Lunging is an incredibly useful tool … provided we do it correctly. Otherwise it can enforce bad habits and horses can learn to “cheat” the gadgets we provide.
Initially, we all learnt to lunge to exercise the horse; be it when they are fresh and overly excited, or if we don`t have time to ride them. After all, 20 minutes of lunging is equivalent to an hour of riding … in theory. I find that if you work the horse correctly on the lunge for 20 minutes then he has worked as hard as if he has done an hours schooling; however, if he is just allowed to trot round willy-nilly then I tend to feel that 20 minutes is only really equivalent to about half an hours riding. Which is why we all turn to gadgets to help up improve our horses.
When training for the BHS exams we`re all shown the side reins technique, how to correctly fit them and to recite their uses off by heart. Now I`m not saying they`re useless, in fact they are very good for teaching the horse to accept a steady contact, but also a horse with a particularly sensitive mouth can be desensitised a little bit so they can be ridden more easily, or if their rider`s hands aren`t yet stable enough for them. I loaned an ex-racer who I lunged with side reins because she wouldn`t accept my hand. When I clipped the side reins on (really loosely) I used to have to run backwards and send her forwards before she started rearing. It can teach horses to seek the contact, but like any gadgets they have their design pros and cons. To quote Patrick Print, “plain leather side reins are the best. With buckles, not sliders, so you can make sure they are equal in length. Those great heavy doughnuts are useless as they bounce on the horse`s mouth. Neither are those ones with elastic, as the horse takes the contact they stretch and relaxes the contact.” Before my Stage 4 I could quote him word for word when he posed the question “What do you think about your lunging equipment?” Anyway, that is in the ideal world. Have you ever tried to get these plain leather side reins?
I tried a few times to put side reins on my youngster, and found that the side reins made him tuck back and lift his head up so that the side reins were loose, emphasising his already slightly ewe neck and under developed top line. He didn`t go forwards to it because he didn`t understand them. Someone suggested attaching the side reins to the girth between his front legs, to have a similar effect to a martingale. Which was marginally better; except for the fact that he started to pull upwards on them. So I stopped lunging for a while, I was better off lightly schooling him. Then someone suggested the Pessoa. It was enlightening.
The first time a friend helped me kit him out, and it really helped him. I used it two or three times a week all winter; it helped engage his hindquarters, but also he started to drop his head and neck, the wrinkles at the base started to disappear, and you could see his back muscles starting to work. Through the summer I just tend to use it once a week. I only really used the Pessoa on the lowest setting, but then I noticed that whilst he went down and lifted his back he also dipped his nose behind the vertical. On those occasions I would put the Pessoa on a higher setting for a few minutes.
About six months ago I took him in the lunge arena in just a bridle and cavesson, and lunged him naked, to see how he was carrying himself, and to make sure he wasn`t relying on the Pessoa. I was pleasantly surprised; once he`d settled and warmed up a bit and I was sending him forwards he dropped his head an lifted his shoulders and withers; over tracked, and his abdominal muscles were working. You could also see the latissimus dorsi and longissimus dorsi twitching as they worked. The canter wasn`t too bad either, as he had to hold himself together. If he`s not going forwards then he doesn`t work correctly … which goes back to the basic ridden training.
So now when I lunge him, I still make him work correctly, and he works hard, but I don`t use any gadgets, just the cavesson and bridle, then send him forwards until he works himself. The only thing I can`t improve easily is his bend; he has the tendency to have counter flexion on the right rein. Lots of circles, and making sure I keep the rein contact, and do half halts, making the circles smaller then bigger, and pointing the whip at his shoulder too. I also love using poles and caveletti to engage his hindquarters. How high do people put caveletti poles? The older riding school horses I tend to just lift them 5″ above the ground on one side, but with my horse they can be 2` or more on one side. It really makes him think, and when he does it properly his head and neck comes right down as he has to flex the shoulders and stifles. Moral of the story? Don`t be afraid of raising cavaletti poles to improve your horse`s way of going.
The other gadgets that are available are the Chambon, the bungee, and a tail bandage wrapped around the horse`s torso … I don`t really understand how that works. I`m not against gadgets in any way and think they are of great benefit to horses, but I also think it`s important that they are temporary, and not to be relied upon as it means that you are not training your horse correctly.