Lunging is riding from the ground without the rider’s weight on the horse’s back. It requires as much concentration and coordination as riding. The horse should be in general lunged on as large a circle as possible. You should stay at the tip of the triangle formed by the horse, lunge line and whip. The horse should stay out in the end of the lunge line and you should have a consistent contact to the horse with it, thus no slack on the line. He should know the basic commands of walk, trot, canter and halt. If the horse is spooky or cannot concentrate in the work, it may help just to lead him around the arena a couple times on both hands before starting.
The horse should be moving with good activity the hind legs following the track of the front legs, and the horse should be stretching with head and neck down and out. He should bend laterally (without leaning on the lunge line) on the circle and not look outward. Rhythm should be even and the horse should look relaxed and easy with the movement. The amount of tracking up or over tracking is individual and you should rather keep an eye on the movement of the muscles along his back and the abdominal wall and then recognize how much tracking up or overtracking your horse needs for him to be working optimally.
Make sure you recognize the horse’s fitness level and realize that this work (active forward long and low training), even in walk, is hard and tiring for the horse in the beginning. If the horse has very little or no topline muscles, it is especially hard work and hence you should be patient and considerate, and not ask too much from him. If you have been a couch potato for years, you cannot do an ironman competition or lift serious weights at the gym instantly. Don’t expect your horse to be able to do this either, it takes a long time in gradual training to rehabilitate and strengthen muscles. The horse may seem big and strong, but the weight bearing muscles maybe non-existent. Furthermore, every horse is different and will take different amount of time to develop to his full potential. You should not stare at any particular time frame with this training, but rather keep the horse’s comfort levels, movement, relaxation, rhythm and muscle development in mind and sight. Depending on at what level you start with your horse, it is not unusual to just do extensive and exclusive walk work for weeks or months. If you proceed carefully and cautiously, gradually increasing the work load while observing your horse’s comfort levels, you are most likely to succeed with least problems.
Using the whip in a lunging session is comparable to your leg aid. You should be able to touch the horse with the whip when needed. With touching we mean indeed just that, that the whip’s rope touches the horse. You should not use excessive force and we are not endorsing whipping the horse. This aid is meant to tell the horse what we want; forward motion or yielding, just as your leg aid when riding. As with in-hand work, the whip aid tends usually be far less forceful than a leg aid while riding, the possible sharpness of the reaction comes more from how the whip aid is used; it is mostly away and passive, and used only when really needed. Leg aid tends not to be as clear cut when riding.
If the horse is afraid of the whip, he should be gradually and thoughtfully accustomed to it. This can be done by just carrying the whip along and not using it when lunging. It can be at first pointed backwards and gradually turned first parallel to the horse and when he is used to that position and no more over reacting to it, then turn it towards his hind quarters. You should in general just passively follow the horse with it. Only after you have assured yourself that the horse is not overreacting anymore and he has started to visibly relax while the whip follows him passively, can you think of starting to use it more actively.
The whip should be long enough or you should be close enough for you to be able to touch the horse at least with the end of the whip’s rope. A lightweight lunge whip is the most convenient when you do a lot of lunging. If you are uncertain of how to use it and how accurately you can aim at targets, practice before starting lunging sessions. Set targets for example on a wall or fence line away from horses and practice your aim at different distances with both hands.The horse is asked to move more actively forward by touching with the whip along the end of his buttock above the hock. If you want the horse to yield himself on the lunge, you aim at where your leg would go when riding.
The lunge line can be attached in two main ways. If the horse is calm, is quiet with his mouth and does not open his mouth excessively, then you can attach the lunge line directly to the inside bit ring. That is, if the bit stays nicely in his mouth without moving through it, you can have this direct attachment. Otherwise put the lunge line through the inside bit ring, over the horse’s poll and attach it to the outside bit ring. When you attach the line over the poll in this manner, you have to make sure that it cannot get trapped under the bridle. You want the lunge line to release pressure when you give with your hand.When you are using a chambon or side reins you can in most cases also attach the lunge line straight to the inside bit ring. This is because the bit is usually held in place by these lunging aids. Depending on the individual horse, you may still need to attach the lunge line over the poll while using the side reins. And of course if your horse is sensitive to poll pressure and is not ok to lunge straight from the inside bit ring, you may want to have a lunging cavesson over your bridle where you lunge from. You just need to observe how your horse behaves and which way suits him the best.
