FEI Dressage Judge Sarah Geikie has an action plan guaranteed to make your lunging time more successful, more meaningful, and most importantly, much less boring.
I’ll admit it: when my dressage coach told me my mare would benefit from a few key lunging exercises a couple times a week, I inwardly groaned. LUNGING IS THE WORST, I thought. It’s a tangle of equipment and a logistical nightmare of adjusting and readjusting and holding a bazillion things in your frozen fingers and you don’t even get to feel the wind in your hair atop your steed. And did I mention it’s the worst?
But after attending a two-day clinic with USDF Faculty member Sarah Geikie as part of the Instructor Certification Program, I can officially say that I am a born-again lunger. I have seen the light, and I am following it into happy horse glory. Here were the major takeaways that will improve ANY horse in ANY discipline.
- Invest in simple, effective equipment: side reins, lunge line, lunge whip, and surcingle. The horses in the clinic going 4th level and intermedaire were using the same equipment as the training level horses. For a $150 investment, you’ll have everything you need and it will last you a lifetime. According to Sarah, “lunging without side reins is a complete waste of time.”
- Err towards generous side rein length to begin, and shorten them in 2-hole increments. Starting with side reins too short can teach disastrous ideas to your horse, and can also be unsafe. Always start a little longer and shorten as the muscles limber and the horse collects. (Sarah’s tip: always keep side reins even. Though tempting, don’t shorten the inside more than the outside — this just creates artificial bend in the neck.)
- Break your session into two ideas: assessment, and then planning and improvement. We’ll talk more about each of these chunks as we move along, but don’t you already feel better knowing that the best way to lunge your horse isn’t to watch it run in circles for 45 minutes?
- Assessment: Before you begin to lunge, just run your lunge whip gently against the body and observe the horse’s level of reaction, his awareness, and his willingness to offer a little turn on the forehand or a few steps of yielding. For the first ten minutes of your session, just ask your horse to perform all three gaits in both directions without much nitpicking — just observe. Look for the horse’s weaknesses to work on, and strengths to build upon. Look for acceptance, forwardness, bend, and mental focus.
- Plan and Implement: Offer your horse a break as you switch directions and use this time to make an internal plan. Decide what goals to set for the day and how you’ll reach them. (For example, “I see that my mare isn’t really stepping forward and engaging her hind end, so I’m going to practice some canter/trot transitions to help her use her hind end and get in front of the aids.”)
- Think about your body: Your physical form is JUST AS IMPORTANT in lunging as it is in the saddle. Have good strong posture, soft hands with thumbs up, elbows in and near your hips, and your body parallel to the horse. Engage your core and tighten and soften just as you would astride.
- Plant a foot — if your circles stink, your horse’s balance probably will, too. Your horse needs a dependable 20 meter circle to establish rhythm, consistent contact, and balance throughout the circle. Planting a foot and pivoting is your best bet for offering that to your horse. (If your arena groomer gives you the stink-eye for packing the center, move the center of your circle whenever you change rein.)
- Change direction every five to six minutes. This work can be redundant for you and your horse. Changing rein keeps muscles and brains from fatiguing. Sarah’s tip: use tack adjustments and walking breaks as opportunities to change rein so you don’t feel like you’re stopping and starting every two minutes.
- Don’t overwork the “stiff” side. Like us, horses have a dominant and a weak side that manifest as “stiff” and “hollow”. You’ll be tempted to work the stiff side more, but you shouldn’t. All lunge work should be done evenly on both sides, so that each side can develop supportive muscle that creates balance and elasticity.
- The lunging half-halt is your friend. Implemented just like a mounted half-halt, you engage your core, close your hand, and then soften. In transitions, the half-halt accompanying the vocal cue of “and” can prepare your horse for a smooth and planned transition. (“and (halt-halt cue) trot (upward transition cue). Well executed half halts can help your horse balance himself, engage his hind end, and move forward softly into the bit. And who doesn’t want all that good stuff??
By far my biggest takeaway from the lunging workshop was that, like all good horse training principles, you’re not going to fix all your problems or even one complete problem in a few lunging sessions. But lunging CAN be a way of establishing (or reinforcing) some foundation principles that can be hard to get across in the saddle. Side reins and a healthy respect for a gently following lunge whip can help a horse succeed in that wind-in-your-(helmeted)-hair time much more effectively, and I’m all for that.