Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by OTTB United: Lunge Right

“There’s always more to do, always more ways to do it. But, even if you’re like me and you hate lunging, getting the horses through this basic set of skills is worth it in the long run.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on lunging.

Let me start an article on lunging by saying, this: I (mostly) hate lunging.

Yes, yes, yes, I fully understand the potential benefits of getting a horse to walk, trot, and canter around you. I also understand that in many cases, good lunging is practically an art. Still, I personally dislike the act of standing at the center while a horse does large hopefully-circle-shaped loops at your chosen speed. Nevertheless, lunging is a critical puzzle piece of training that I try to make sure my horses understand. If nothing else, at least I know they won’t automatically bomb that part of a pre-purchase exam if they know how to respect the line, go both directions, and toggle up and down the gaits on voice commands.

Rhodie (Western Ridge) is one of the only horses in the barn who actually NEEDS to lunge before shows… if nothing else, just to set routine and get him to focus. Photo by author.

Despite lunging being a less-than favorite activity, it is in many ways critical to the work of retraining an off-track Thoroughbred… or starting any horse. Done well, lunging can teach a horse to have even balance on both sides, respect boundaries, minimize dominance issues, create clear transitions, learn voice commands, and understand how to create a correct bend among a million and eight other important things.

As a kid, I equated lunging with with burning-off excess energy. Lunging with a line was something distant, something I only remember seeing when we traveled to shows — repetitive circles in the early morning light. It was something the kids at my farm simply never learned to do. At home, we would just turn our fresh horses out in the arena and run around like banshees with lung whips, getting them to tear around and burn off the chilly-Connecticut-fall-air-inspired madness. (I 100% do not recommend that, though as a nine-year-old, the ensuing mayhem was a blast.)

Lottie (Hatch Gate) struggled with some dominance issues and a pretty big “NO” button. Lunging and ground work helped ease her anxiety and translated to a much more ridable horse. Photo by author.

It wasn’t until I was a working student with hunter trainer Jenny Fischer in New York that I learned that lunging actually carried training properties. When done well, lunging set a horse up to go better under saddle later down the road. How she taught me to start her two year old hunter Warmbloods is now foundational to how I restart my OTTBs.

Baby Rhodie learning to lunge in the bloody cold weeks of early 2021. Photo by pivo.

Before I dive into the tips and tricks of training productive lunging in green horses, it is important to remember that for many (but certainly not all) racing Thoroughbreds, lunging is not a significant part of their life… if it has ever even played a role. Yes, they can go in circles on the hot walker, and yes a vet might need to see them lunge, but for many, the line does not come in as a training aid until they have retired. Moreover, racehorses are regularly handled on the left. Moving to their right side and asking them to move away from pressure will test the quality (or at least the bi-directionality) of the training they received in their on-track life.

Amelia gets set to head out for her morning workout at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, KY. Note that she is handled, as per usual, on the left. Photo by author.

To be super clear, the type of lunging I’m talking about here is a ground-work training aid. It is not “prep” (except in the case of Rhodie), or used to wear them down. Sessions are short and sweet. Contrary to my lunge-whip wielding childhood self, the goal isn’t burning off the “hot” — rather, the aim is focus and learning to create skills that translate well under saddle.

So when restarting a OTTB (or training any horse, young or old, to lunge), here are my recommendations:

1. Rope halters are awesome

Rope halters are great as they are flexible, have the loop for the lunge line hanging under the chin (aka both directions are a ‘go’) and place pressure on the right points if and when needed. I’m a fan. I’m sure lunging cavesons are great, too. That said, I try to avoid flat halters and bit/bridle combinations when training the absolute basics. These can come back in later as necessary. Flat halters are easy for horses to pull against and resist the circle, and bits can end up accidentally quite severe if a horse bolts, tries to run off, or simply leans hard into the turn.

A very fuzzy, five-year old Rhodie sporting what is probably my favorite rope halter in the barn. Yes, do this long enough and you too will have a favorite rope halter. Photo by author.

2. Confine the space

To be fair, I don’t always do this, but ideally, I like to start horses horses on a lunge where spatially they understand that they have to turn. Starting in a roundpen is super. At Jenny’s farm we used to use jump standards and poles to build a visual round-pen-look-alike. It never made a full fence or enforced the turn, but it would help structure expectation of the correct answer – you have to turn and stay on a circle.

3. Start small — like really small.

If you kick a young off-track horse out on a huge circle at the end of the lunge line, the room for error and speed gets pretty significant. You’re actually safer (and they are, too) if you start to work them right next to you. I start horses on about 2-3′ of lunge line. I will walk with them as if leading and then slow my pace, while picking up my back hand to encourage forward motion. I ask them to walk with me and around me and halt when I give a verbal cue and drop my hand. I slowly make the turns bigger, graduating to trot at maybe 10′ of line while I move with them, walking big steps in a circle while I face their shoulder.