Best way to start your lunging is to stay close to the horse and walk with him on as big a circle as possible. The bigger the circle the easier the work will be for the horse. Thus when you are working with a horse who has no topline muscling it is advisable to not take him on any small circles at all.
Stay as close to the horse as you feel comfortable with. Keep of course safety in your mind and never go so close to the horse that you would be in his kick zone. You may have to adjust your whip if you are excessively close and carry it pointing backwards. You may even adopt a ‘semi-in-hand’ way of working him on the lunge where you can either use your hand or the handle-end of the lunge whip to ask him to step sideways or more under himself with the inside hind leg. If you at the same time keep a steady and consistent contact with the lunge line, you have good control and can this way ask for long and low stretch not dissimilar to in-hand work. Once the horse complies, relax your aids and praise as you would do when riding and in-hand work as well.
You can then gradually lengthen the lunge line and let the horse work further away from you, however, within the reach of the whip, and still walking with him along that big circle. You can even walk around the whole arena in an oval, but of course a circle is a better form with least amount of tight turns. Aim at active, forward walk in relaxation. Without enough activity and relaxation the work doesn’t really have the optimal impact on the horse’s topline. However, too much activity is not good either, since it will drive the horse far more into his forehand and therefore it is counterproductive. You should learn to know the horse and ask enough activity for him to work in relaxation but not too much so that he looses it. Observe the horse’s rhythm and aim at improving it. If he becomes rushed, ask the horse to slow down a little. If he is sluggish, ask the horse to pick up the pace a little. In the beginning of this training process this balance may be hard to find and maintain, but with practice and time, when the horse starts to gain muscle, it will become easier.
The walk work may be rather difficult to maintain effective in the beginning, but perseverance with this will lead to better work later on. However, if it is impossible or very difficult to keep the horse in walk in the beginning of lunging session, just ask him to trot. Sequential work making sure that each gait is working well before advancing to the next one with lunging (from walk to trot to canter) is the preferred way of working him. But indeed, do not stress if you simply cannot accomplish this with your horse. If he cannot relax into proper walk work, it is no use in forcing him to do so and then it is better to ask him to work well in trot. You can do the walk work after the trot work in the end of the session as well. But in any case, you should always aim to start with the walk work and train it as best ad you and he can.
When the walk work is going nicely in an active and forward pace with the horse relaxed into an appropriate long and low stretch within his level, you can ask for trot. And the same thing applies to the trot work; you can stay at first close to him (but perhaps not as close to him as you would with the walk work) and walk briskly with him on a big circle. You should keep an active pace in the trot that eventually leads to better forwardness and the long and low stretch. The pace again should not be too active so that the horse is driven more to his forehand, but active enough to facilitate forwardness. You should have a constant contact with the lunge line and stay at the tip of that imaginary triangle. Once the trot work is going well, you can start to have more distance between you and your horse – you would walk on a smaller circle while he stays in the bigger one, or you could even just stay put in the middle of the circle.You can start canter work once your trot work is functioning well in an active forward pace with relaxed long and low stretch and your horse is working fully in the zone (meaning that he is working consistently relaxed and concentrated in a good rhythm in a nice and very low stretch without interruptions). Before that canter work tends not to have very much value. There are two exceptions to this rule: 1. the horse can actually canter better over his back than trot, and 2. the horse is aided in the trot work after a short canter. It is rare that the horse can canter better than he can trot, but it does happen and then canter work is ok before you have the trot work functioning well in the zone. It is more common that the trot opens up easier with some canter work in between. In any case, once you feel that you can proceed to the canter work, start by asking for only one or two rounds of it. Then ask him back to trot and wait until he is again in the zone, thus until the horse calms down into nice and relaxed trot with a good stretch long and low. Once you have him again there, ask for canter transition and again canter him for just a round or two before returning to trot. Keep these bouts of canter to minimum at first – a couple of transitions per session. When he has more muscle and fitness you can ask for more canter work, again gradually. In the beginning of introducing canter work in your lunge training, don’t ask for it during every session. If you notice that your horse starts to stretch down and out, and finds it easy to canter and canters in nice forward and relaxed fashion using his topline, then you can ask for more sustained canter work. Keep an eye though on the horse’s work and tiredness levels and take him back to trot when you see the first signs that the horse cannot keep up the good level of work anymore.
