Very many people use lunging as a training tool, but not many people are taught the ins and outs of lunging a in a way that benefits the training as opposed to exercising a horse for fitness.

Why Lunge?

People have different reasons for lunging their horses. Some use it just for exercising and see it as an aid in getting their horse fit. Others use to it take the edge off their horse if they feel he might be a handful when they ride. Some people lunge to teach their horses to carry themselves and engage their hindquarters better. This usually involves some sort of head gear like side reins, Pessoa or chambon designed to restrict how stretched out a horse can go around the circle.

In the work that I do of starting young horses and helping troubled horses, the main purpose of lunging an additional aid in helping a horse become focused and soft to the commands. This is the same aim I have in everything I do in my training and lunging is just another part of that. I’ll talk about how I do that a bit later.

Lunging Gear

I like to keep the equipment really simple. I generally just use a halter and long lead rope. With a horse that struggles to go forward I sometimes use a flag or whip to support my body language, but try to wean the horse away from those things as soon as possible.

If I am going to lunge a horse on a circle that is bigger than say 5m radius, I often use a lariat around the horse’s neck rather than a lead rope or lunging line.

A lunging cavesson is a better substitute to a halter, but I don’t own one. If your horse is to wear a bridle, don’t attach the lunging line to the bit. Use a cavesson or halter under the bridle for attaching the line. Many people clip the lunge line to the bit, but this can cause confusion to a horse for whom you are trying to establish softness to the bit.

I never use gadgets such as side reins, market harborough, chambon or Pessoa. They don’t release the pressure and put the horse between a rock and hard place. They are purely designed for forcing submission of a head position on a horse. In my opinion, they have no place in good horsemanship.

Finally, many people use their voice as part of their equipment. I tend not to do this because I find it is not very helpful. Horses don’t have the ability to understand complex vocalizations – they only have 9 sounds in their own vocabulary! Whilst you can teach a horse to trot when you say “t-r-o-t”, the trot you get is the trot he gives you. If you want a different sort of trot, you have to use body language anyway. So why bother saying t-r-o-t at all? If a horse could understand when you said “working trot” or “extended trot” or “slow trot”, I would consider the voice command to have much more value. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with using voice commands if you want to, I just don’t see the point.

What Is Circle?

When we think of lunging, we think of a horse travelling around us in a circle at a walk, trot or canter. But what is a circle?

By definition, a circle is where the distances (radius) from the centre point to the out edge (circumference) is equal at any point. This means that for a horse to be travelling a circle the distance from him to us (the centre) should be the same at any point of the circle. Not only that, but for a horse to be straight (or balanced) on a circle, the distance from us (the centre) and the horse’s shoulder should be equal to the distance from us to his hip.

Most horses are not correct on the circle. Most either fall in or fall out of the circle. Most flex to the outside as they go around the circle. Many lean against the lunging line. The most common cause of such incorrectness is that the horse’s thought is not on the circle. When he is thinking of being elsewhere he is also trying to set up his feet to take him elsewhere. When a horse is looking to the outside of the circle, he is thinking that’s where he wants to be and he leans against the line or becomes counter flexed to the outside.

The reason why lunging a circle can be so beneficial to your horse training is that when it is done correctly you are teaching a horse to follow the line he is travelling with his thought. He is learning that you can direct his thought. This is the absolute basis of all good horse training.

The Myth Of The Circle

Just about everywhere you read or hear there is the myth that during a turn or circle a horse’s front inside foot and hind inside foot travel on the same track. The same is said about the outside feet. This is not true. It has been perpetuated since Moses was a little boy and it wasn’t true then either.

When a circle or turn is CORRECT the inside front foot moves forward and to the inside. But the inside hind foot travels forward and to the outside (see photo). Therefore, if your horse is travelling on a left circle, the left fore steps slightly left as it comes forward and the left hind steps slightly right as it comes forward.

This happens because the horse cannot laterally flex his torso. A horse has the ability for a lot of flexion from his poll to his wither, but from the wither back he is pretty rigid. It’s just the way he is built. But it is because of this that in order to balance through a turn his inside hind foot must move slightly to the outside of the line of the turn to allow his front end to come around the turn. It is the same principle that cars built with 4-wheel steering are designed (not 4-wheel drive). The car can not laterally flex through it's body, so to make cars more balanced in their turns manufacturers designed 4-wheel steering where the front wheels turn in the direction of the corner, but the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to produce minimum body roll and under steering.

The vast majority of horses do not turn correctly when we ride because they are thinking outside of the turn rather than on the line of the turn. This is an important principle to remember when lunging or riding circles.

Getting A Horse Started On A Circle

Most folks begin their circle by stepping out of the way and sending the horse forward by driving his hindquarters. This may work on a horse that already understands the notion of lunging. But on greener horses, more often than not it will cause a horse to turn into the handler and face them. This can be quite frustrating for the person who doesn’t know what to do. It’s also confusing to the horse that feels he has done exactly as the human has asked.

