Home » How to ensure a horse is working correctly when you’re lunging

How to ensure a horse is working correctly when you’re lunging

Aimi Clark
Pictured is a lady lunging a grey horse in a saddle and bridle

Lunging a horse is about so much more than trotting around in circles. When done well, it can be a useful part of every horse’s training regime. It is a great way to encourage them to use and develop all the right muscles that will improve their way of going when you ride. So it is well worth spending time working on your lunging technique and honing your eye to recognise when your horse is working correctly.

Lunging is an excellent workout for a horse, especially when you’re short on time. It is an opportunity for them to work without the weight of a rider on their back. From your position on the ground, you can watch how your horse moves and spot any irregularities in their muscle development. Lunging 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.

What are the benefits of lunging a horse?

One of my favourite things about lunging a horse is that it is a brilliant test of your communication, and how well you listen to each other. Not all rider’s enjoying lunging a horse — and some horses don’t like being lunged either. I have come to learn that it can have a useful place in a training programme. My horse lunges once a week or so. I really enjoy working with him on the ground in this way; watching his ears flick as he listens to my commands. Being able to ask a horse to change from walk to canter and vice versa is quite some feeling!

Lunging a horse also gives you time to bond, watch how the horse moves and learn how they use their body. It is a useful way to take the edge off a fresh horse before you mount (I prefer one particularly skittish ex-racehorse I own to do his bucks without me on board), or to warm them up before a schooling session. I was even known to lightly lunge my semi-retired first pony well into her thirties, because she needed to stretch her legs and I was too heavy to ride her. So you see, lunging a horse really is a useful skill to have!

How to make lunging a horse interesting

As I said in the very first sentence, lunging a horse isn’t just about trotting round and round in circles. That quickly becomes boring for both you and your horse. Here are a few things I do to stay focused when lunging:

  1. Do plenty of transitions and make them deliberate. Ten steps of trot before walking, for example. Then 15 steps of walk before trotting again. I find this is a good test of how well you use your voice aids and how good your horse is at listening and responding to them.
  2. Try some walk to canter and halt to trot transitions. My first horse, a Warmblood called Marcus, was very good at these. He was so tuned into my voice that he would change up and down perfectly. It took time to get to that point of course, but it was very satisfying when it worked. I have to be careful with these transitions with some of the Thoroughbreds I’ve owned over the years though, as too much walk to canter quickly becomes exciting!
  3. Vary the size of the circle. Ask your horse to spiral in to a 10m circle and then back out to 20m. Perhaps make an upwards transition as your horse gets back to the outside circle, or do a full circle at 15m before you spiral in or out. There are lunging reins with markers on to help you judge the circle size. Spiralling like this is a good stepping stone towards lateral work and will help to engage your horse’s hind leg.

As with anything, only try the above when you and your horse are ready and be patient, giving your horse time to learn what they’re being asked. You might not get it right straight away, and that’s OK.

What is good technique for lunging a horse?

For effective lunging, your position in the middle of the circle is really important. Grand Prix dressage trainer Sarah Ridd from Weymarsh Equestrian shares the following tips to help you have a great lunging session with your own horse:

1. Communication

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.

What is a good lunging session?

Your horse will only feel the benefits of a lunging session 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!

Main image: copyright Shutterstock

Profile image of Aimi Clark Aimi Clark


As the editor of Your Horse Online, Aimi oversees all our digital content. She has worked in equestrian media for over 15 years and joined Your Horse as editor in 2017. Aimi has owned and ridden horses all her life. She grew up on a farm in Devon and was a Tetcott & South Tetcott Pony Club member, joining with her first pony — a New Forest called Prudence — before moving on to a Danish Warmblood called Marcus and competing in all activities, but particularly enjoying eventing. She has rehomed and retrained more than 10 ex-racehorses and dabbled in point-to-pointing. There have been plenty of bumps, setbacks and heartache along the way, as well as a lot of fun and many successes. Aimi has two young children and she still loves ex-racehorses. You can often find her hacking her Thoroughbred in the Oxfordshire countryside, flying the flag for Your Horse's #Hack1000Miles challenge.

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