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The How and Why of Basic Lunging

By: Galadriel Billington

10:26AM Apr 8, 2004

Lunging is a method we use to exercise a horse or to teach him something new without a rider on his back. A horse is controlled by the person doing the lunging, so we also use lunging for teaching riders; the person on the ground controls the horse's speed and direction, and the rider can focus on him/herself.

Going around in a circle is much more difficult for a horse than moving in a straight line. Also, the smaller the circle, the harder it is for him. It is preferable to use as large a circle as possible, and to work for only 20 or 30 minutes on the lunge.

Young horses may do more damage to developing joints in circles. It's probably best not to lunge young horses (younger than about 3) very much, if at all.

basic lunging diagram When lunging, the person (red) stands approximately still, and the horse moves in a circle (blue) around him. The person uses body language, voice, lunge line (purple), and lunge whip (green) to direct the horse.

You can attach your lunge line to the horse's halter, to his bridle, or you can use headgear specifically designed for lunging, called a lunging cavesson. You can even "free lunge," which is lunging without a line. Free lunging is typically performed in a round pen or arena, although it can even be done in a field.

I recommend against attaching the lunge line to the bit. If I am going to lunge a horse who has a bridle on, I will put a halter over the bridle and lunge from the halter. However, it can be done. To use a lunge line with a bridle, you would slide the lunge line through the inside bit ring, run it up over his poll, and clip it to the outside bit ring. You'll need to unsnap it and run it through from the other side to change directions.

In lunging, you will use body language, the lunge line, the lunge whip, and vocal commands. The horse should already be responsive to vocal commands; when you lead or ride him, he should be able to understand your voice alone when you tell him "whoa," "walk," "trot," and "back." Knowing "canter" is also helpful, but a little harder to teach in hand. If your horse could use a refresher on voice commands, you might like my article on teaching voice commands.
imaginary line from shoulder to center
body behind the imaginary line body ahead of the imaginary line
Body language and the use of the lunge whip are a combination aid. The lunge whip should be used to direct the horse, to show him where you want him to go, just as body language. Never use the whip to hit the horse.

Using your body language and the whip can take some time to describe, but the concept is simple: keep your body and the whip "behind" the horse to move him forward. Move your body and point the whip "in front" of the horse to slow, stop, or reverse him. As I said, it is simple; however, I'll give you some more information on "in front" and "behind."

Visualize an imaginary line leading from the horse's shoulder to the center of the circle. That's the dividing line. When you keep your body behind the line, that's "behind." Moving forward will slow, then stop, then reverse the horse. It depends how far forward you move and how quickly. You can also affect his movement by using your voice, of course; if he is trotting and you only want him to slow to a walk, then tell him "waaaaaaalk" and move slightly forward. If he is cantering and you want him to stop, tell him "whoa" and step out "in front" of his head.

Now I'll discuss the use of the aids step-by-step.
spiraling outwards
Spiraling out

circling with body behind the imaginary line circling
Staying behind the shoulder line
Setting up

For normal lunging, a relatively flat, dry area is best. Walk it to make sure that there aren't any hidden pits or roots which would trip the horse.

  • Lead him to the chosen area. Clip on the lunge line, tell him "whoa" or "stand," and let out a little of the line. Facing the horse, take the line in the hand closer to his head, and the whip in the hand closer to his tail. So if he is circling counterclockwise (making left turns), you'll want the line in your left hand and the whip in your right.
  • Tell him "walk" and point the lunge whip at his hip. To reinforce your voice, you may want to snap the whip. As he moves, let out more of the line until he reaches a good distance.
    Be sure never to coil the line around your hand; if he is startled and pulls suddenly, the coil will tighten and your hand will be trapped.
  • At any time, if you have too much slack in the line, point the lunge line at his shoulder to move him further out.
  • When you are happy with the distance in the line, begin walking in a small circle, following the horse. You will be keeping yourself just behind the shoulder line. If you just stood still, you would end up in front of the shoulder line--and you'd probably get dizzy.
mantain forward motion Forward motion