Once your horse is working well on the lunge line (active, stays in the end of the line and listens to your aids and commands) and you are confident with your position, contact with the line is consistent and you can use the whip accurately, then you can start to ask for some more advanced work from him. This means taking the horse to a smaller circle to make the work harder for him. You would do this in the beginning for only short amounts of time returning back to the easier bigger circle as soon as you get a good reaction and more work from him. To take the horse to a smaller circle you would start walking in a smaller circle yourself and/or shortening your lunge line as well. You can also stop walking yourself and stay more or less put in the middle of the smaller circle for a while.
The size of the small circle depends on how strong your horse is at that moment; the smaller the circle the harder the work gets. So, in the beginning you would start with slightly smaller circle and when your horse is advancing, you would make the circle gradually smaller.
Once you have the horse in the smaller circle you can ask him to yield his hind quarters a little towards the outside. Think of shoulder fore on the lunge line. To ask for that, aim your whip where your leg would go when riding. You can add a voice aid (‘yield’ for example), if you have taught this to him during in-hand work. The aim is not to do a full shoulder fore, but to ask for the horse to step more under and to the middle of his body with his inside hind leg. This will aid the lifting of the back and stretch down and out, and thus it will further help you in the muscle strengthening process. Be aware though that this work is far harder, so keep the small circle session short at first returning back to big circle as soon as you get the right reaction from your horse. This harder work will also facilitate the lateral bending of the horse and thus activate the core muscles even more. Remember that the lateral bending is only possible after longitudinal bending.
Start the small circle work preferably in walk and proceed gradually as with the general lunging. Small circle work with yielding exercise in canter is advanced and taxing and is not advised to be attempted until you are in fact cantering well with him under saddle.
Pole work is a very useful exercise when the horse has enough muscles to be able to go over the poles while working through his topline. It is clearly a lot harder work as the horse must bend his legs and step under more with hind legs to go over an obstacle. It requires a certain amount of core strength from the horse so that he is able to bend his hocks and step under more while at the same time maintaining the same quality of work through his topline as without poles on the way. When he can do this pole work with ease, it further strengthens the topline and the ability to step under better and more effectively.It is important to remember that, if the horse has been able to work well over the poles one day, it doesn’t mean that he will be able to perform as well the next time you have a pole work session. The quality of his work depends on how supple he is that day and what his energy levels are. You should always start your pole work session with a flat warm up, and then proceed with the easiest pole work at first, even when you already have done some more advanced pole work. It is highly recommended that you have an extra pair of hands available to help with the poles.
When the horse is consistent in the stretch in walk and trot, and can easily maintain the trot with a nice forward rhythm, you are ready to try pole work. Start with just one pole on the ground and go over it in walk.
Make sure that you place the pole in such a position that you can do your warm-up work without going too close to it. That is, you warm up without going over the pole. When your horse is using his topline actively in walk, you are ready to start going over the pole. Guide your horse to the pole and aim to go over the middle of it. If you find it difficult to aim at the pole, add some guide poles beside it.
When he goes over the pole the first times, he may pop his head up and loose the activity along his topline. This is normal and you shouldn’t worry too much, just guide him over the pole a couple more times encouraging the stretch throughout the work. If he doesn’t show signs of starting to lower his head and keeping his topline active when he goes over the pole in walk after a couple more tries, move away from the pole and do some more work without the pole both in walk and trot. After trotting, come back to walk and try again. If your horse cannot maintain the quality of the work over the pole in walk after some more work without the pole, stop, change sides and do the same on the other side.
When your horse starts to stretch and work well over his topline while going over the pole in walk, you are ready to ask for more. Thus, after he stretches nicely and has no difficulty in going over the pole in walk, proceed to do the same in trot. Remember that this is harder work and go over the pole at first only a few times per side and per gait.
