know was that this time could also be spent developing a horse’s mental fitness, with sessions both the horse and myself could look forward to!

Add some interest to your groundwork routine

When I’m in a session with a horse on the ground, I like to think of it as having an interaction or engaging in conversation with my horse. It’s my time to see how he feels that day and observe how he’s moving. I may start off on a circle (lunging), then add a change of direction, back him up, move sideways, direct him over an object, pole or small jump, move the hindquarters, and go off in another direction. I might try walking with the horse or standing in place as he carries the lunge line out to the distance I choose. I might back him between two safe objects, under a hanging tarp, through water or around bushes, or up/down hills or other natural objects.

I can imagine people saying: “But why?” If it’s a challenge just to stay on a simple circle, why on earth add variation to the maneuver? There are two valuable reasons. First, horses are just like us – they get bored with the drill, and end up paying attention to everything but us! Second, by orchestrating the horse’s movement in direction and speed with variable transitions, he becomes more attentive as it demonstrates the qualities of leadership found in herd dynamics!

Developing leadership qualities

Watching horses in a group, we can observe the interaction as lead horses move and posture among others to cause movement. It’s important to recognize that this ongoing herd dynamic (it never stops) creates harmony and confidence within the group by enforcing the leadership roles of certain individuals. It’s also key survival mechanism for horses.

Horses are designed by nature to follow the individuals that effectively direct the herd’s movement. A mental bond forms when a horse watches our every move – not from fear, but pure interest – just as he remains aware of every movement of the leaders within his herd.

Horses are designed by nature to follow those individuals who effectively direct the herd’s movement.

When we take the time to condition both the body and mind of a horse, ground skills become an engaging challenge that goes far beyond the chore of just taking the edge off before a ride. By nature, every horse is capable of bonding with those benevolent leaders who will forever earn their trust, loyalty and willingness, regardless of the activity we ask of them.

Safety note

As with any approach to shaping horse behavior, safety is the highest priority! I cannot emphasize this enough. If you do not feel confident at any time when attempting the techniques described in this article, please hire a professional who understands this approach and will take the time to help you and your horse to a stage where you feel confident enough to take over.

Groundwork transfers to ridden work

Another valuable benefit to expanded ground skills is that we further develop the “feel” in our hands, which will transfer to the reins when riding. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria has been using long-lining techniques for generations to teach students to communicate effectively through their hands before they ever ride even the gentlest schooling horse.

Once astride a 1,200-pound prey animal in motion, our awareness of and ability to move our hands effectively is much more difficult, especially when the horse or rider — or both — becomes confused! Because every transition of movement on the ground translates to what will be asked of the horse while mounted, riding becomes a further extension of the communication already established on the ground. It’s not uncommon for people to report that expanding their ground skills results in a more confident and relaxed horse, which allows them to feel the same. Even individuals with an extreme fear of riding find themselves able to rebuild their confidence with horses, with lasting results.

Expand your skills

If you have an interest in expanding ground skills with your horse, I recommend receiving qualified instruction from an individual trained in these techniques; or consider the two DVDs, Cornerstone for Communication and Riding From the Ground, available through my website. I wish a short article like this one could safely describe my technique, but I’d be remiss to even attempt it! These two DVDs provide a safe, sensible and effective approach that has helped thousands of people create a bond with their horses that most only dream of.

Here’s to enjoying your journey with horses!