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Free Lunging

16 August 2011 No Comment

Free Lunging
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Hi. What is your opinion about free lunging? My horse seems to lunge better when I don’t use a line. Another question that I have is I understand about horses being herd bound but what do you recommend if you absolutely have no way of separating them? My mare and her baby have never been apart except for the times when I had to board them, they were at opposite ends of the stable, but other than that, they have always been together. I am now in a situation where I can put them in separate paddocks but they are side by side. The mare is now 15 and the baby is 13 to give you an idea as to how long they have been together. It makes it hard when I try to ride to ride my mare by ourselves with her baby calling when we are riding in the open field behind the barn as we are only renting so I have not invested in other fencing other than what is here.
Your reply is greatly appreciated. Thank you.


I think that I horse should know how to free lunge, and also be lunged on a lunge line. Free lunging will help develop a communication of togetherness and will also help develop the subtle influences of body language, expression and “feel” for one another. It’s especially nice if you have developed the type of relationship with your horse where you can actually free lunge your horse in an arena or a square or rectangular corral and not only in a roundpen. When a horse will lunge around you even though they don’t have to because there is no fence-line holding them in, then it’s almost like you are connected mentally, or with an imaginary silken thread. You know your relationship is one of companionship and trust when your horse could leave, but they don’t.

The reason that I also like a horse to know how to lunge “on-the-line” is twofold:

First, I personally train horses on the lunge line using “lunging with purpose” which helps develop a horse mentally and physically toward relaxation, softness, suppleness, cadence-in-movement and focus. In addition, it allows them to make choices in how they wish to feel in relation to release of pressure and moving away from, rather then into pressure. Done correctly, the horse will “self-teach” in terms of releasing themselves from pressure, rather then trying to run through it, or lean into it. They will also develop cadence and rhythm in their movement with helpful direction from the human. We also use lunging on-the-line to establish our “positions” in our “herd-of-two” in terms of me being the director of the production and the horse being the talented actor that takes appropriate direction from me. Someone must assume the leadership, or director’s role, and that individual must be the human. When there is confusion in our positioning, as when the participants don’t know the role they are supposed to play, then there will be unrest and a lack of harmony in our relationship. By lunging on the line, we develop mutual respect, trust and understanding, and also clarify the roles we play and our expectations regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior from one another.

Second, for practical reasons, lunging is a useful skill for the horse and human to know. If the veterinarian needs to perform a lameness exam for some reason, they will be better able to clearly see movement at three gaits and it will make it easier to determine if the horse is sound or not by seeing a horse moving rhythmically in a circle, rather then erratically. The lunge line controls the situation better and allows the vet to see what they need to see instead of perhaps the horse running off bucking, or constantly switching directions or gait. If the horse is unsound, a good vet may be able to somewhat pinpoint the area where the problem is depending on which direction the horse is traveling on the lunge line (like perhaps a “reaching leg lameness” where the affected leg is on the outside diameter of the lunging circle as in the case of some stifle injuries or suspensory ligament problems), or how big or small the circle is. Then there is also the practical reason of when a horse is going through a pre-purchase exam. Most often, the vet will want to see the horse lunge both directions to check their gaits and movement for soundness, but also to check their respiration and heart rate after the horse has worked for a bit.

Another practical reason for the horse and human both knowing how to lunge correctly is if you are at a show, or have trailered your horse out somewhere to go on a trail ride and your horse is a little “up” when you take them out of the trailer. Rather then just climbing aboard and taking your chances that the horse may buck you off, or be a wee bit squirrely, you might defuse a potential negative situation by putting them on the lunge line for a few minutes.

Regarding the “separation anxiety” with your mare and her baby:

They’ve been together for 13 years, so it’s only natural that they are very attached to one another. I too have several horses that have been raised together for several years. I don’t have any problems interacting with them when I take one horse out because they are attached to me more so then their buddies and they also know that when we are done with our interaction out in the arena, (a big open field), out on the trails, or after they arrive home from the show and are unloaded from the trailer, they will be back with their friend, so they feel confident and secure regarding leaving or being left. I don’t harass the horse I’m currently working with about whinnying because that means I’d have to constantly be picking at them. They are usually so focused on our interaction, that they don’t whinny or get upset about being taken out by themselves at all. I certainly can’t control the whinnying of the horse that is left in the corral, so I utilize planning ahead to keep the situation calm for that horse. I offer the horse left in the corral incentive to stay quiet, or settle down faster, by giving them some feed that they really like, but only get on those occasions where their buddy is going out with me and they are left in the corral or pasture. It’s almost like it becomes a special treat just for them and something to look forward to, a positive, rather then something to stress over and worry about, a negative. For the horse that I’m taking out and interacting with, I also have little tidbits because I use modified clicker training incorporated into my training anyway, so it all meshes well, and then we also are focused on doing things, so our interaction is positive.

I know it might sound silly to some people, but I also always talk to my horses and tell them what we’re going out to do and what I hope we accomplish. It’s probably the tone and rhythm of my voice, but for all I know, it might also be “visualization” that helps bring about positive interaction. Whatever the reason, most horses respond very well to the human talking to them and will most often relax.

The best advice I can offer on this issue is to try and develop a sense of security within your horses and develop their trust in you. It’s like making promises that you always keep. Tell the baby that you’ll be bringing mom back and in the meantime, here’s some very special food just for you. Develop the separation time over a few week period. Give the baby the special food and then only take mom away for 5 or 10 minutes and then bring her back before the baby gets wound up. You can lengthen the amount of time away a little each time. If the baby always knows that you’ll bring mom back, and vice versa with mom, they will both develop a better sense of security and confidence about the separation and then won’t suffer from separation anxiety. Make sure that you’re praising your mare for staying focused on you and for trusting you and offer her little rewards for being a good girl too.

Once a horse truly is secure and trusts you implicitly, they will believe that you won’t let anything harm them mentally or physically, so they will relax and trust that all is right with their world even if they are separated from their buddy for awhile.

Good Luck!

Laura Phelps-Bell

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