You can add another pole on the ground only after your horse is working consistently through his topline and maintains the stretch while going over the singular pole both in walk and trot. It is a good idea to set the poles for walk work first and do the same routine as is described above. When the horse stretches nicely and goes over the two poles in walk with ease, then set them as trotting poles. And the same applies as before. Going over two poles is again a more difficult task for the horse, so never over-do it and go over the poles only a few times each side per gait at first. Only gradually increase the length of the exercise in relation to your horse’s abilities and strength.Once the work is consistent again with the two poles, you can proceed to add in a third one, and later on when the work with three poles is fluent, add a fourth one. Always think gradually and make sure that your horse is able to do the work you ask from him. Stop and praise a lot when he has gone over the pole or poles in a deep stretch for the first time. Work rather less with the poles at first than risk doing too much and exhausting the horse. In the beginning you should not do pole work more than once a week, and you should make sure that the horse has recovered from the harder work before working with poles again.
Once the work with the ground poles has advanced to four poles and your horse finds the exercise easy, flows over the poles in trot in a good stretch without loosing the use of his topline, then you can start to lift the poles off the ground. Do so at first by lifting the poles up only on one side (alternate sides) to keep the exercise gradually more difficult. It is advisable to lift only a couple poles up in the beginning and observe how the horse copes with the more advanced pole work. Gradually lift more poles up on one side and when this exercise is working well with several poles up on one side, you can lift one of the poles up on both sides, again gradually increasing the work level. Eventually you will advance to cavaletti work where both sides of the poles are up with several poles. Even when you have reached this level of work with your horse, it is a good idea to start with easier pole work before advancing to the harder exercise within a session. And if the horse displays signs of not being able to work well over the poles or cavaletti, take a step back and continue with easier work before trying the harder exercise again.Canter poles are useful only when your horse can canter well through his topline. You would proceed similarly to the other pole work. The main of the pole work is though done with trot work because that has the most use to building of the topline muscling via the increase of forwardness and use of the core muscling.
That is, the horse moves on to trot from walk or canter from trot when you ask for better work from him. Initially, let him move in the gait that he feels happy with. That is, if he trots on when you want to walk, let him trot. But your aim is then to ask him to trot on and work well within trot. After a while you can ask for walk work again and see if it works better. If he doesn’t want to come back to walk, work more in trot and ask for walk again later on.
If he starts cantering instead of trotting better, then let him canter for a round or two, and then ask him back to trot. The aim is not to force anything and to just stay calm and work with the gait you get.
There are a couple exceptions to this rule. First one is thoroughbreds. You should never allow them to run on as they get fit very quickly. With them it is very important to stay in walk at first and make sure that the walk work is good before proceeding to trot and eventually canter.Second exception are horses that need to stay in walk to fully engage their back. Some horses have the appearance of working well enough in trot and canter, but somehow stall with their progression and muscle building. Then it is advisable to return back to extensive walk work and really make sure that the whole back is moving and getting activated before allowing the horse to trot or canter on. Especially horses with SI or KS issues need extensive and thorough walk work with active stretching all the way to the ground before they are able to fully engage their toplines.
Ask the horse to yield away from you by using the whip and walk him with determined body posture to a bigger circle. Being closer to him will help you to have better control on him. However, always stay away from the kick zone for your own safety.If he cuts you off during lunging while you walk or attempt at walking with him in a bigger circle, stop walking yourself and ask for a round or two of real hard work from him in that small circle. Ask him to yield his hind end and really power on forward under himself. After a couple rounds like this in the small circle, offer the bigger circle to him again by starting to walk with him. He should find it more comfortable. Keep walking in the bigger circle, but if he leans in again and starts cutting you off, repeat. Thus ask for yield, push him on and as last resort use the small circle work.
Asking for the lower head position while lunging is intricate and requires a lot of feel. It is a mixture of contact with the lunge line and the driving aid (whip and body language). You have to be also consistent with your aids and reward any lowering of the head in the beginning.The use of chambon or side reins (or both in some cases) is advisable in this case as well. Also walking close to the horse will again be more useful and gives you more control. An exercise where you are lunging in walk, but are close enough to be able to ask for small yields (semi-in-hand), is useful in this case.
Usko being lunged in August 2013. Nowadays I would have padding under the surcingle.
And the girth seems a tad short for Usko.
Same session in August 2013, illustrating how the chambon comes into action in the high head set.
Cavaletti work during summer 2019
First day trying out side reins (Sept 2016)
Two above photos from A2R clinic May 1017