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Lunging Problems

16 August 2011 No Comment

Lunging Problems
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

From: Natasha

I recently bought a 10 yr Quarterhorse/Arabian. He seems to be very lazy and I’m having trouble lunging him. He does not like to go any further than awalk, and at the most he will trot while riding if you really kick him. I am always quick to praise him when he finally does. The person I purchased him from says she lunged him daily, but he doesn’t even seem to know what lunging is. He just stands there and backs his rear away from the whip. What can I do to speed him up and why do you suppose he is not lunging for me? I would really appreciate your help on this since I am still quite an amateur at this.


Doing what I term “lunging with purpose” is an excellent foundational ground training tool. It helps to establish a relationship of mutual respect with your horse at the ground level first. If a person does not have the respect of their horse at the ground level, then in most cases it certainly will not be in place at the mounted level either. I never lunge a horse to just tire them out physically and run them in mindless circles. That kind of lunging is extremely stressful on a horse physically and usually will only lead to the horse getting fitter and fitter so you must lunge them longer and longer periods of time to get them tired enough to ride them. Its also not a positive mental workout either. Done correctly, lunging is more of a positive mental conditioning, with physical conditioning taking place at the same time. My lunging sessions are never longer then 40 minutes with a horse that is in good mental and physical condition both. Many verbal and sound cues such as clucking and kissing can be put in place that the handler can then transfer over to the mounted training. “Lunging with purpose” is how I start all of the horses that I train and it also works wonders for restarts that have issues while being ridden. It allows us to make a smooth transition from ground training to mounted training with a better understanding of our “positions” in our little twosome.

Basic equipment you will need: I begin with just lunging a horse in a nylon-web halter with a flat cotton lunge line. I never use flat nylon lunge lines because they easily rope burn and cut hands if the horse pulls hard and the handler is not wearing gloves. The round cotton ropes are all right too, but I don’t have very large hands and its just “too much rope” for me. You will also need a lunging whip, but not with the extra long shaft. The very long shafts will force a smaller person to have to choke-up on the handle and its just “too much whip.” The shaft on my lunging whip is about 60″ long. For the inexperienced handler, a round pen is a helpful tool, but a medium size square pen or arena works fine too. I rarely, if ever, use a round pen when starting youngsters or restarting horses, so a round pen is certainly not a necessity.

Attach your lunge line snap to the inside bottom ring of the horses halter and get yourself organized by taking big loops of your lunge line. For inexperienced handlers, before you ever begin lunging your horse, practice dropping your lunge line to its full length on the ground and then picking up the end, walk up the length of the line, taking big loops as you walk. Kind of like looping a hose on the ground. You want to be as organized as possible when lunging your horse and there’s nothing worse then having a big knotted up mess of lunge line to deal with. Beginning with lunging counterclockwise (to the left) is usually easier because horses are used to the human being on their left side for other handling purposes. As the handler becomes more experienced and coordinated, lunging the horse clockwise (to the right) will become easier. When you position yourself with your horse to begin lunging, stand at your horses shoulder, with the lunge line in your left hand for lunging to the left and your whip in your right hand. To start the horse off, I use “walk-walk” and a few soft clucks. As the horse begins to walk forward, step back and slightly toward the rear of the horse and “show” the horse the whip behind their hind legs to encourage them to go forward. Feed the loops of the lunge line out as the horse continues to walk out onto a circle. If the horse tries to turn and face you as you’re starting them off, extend your left hand out and bump or tap them on the left side of their face to get them headed out onto the line and not turning in. Note: never have small, tight loops that are wrapped around your hand. Always have big loops so that if necessary, you can open your hand and drop the lunge line. If the horse has gone out on the line a little distance but then tries to turn and face you, shake the lunge line at them, step to their rear (not close enough to get kicked though) and “show” them the whip. It may be necessary to give them a little “tag” on the inside hind leg to indicate that you want them to keep going forward and not “face-up.” Some horses will “challenge” the handler to see what happens if they “face-up.” They can figure out very easily if a person will give them a little “tag” or whether the person is holding the whip as a decoration and will never utilize it as the training tool that it is; a forward motivate and an extension of the handlers arm. I never advocate whipping a horse, however, giving them a motivating “tag” is a subtle signal that most horses understand.

When lunging, the lunge line simulates the reins as a directional tool as if you were riding and the whip simulates your legs as a motivate to push the horse forward or as an extension of the arm to give the horse a little “tap” with your hand (whip) on the hindquarters. It allows us to stay a safe distance to avoid a rambunctious kick. We are moving our horse from back to front. Send them forward with sound cues and “showing” them the whip and then direct them with your lunge line when they come forward to your hand. I place the horse between the “legs” (whip) and “hands” (lunge line) by forming a V-shape with me at the point, with the line going out to the horses head and the whip pointed toward right behind the horses haunches and me facing the horses flank and staying slightly behind the horse. I walk a smaller circle within the horses larger circle so that the horse is not stressing themselves physically and/or losing their balance on too small of a circle. It also allows me to stay closer in case my horse were to suddenly stop, “face-up” and challenge me. I would be close enough to take a few big loops of my lungeline, step away from the direction that I want them to resume going in and if necessary, “tag” them with the whip on their shoulder or foreleg that is away from the direction that I want them to go. I also never snap or crack the whip. Snapping or cracking the whip continuously will cause the horse to become unresponsive to those sounds. Similar to when a person continuously clucks when they are riding. After a while, the horse no longer pays attention to the sound, it means nothing to them anymore because it has become a part of the sound scenery.

To move up to trot, cluck and “show” the horse the whip (like squeezing your legs on their sides while riding). I never back away when lunging and allow a horse to invade my space. If they cut into my space, I step toward them, shake the lunge line towards them and flick my whip at their shoulder or hip to make them get back out on the circle. I continue to walk a small circle within their large circle around me and walk slightly behind them so that I don’t “block” their ability to continue moving forward on the lunge line. Don’t get in front of the horse when lunging because they may think that you want them to stop and face you; you don’t want to encourage a challenging “face-up” from the horse. To canter, I kiss, slightly raise my lunge line hand and “show” the horse the whip. Downward transitions are: from canter to trot I say “terottt”-softly, drawn out word trot, and then “waallk”-softly drawn out word walk and then soft whoa for halt .

I don’t reverse the horse out at the end of the lunge line because I don’t like my horses to ever “face-up”. There are three reasons for this: 1.) I don’t want the horse to ever get the idea that halfway through a lunging session they don’t want to do it anymore so they stop, spin and face me as in a challenge. 2.) For safety reasons, I like my horse to stop parallel to me so that as I am walking up to them looping my lunge line as I go, if something startles them, like a car backfiring, the horse would most likely bolt in the direction that they are facing and not over the top of me. 3.) Depending on the horse that I’m training, I will need to be making equipment adjustments if I’m lunging with a saddle and bridle, so reversing out on the lunge line is not practical.

By teaching and practicing voice and sound cues out on the lunge line, your horse will learn those cues and when you begin riding, you can utilize those same cues while mounted that the horse now understands and he won’t have to “guess” what it is that you want. You can then add the physical cues of your seat, legs and hands and eventually not have to use voice or sound cues at all as you and your horse develop a mutual understanding of each other. You also will have established a mutual respect at the ground level and a “chain-of-command” that will transfer over to the mounted training.

Good Luck Natasha!
Laura Phelps-Bell

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