The Benefits of Lunging
By Charles Wilhelm
Question: I would like to know why it’s important that I lunge my horse. I would also like to understand the essentials of this exercise.
Answer: This is a question that I have been asked many times but it remains a good question. This time, I’d like to answer it from a different perspective. I just saw something on Facebook about someone who never lunges but just gets on and rides and has done this since the horse was a colt. This may be fine for this person and this particular horse, but for most people, lunging is a very important tool for working with a horse. The same work can be accomplished in a round pen, but not everyone has access to a round pen. All of the principles I am going to discuss can apply to round pen work as well as lunging. Since most people don’t have a round pen, I’m going to focus on lunging.
Why do we lunge? We lunge our horses for various reasons but primarily to get the freshness off the horse. On average, most people only ride one to three times a week. I have clients who ride more and there are those, because of their schedules, who ride less. Those clients are fortunate in a way because in the meantime I’m working with their horses. However, not everyone has a trainer.
We don’t train on weekends, however, so if the owner comes in on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning, the horse will probably be fresh. The horse may have been in a stall one or two days with a turn out, and the horse is eager. The horse isn’t thinking about anything other than getting out and moving. Most riders must deal with this when they come out to ride. Why would you want to get on a horse that’s wound up? We all want our horses to feel good but we don’t want them to be yahoos, feeling like all they want to do is buck and kick. So, we need to get the freshness, or the ‘play’ as we sometimes call it, out of them. Working on a lunge line or in a round pen will deal with any need for the horse to kick up its heels. Lunging will also deal with any resistance and the exercise will get the horse thinking and paying attention to what it’s being asked to do. This warm-up will result in a better, more enjoyable and safer ride.
Secondly, lunging will help the horse to relax. When a horse is fresh, there can be little control of the feet other than getting the horse to go forward. Once the horse is going forward, our objective is to get the horse to relax. We don’t want to run the horse around on a lunge line for the sake of running around. I’ve seen a horse lunged for 45 minutes and at the end the horse was just as fired up as when it started. The result was that the horse bucked and the rider went off. With a horse that is already nervous or keyed up, you can actually increase the emotional level if you just run the horse around. What we are looking for in the horse is relaxation in the gaits. For example, at the trot the horse should start to drop its poll and neck. The back should relax and you should see the stride lengthen.
Working on a lunge line can also teach forwardness. You should use a shorter line for a horse that is lethargic. That allows you to drive the horse with a short lunge whip or training stick, whichever you prefer as a driving tool.
When you are lunging, you are looking for very specific actions from your horse. It is a training exercise, not just running around with the nose to the outside. I see a lot of people lunging on a 12-foot line and the horse is running around with the nose to the outside and the shoulder is dropped in. That teaches a horse to ignore you. Your horse should be soft with his nose slightly to the inside.
The third objective relates to mental attention. When the horse is moving in a very relaxed manner, his mind starts relaxing and that frees him to think and respond positively. I want the horse to have an eye and an ear on me. I want him to be looking to me for his next cue. By the end of the exercise, I want to be able to control the hindquarters of the horse as well as the shoulders. When I can do this, the horse is really listening and there is a unity between us. The whole objective is to have a relationship with your horse.
Some trainers say they don’t lunge or do round pen exercises with the horse because they want the horse to be edgy and have animated gaits. The truth is that if a horse is spooky and edgy, the gaits are going to be stiff instead of relaxed and fluid. I’ve seen people here at the ranch who have been with me four or five years who get on without ground work. The horse is forward and the rider is hanging onto the hackamore or bridle; the horse isn’t listening and is pushing to go forward. When you hang onto a horse to slow it down, all you do is dull the horse and teach it to be heavy and unresponsive. The work in teaching the horse to respond to a soft aid is wasted. I have horses here at the ranch who, after five days in a stall, can be saddled and cantered out without a problem. Still, the gaits are stiff. Five minutes of ground work warms the horse up so that when I do get on, the gaits are much softer and the horse is more responsive.
So, how long do you lunge a horse? With a young horse or a horse that has not been educated, you might spend from 15 to 30 minutes because you are teaching them something new. With a mature horse you may spend only five minutes. I have a two-year-old that we are readying for the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity and we spend about five minutes on the lunge line. We are able to control her hips by moving the hips over to the left and right. We make sure her back-up is immediate and straight. We put on the snaffle, and she is ready to ride.
Finally, if you have trailered out to trail ride, a horse show or some other venue, and your horse acts up and will not listen to you, you can use lunge exercises to get the horse’s attention.
Ground work can have an amazing effect on the attitude of a horse. When a horse begins to relax, his attention will be on you. He will have an ear and an eye toward you. At this point, you can actually work on up-and-down transitions, going from a walk to a trot and back to a walk. This is an excellent exercise when you want to work with your horse but you don’t have time to ride.
Depending on the length of time you spend and how well you do the lunging exercise, you can get a 20% to 80% carryover of the benefits to your saddle time. Those benefits are well worth the time it takes to lunge.
Charles Wilhelm can be seen weekly (including Tuesday morning) on HRTV, Channel 404 on DishTV. For more information on Charles, his program, clinics at his ranch in Northern California, DVDs, books and equipment, visit www.CharlesWilhelm.com.