Lottie started lunging in smaller circles than this, graduating to the large sweeping canter tracks shown above. Photo by author.

4. Reward consistently

I use a raised tone to reward the act of going forward. Once the horse halts on command, I use the same tone and approach their shoulder, petting them there and rewarding them for all the good work. Reward solidifies communication and builds trust — doing so at their shoulder also requests trust (so yay, win, win!). I don’t forcibly hold them still when I reward them. They learn to accept the scratches with a loose lead, which in turn reinforces their ability to stand and wait as well.

5. Start on alternating sides

This seems pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many horses expect to start lunging while tracking left. Inevitably, OTTBs are happier with me on the left. Learning to move off cues and pressure from the right is trickier, but no less important. To make the horse as balanced and able to conceptualize work from both sides, I alternate starting on the left or right sides. That said, to make their life easier and less stressful when teaching a new concept on the lunge, I will teach it first with them tracking their strong direction — often left — and then apply that knowledge to train it on the off side.

Baby Juice (Pulpituity) learned to lunge long before I got on him – he had a lot of growing up to do – but standing still on the circle taught him to remain quiet and attentive. The work translated well to riding, and the notorious track rearer never stood up during his restart. Photo by author.

6. Don’t let them turn in

A lot of people will have thoughts about this; this is very much a “to each their own” situation. That said, certainly it is easier to reel horses in to teach them to halt — it is harder to produce a halt that continues facing the around the circle. Training in small circles first helps to make this halting on the circle thing possible. The trust that is trained in keeping the flank open to the human is also a pretty big deal. And from experience, I have found that the voice command “woah” as I down transition to the halt while in the irons produces straight movements and less diving through the shoulders.

7. Train consistent voice commands

Voice commands are literally vocabulary training for horses. Give them the word and the physical request consistently enough, and they will learn. I love watching how this works under saddle. To this day, Forrest (Don’t Noc It) might be tearing away with a student but if they can sit up, soften their reins and say “Woah, Forrest” or “easy, trot” he downshifts and settles into the requested gait. Honestly, the shocked expression on his riders’ faces when it works and the big freight train of a red Thoroughbred slows, is totally worth the many months of lunge and ground work that he went through during his restart.

The freight train himself, Forrest (Don’t Noc It). Photo by GRC Photography.

8. Aim for consistent rhythm

I lunge incrementally, slowly increasing the circumference of the circle. In order to “graduate” to the next bigger sized circle, or next gait, horses must be attentive, quiet, and responsive to the trained voice commands. Perhaps most importantly though, I need them to maintain a steady, quiet rhythm in the walk, trot, and canter. I don’t require a slow western jog or anything that would end up ‘behind your leg’ but I do want all compass points of the circle to happen quietly, at the same pace and bend. The most important outcome: Training a consistent rhythm on the line inevitably helps create the same quiet, ridable pace and rhythm under saddle.

Solidly good lunge training and ground work makes it so that you can hop on and feel like you’re riding a much more trained creature. That skillset is essential and takes the stress out of the early post-track rides. Here Rizzy (Residual Sugar) bops around on her first post-track ride back in 2020. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

9. Keep Walking

That one is as easy as it sounds. Push forward to their shoulder as you lunge, but keep your feet moving. Your movement helps to keep them close but not make the circles killer small, it also allows them to get used to your body movements and cues. As soon as you stop moving or slow your walk at their shoulder as they circle, they need to be thinking about what is coming next. Stop moving all together, and they should halt and wait. Good lunging should have a bit of slack in the line the entire session. That might be easier said than done but it is a solidly good goal.

A much more adult Rhodie demonstrates how to train lunging in a rope halter, while I walk with him, at the first Thoroughbred Logic Clinic this past winter. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

10. Don’t drill

Going in circles is as hard on their body as it is on my mind. Keep the sessions short, sweet, and useful. With the green beans, if I have been doing lunge work for more than 20-minutes, I’m usually shocked. Even shorter sessions allow for good training without burning out their brains or breaking down their joints on the turn.

Honestly, I wrote out a list that ended up much longer than 10 things. Those items above are just the start of the retraining. There’s always more to do, always more ways to do it. But, even if you’re like me and you hate lunging, getting the horses through this basic set of skills is worth it in the long run. So happy circles folks, and good luck keeping the dizzy at bay.

Thoroughbred Logic is proud to be supported by OTTB United, the premier virtual marketplace for retired racehorses built by equestrians, for equestrians. The OTTB United app unites organizations, buyers, sellers, and trainers in one interface. Download the app and give it a whirl by clicking/tapping the banner below!