  • Maintaining the walk: As you walk, keep the lunge whip in the direction of the horse's hip, but point the tip toward the ground. Be sure to stay behind the shoulder line. You should do enough walking to get the horse warmed up a bit before you ask for anything else. Remember, the circle is stressful on the horse's body and joints. Don't ask for too much too soon, or too long.
  • Moving up a gait: Bring up the tip of the whip, and say "trot" (or "canter," or whatever you want him to do). If you need to reinforce the vocal command, you may want to snap the whip.
    Be sure to make your vocal commands distinct; "trot" can sound similar to "walk" if you only hear the vowel, so I use a sharp "Ter-rot!"
  • Maintaining the pace: Horses will respond based on their training and experiences. Some will need you to keep repeating the vocal command (eg, "Trot...trot...trot"); some will need you to keep the whip pointed at the hip. Some will continue at the requested pace with the tip of the lunge whip pointed at the ground, as before. I prefer to tell the horse what to do then have him continue until I tell him differently. You'll have to see what your horse does and respond accordingly.
stopping, slowing, reversing Slowing, stopping, reversing

To slow down but not stop, move your body forward smoothly and slowly and stop all "driving" motions. Get about least even with the shoulder line, drop the whip point, and maybe even aim it away from the horse.

Use your vocal command to tell the horse what gait you want: "Trot" when he is cantering, "Walk" when he is trotting, "Walk" when he is cantering. I usually make the sound sloooooow and calm: "waaaaaaaa-aaalk," "Teeeer-roooot" and so on. You'll want to use whatever you find easiest and works for the horse.

Watch the horse and move in response to his reactions. If he suddenly throws the brakes, then you moved too forward too quickly. If he doesn't respond, move more forward or more noticeably. Every horse is individual. You will need to watch him as you move and make adjustments.
body ahead of the imaginary line woahing To stop, move a bit forward of the line. Say "Whoa!" I typically point the whip just ahead of the horse. I find it easiest to switch hands when I am pointing the whip ahead of the line.

As with slowing, watch his responses. If he starts to turn around, you're too far forward or you moved too suddenly. If he only slows, you need to do more.
body before imaginary line reversing To reverse, I first switch hands. Once the horse is reversed, you will want the line and whip in the opposite hands anyway, and it is easier to use them to reverse also. So I put the whip in the line hand, and take the line with the whip hand.
Put your body ahead of the shoulder line, as with the whoa. Say "Reverse" and point the whip farther ahead of the horse. Be sure to have him turn *inward*, toward you; if he turns toward the outside your line will wrap around him. You may need to guide him as he turns around, if he hasn't done this before. So as you move the whip forward, put a little pressure on the line to pull his head toward you; tell him which direction to turn.
free lunging Free lunging

You can lunge without a line; all you need is an enclosure. It should be small enough that you can keep the horse's attention on your body language; if it's so large that he can't see you well, free lunging will be difficult. An arena works well, or even a small paddock.

Keep in mind that if the enclosure has square corners, it may take your horse a little while to work out how to turn in the corner. When you are free lunging the first few times, start encouraging the horse to continue forward when he is about 2 strides out from the corner. This will prevent him from losing impulsion and getting confused. Instead, he'll just keep going and work it out on the fly.

To free lunge you use all the same aids: your body language, your voice, and the whip will do just the same as they did when there was a lunge line. You'll stay behind the shoulder line and drive for forward, and move ahead of the shoulder line to stop driving and slow. If you try it a few times, you could be amazed by how much your body language tells your horse.

I prefer to free lunge, myself, because I can use a larger circle; it's less physically stressful to the horse. If you and the horse communicate well, you can free lunge in larger and larger areas. I have been free lunging my horses in our new ~3 acre field. (If you have enough space, you can even ask for a gallop; that's so much fun to watch.)

Lunging has so many uses.
  • You can lunge a beginner who is just learning to ride, or a more advanced student who is working on more complicated maneuvers. Since the person doing the lunging controls the horse, the rider can concentrate on her own body.
  • You can lunge the horse to exercise him if you can't ride: if you don't have time, or you are injured, or you forget your tack at home. A horse can be lunged by a friend if you can't make it out to ride him, so he maintains his fitness. This can be useful for owners who have to work late, who are ill, or are on vacation.
  • Green horses often are just learning to keep their own balance. Sometimes carrying a rider can unbalance them more. A horse who is developing the strength to canter in circles, or learning to jump, or otherwise performing potentially unbalancing maneuvers, can be lunged to help him learn the maneuver. Once he is steady on the lunge, a rider can reasonably expect some balance while he is ridden.
  • Lunging can be used for repetitive muscle building exercises, such as evening out a one sided horse.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.