Lunging a horse is an excellent workout for them, especially when you’re short on time. Lunging gives you time to bond, watch how the horse moves and learn how they use their body without the weight of a rider on top. It is also a useful way to take the edge off a fresh horse before you mount, or to warm them up before a schooling session.
Not all rider’s enjoy lunging — and some horses don’t like doing it either. However, there’s much more to lunging a horse than ever-lasting circles, and when done well it is a useful part of every horse’s training regime. Spend time working on your lunging technique and hone your eye to recognise when your horse is working correctly. Grand Prix dressage trainer Sarah Ridd, who trains horses and riders of all levels, shares her top tips for lunging a horse correctly.
Why lunge a horse?
When your horse works correctly on the lunge, it’s a great way to encourage them to use and develop all the right muscles that will improve their way of going when you ride. From your position on the ground, you can watch how your horse moves and spot any irregularities in their muscle development. Lunging a horse is also a good test of your communication, and how well you listen to each other.
Lunging a horse gives you a benchmark for what level their training is at and highlights the areas that need working on, such as improving their suppleness or balance. You will also notice any stiffness on a rein and whether the horse favours striking off with a particular leg leading in canter. This information will help you formulate a targeted training plan for your horse.
Good technique for lunging a horse
For effective lunging, your position in the middle of the circle is really important. This can take a bit of practise to perfect, but if you follow these simple tips, you’ll be lunging like a pro in no time:
To give your horse clear aids and clear direction, your lunge rein and whip should form a triangle with your body. Think of the lunge rein and whip as the two points at the bottom of the triangle, with you being the point at the top of the triangle.
2. Move with your horse
There is no standing still when you’re lunging a horse! Don’t stand in the same spot, instead move with your horse. You’ll need to match the horse’s walk or trot steps to keep up with them. Your body language is important; if they are rushing, slow your steps down to signal that you would like your horse to slow down too, as well as using your voice to make long, peaceful sounds.
While being the centre point of the circle, be careful not to step ‘in front’ of your horse so that he circles towards you. By doing this you become a ‘blocker’ and the horse may turn in to look at you, slow down or even stop. You want to be no further forward than the horse’s shoulder, so that they are circling away from you.
3. Increase the energy
To encourage your horse to go forwards, rotate your whip from their hock towards their elbow. Short and snappy, upbeat voice sounds that are energetic are important too. Make sure there is a clear difference between your voice commands to go forward and to slow down. Your tone is what your horse is listening to, rather than the words.
4. Stay in your own work space
Your horse mustn’t encroach on your space. If they do, point your whip towards their head to encourage them to stay out and away from you. Sometimes, a soft wiggle of the lunge rein will help. You can also move your position to be further ‘behind’ the horse in the circle so that they are free to move forward.
5. Cope with high jinks
If your horse has a moment and takes off on the lunge, don’t panic and immediately try to get them under control. If you get tense it will only activate their flight mechanism further. Instead, take a deep breath out, relax your shoulders and then calmly ask the horse to come back to a steadier pace. Sometimes a buck and a squeal is exactly what your horse needs to do before they are ready to knuckle down and work.
Signs of an effective lunging session
Your horse will only feel the benefits of being lunged when they are working correctly. Here are a few things to check for:
1. Is your horse tracking up?
Check that their inside hind hoof comes up to or into the hoof print left by the inside fore leg.
2. Are their hips moving evenly?
Watch your horse’s hips. On each rein you should be able to see each hip rise and fall evenly.
3. Do their hooves step forward away from their hocks?
During their warm up, the horse’s hooves may stay in line with their hocks, but as their muscles warm up they should step further under their body, creating better engagement and energy.
4. Is the horse engaging their core?
Is there a weave line along the edge of their ribcage from the girth area up to their stifle? This tells you that your horse is engaging their core muscles, which in turn lifts their back.
5. Is their neck relaxed?
The underside of the horse’s neck should look soft and the top of their neck should form an arc shape. You may see a sausage-shaped muscle appear under their crest, too, if they’re moving correctly.
6. Are their ears floppy?
The more relaxed your horse is in their jaw and poll, the floppier their ears will be. This is a good sign!
Best practice when lunging a horse
It is vital to make sure you are using the correct equipment when lunging a horse. Don’t overdo it either, because a tired horse gets fed up and is more likely to injure themselves.
Warming up and warming down properly is also essential for helping your horse to work at their best and avoiding injury. Bear in mind that it will take longer for them to warm up when it’s cold, and they may need a light rug on towards the end of your cool down so that they can continue walking without catching a chill. Remove any training gadgets, like side-reins, during the cool down and let your horse warm-up before you attach them.
A horse who gets bored on the lunge may not behave so well next time you bring them out for a lungeing session either. Make lunging interesting by varying the pace and making plenty of transitions too. Depending on where your horse is at in their training, as well as direct transitions (walk to trot, for example) you can be more adventurous and ask for walk to canter, or halt to trot too.
Alternatively, while cantering, ask your horse for a few steps of trot before cantering again. Transitions are a really good way to test how clear your voice aids are and how responsive your horse is to them.
There are lots of exercises you can do while lungeing a horse. Try using a turn-on-the-forehand to change the rein, for example. It’s a really good suppling exercise. Every time you lunge, make sure your horse spends an equal amount of time working on both reins. And most importantly, make sure you both enjoy it!