When I am teaching a horse to lunge, rather than drive the horse forward, I ask his shoulder to step to the side away from me. It’s an opportunity to help a horse become softer in his forehand yields. I direct my lead rope towards the horse and to the side in order to encourage the horse to shift his weight back onto his hind end and lift his shoulders to step his forehand across.

In photo A, you can see I am directing the horse’s thought to the right by bring my hand towards the horse, but to the horse’s right. This gets him to look to his right and shift his weight onto his hindquarters. Then photo B shows the horse getting read to step his forehand to the right and beginning his circle. It is very important that a horse looks where you want him to go before he moves his feet. It is the horse’s thought that causes his feet to move, not his feet leading his thought.

Photo C shows a horse following the line of the circle correctly. His thought he looking to the right because he is thinking of going to the right. His feet follow the line circle nicely.

A really common mistake is to pull your horse in the direction you want them to circle. Photo D shows the problem. It’s very easy to pull a horse onto a circle, but it encourages them to crash onto their forehand and to walk through the handler. Rarely does pulling a horse across cause them to think in the right direction.

The circle is continued by the trainer allowing the horse to go past them until they are in line with being behind the shoulder (somewhere around the position of the saddle is okay for most horses). At this point the trainer should walk a very small circle in the direction that the horse is travelling. That is, walk to the right for a right hand circle and to the left for a left hand circle.

The most common mistakes made by people at this point are to walk in the wrong direction, ie if the horse is circling to the right; the person walks to the left. This has the effect of encourage a horse to yield his hindquarters away from the handler and resulting in the horse facing the handler instead of circling.

The next most common mistake is for the handler to walk backwards in an effort to keep distance between him and the horse. This often results in the horse crowding the person.

People also sometimes walk too much. Their circle is almost as big as the horse’s and rather than lunging their horse they are almost leading him. Keep your own circle fairly small so that the horse is going around you. Later when the horse understands lunging, you can vary your circle as much as you wish to address specific problems.

Lastly, don’t get in front of the shoulder. It has the tendency to block the forward movement of the horse. Always have your energy come from behind the shoulder.
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Changing Speed

In order to achieve more speed or less speed or a new gait, I always ask first by changing the energy of my walk. The more life I have in my walk, the more life I expect in my horse. If the horse does not respond to an increase in my energy level I use a flag or whip or tail end of my lunging line to back up my request for more speed. But I always start with a change in me before using something else. I am trying to train my horse to respond to subtle changes in my body language.

This photo is of Ngaire and her horse Tempest. I broke in Tempest and this her last day with me before Ngaire took her home. In the photo, you can see Ngaire has an energetic walk that Tempest interprets as a request to trot actively. Ngaire has a flag in her hand as support in case Tempest does not listen to the changes in Ngaire’s body language.

Likewise, if I want a horse to slow its feet I slow my feet. The less energy I have, the less energy I want my horse to have.

I do not agree with the Parelli system where a horse should keep lunging around me while I do nothing but stand in the middle. As I said in the beginning, lunging is a useful tool to help teach a horse to focus. If I do nothing but stand in the middle, I give my horse nothing to focus on and his circles become mindless laps. When I lunge, I am always talking to my horse through my body language. I am constantly addressing his speed, gait and line of travel in an effort to keep his thought on the job.

Another thing to note is that many people find it very difficult to keep their position relative to their horse constant when they walk either bigger or smaller. Often when a person tries to increase their walk in an attempt to get their horse to have more life, they get in front of the horse and block them. It takes practice to have more energy in your walk, but still walk a small circle and maintain your position. For most people, having more energy in their walk means taking bigger or faster steps – which is not the case. It’s hard to do well when you start out, but with practice and vigilance it becomes second nature.

Changing Direction

There are a variety of ways to change direction when lunging a horse, but I’ll summarize the approach I mostly teach and use myself. It has a number of advantages.

When my horse is lunging to my right, I walk to my right and keep my position relative to my horse constant. But when I want to change direction, I stop walking to my right and take a step to my left towards the horse’s tail (photo E). If my horse is paying attention to me, he will disengage his hindquarters away from me and step his forehand towards me in order to be facing directly towards me. Now that we are facing each other, I’ll use my lead rope and ask for a forehand yield to the left (photo F) and begin a new circle going to the left – in just the same way as if I started with a circle to the left. In other words, changing direction involves horse circling on the lunge, hindquarter yield in order to face me, forehand yield in the other direction and circling on the lunge in the new direction.

When you are learning this, it is best to break it down into the essential steps at a walk. Later on, as your horse progresses you can ask for changes at a trot or even a canter.
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It is important that the hindquarter yield and the forehand yield are done correctly because they are setting your horse up to learn how to make correct turns during riding. This is one of the major advantages of this approach to changing direction. The horse learns to flex around the circle, step his inside hind leg under himself to allow his hind end to support more weight, elevate his front end and reach out with his foreleg in the new direction.

I hope I have given you a clear picture of the basics of lunging a green horse. There is a lot more to it than I could fit into this page, and to lunge a horse well is a lot harder than it first appears. There are so many subtleties that can only be learned from trial and error. If you have questions about this topic feel free to e-mail me and I'll do my best to answer.