On the Hay-Net’s Equestrian Advice page, one member have recently asked a question about loose schooling and mentioned that her horse lunges well but it can get repetitive and boring. You can see my own and some other replies to her HERE but as it’s quite a common issue with many horse owners I expanded on the subject a bit more below.
I like to think of lunging as a crookedness-banishing part of training and as such it is a fascinating training tool.
Before you start more purposeful lunging, teach your horse turn around and on the forehand in-hand. This will require some body language training as well as gymnastic training. If you are not sure how it should look like have a look at this video:
This exercise teaches the horse to yield to release of your pressure, helps to control his shoulders (he needs to lighten one and load the other then vice versa) and has a suppling effect on his hips (as the hindlegs are crossing deeper whilst making a bigger circle).
Another great bonus is that, if done well, this exercise teaches the horse to react “to feel”…when you first ask the horse to move away you can use a long schooling whip if that’s what he knows best but if he is sensitive to your touch, try first by gently touching his flank/hip. Don’t push as the horse is most likely to push back against you (he might not at first but he will eventually plant and become more and more difficult to “push over”).
If the horse moves away from just gentle touch, with training he will eventually start moving just from the energy of your hand pointing towards certain parts of his body. Later, when you ride and replace arm action with your lower leg action you can achieve similar training result. You put short, small amount of pressure on, then off. Horse needs to react on the “off” moment, not the “on” moment.
You can also teach you horse turn on the haunches in-hand which has more suppling effect on the shoulders. But start with the first exercise 🙂
Once your horse does this exercise in balance (and it might take you quite a few tries for some weeks because it’s not that easy to make sure the horse doesn’t fall in/out, doesn’t turn his neck too much or speeds up and runs through you out of lack of balance.
The key is to do this slow. The general benefit is suppleness but also, it teaches the horse to position his inside hind leg under his centre of balance and it is a first step to bending him correctly.
If he bends correctly, he will naturally seek lower, more relaxed neck position and round his back. A lot depends on you horse’s conformation. If he has a long back and weak loins he might find lateral movements very easy but engagement of the hind legs and roundness of the back much more difficult. This sort of work will in such cases be of even more benefit as the horse’s back will be more stable without the rider (long backed horses tend to be less stable through the back and more prone to losing balance than short backed horses).
Next step (or another exercise you can do alongside turn about the forehand) is leg-yield in-hand. This horse here is just starting to learn it:
Again, the key is to do it slow so the horse builds its own body awareness and confidence.
When you do these exercises you should notice that your horse’s attention on you increases, he might no longer be interested in other things and distractions as he focuses on the gymnastics fun you are doing with him.
Back to lunging
When you have your horse on the circle, keep the lunge line short but walk with him. You want to be positioned just behind his wither but not too far off the forehand so you still have some control over his shoulders. As he moves on, act as if you were going to ask him the turn around the forehand but only suggest this. His reaction should be to step deeper under his barrel with his inside hind leg. This in turn should, after some time, cause him to drop and relax the neck and back (longitudinal flexion – or roundness – is dependent on lateral flexion and balance).
You will need to also pay attention to what his shoulders are doing. You don’t want him to lean on his inside shoulder so if he does, you can stop and ask him a couple of steps of leg-yield so he takes some weight onto the outside shoulder.
Try to aim at 4-5 circles with him stepping under well in walk on each rein, stretching his neck but remaining active (not rushing with his hind legs).
When he does it well in walk (active but relaxed, stepping under, bending correctly, relaxed through back and neck) you can start playing with the trot – same thing. You might notice how immediately all you managed to achieve in walk is gone. Don’t worry. His crookedness might affect him much stronger in higher gaits.
Same work as in walk. Pretend you are about to ask him to move around you, just as he steps under with his hindleg, back off and allow forward trot on the circle. You will notice, that on one rein he steps under well, and on the other the inside hind leg will step on the side of his centre of balance. He will probably be also slightly bend to the outside with his neck pointing out. This is where this work will, in time, help him with this crookedness.
You probably know by now which rein he is “easier” to ride on. These exercises if done without rush, will help you straighten him and make him more even on both reins. They will teach him to use both of his hind legs well and in time, will also lead to exercises that you can use to teach him to lighten his shoulders (more collection).
Much weaker hind leg and crookedness often manifests itself in canter where horses are very easy to canter on on one rein and nearly impossible (or with difficulty) on the other. It takes time to develop dexterity and straightness. If they are not there in walk and trot, you have minor chance of having it in canter. As horse’s body struggles rider’s will too. You might notice you ride “twisted” or you lose one particular stirrup…If in those situations you increase strength of your seat and/or leg aids you will be well on the way to train a horse dead to the leg. The horse is physically unable to just change something in one second for the rider so he will become resistant and the more you push into him, the more he will push back at you.
All the above lunge work and in hand work should be done with no gadgets so you can learn to observe your horse. He can carry his neck up or to the outside without anything forcing him otherwise as only then you will know whether the “body work” you are doing is having desired effects (correct, relaxed neck position will be a by-product of work well done – i.e. of straightness through the body).
Would you like to try?
If you are interested in gymnastic work with horses and in improving your own biomechanics, there are still 2 places available on Aspire Coaching day on the 2nd of June in Berkshire. You will have a chance to work in-hand with a horse and then use that knowledge in the saddle. One of the sessions will be on Racewood Equine simulator to work on your own seat.
If you would just like to come and chat, watch and see if you like this way of training you are very welcome too 🙂 Please share this post with anyone who might be interested and help us spread rider-centred and horse friendly coaching for those who like to know the “why?” behind the “how to?”. See here for more details:
All the best,