They`re one of my favourite lessons to have, or teach, but they are quite a rare occurrence. For some reasons people are reluctant to embark on a position-focused lunge lesson. They are physically demanding, much more than people expect, and because you are limited to a circle and focused on rider position some find it boring. Which is possibly why there is so little take up for lunge lessons.
Beginners, who often benefit most from spending time focusing on their position, are often the hardest to persuade to have lunge lessons, whilst those more advanced often don`t have quiet, sensible enough horses to have a productive lunge lesson.
At college we had lunging every Tuesday after lunch, and the Stage two students warmed the horses up on the lunge before the PTT students took over and taught a Stage two student on the lunge. I loved this, although one snowy day I was the only Stage two student in so had three lunge lessons in one day!
For the ITT exam I need to give a lunge lesson, so have been recruiting willing volunteers from the riding club. Lucky for me, I have a few victims, I mean, volunteers, and now to prepare a variety of exercises so I am armed to improve whatever position faults are thrown at me.
I always start a lunge lesson by assessing the rider`s position, and prioritising areas to work on. Getting them to demonstrate sitting trot tells me if they are likely to be confident going without stirrups, and I can get a general feel of their confidence so I can pitch the exercises to their level. After all, there`s no point saying to a nervous rider, “today we`re going to work without stirrups and reins.” Which will make they not only worried, but also inadequate. So I would be better saying, “let`s begin by working without stirrups.” I also usually run through the ideal riding position, and ask the rider which areas they feel are their weakest.
So long as riders are happy to go without reins, you can do a variety of exercises to improve the independence and stability of the arms and hands.
Keeping one hand on the pommel of the saddle, and the other hand hanging like a pendulum by your side, whilst rising to the trot will activate your core muscles and stop you using your arms (however little) to help your rising. You can progress to having both hands hanging by your side, thus stopping reliance on the rein contact, and helping you sit up taller.
Pretending to hold the reins is a useful exercise in correctly the position of the hands. So many riders carry their hands too low and back by the saddle. I ask my riders to feel that they have half a dozen helium balloons tied to their wrists, lifting their hands so they threaten to fly away. To stop your hands disappearing into space, your elbows are anchored to your sides. For many, it takes a few minutes to acclimatise themselves to this new hand position, and the feeling that they aren`t restricting the horse in any way. Taking back the reins, they want to keep the feeling of lightness and positivity in the rein contact.
One arm at a time, and potentially both together at a later stage, in walk and then trot (possibly even canter) swing your arm in big circles. Start with forwards circles, slowly as to not strain any muscles. Then move onto backwards circles. This opens the chest, encourages the shoulders to come down the back and the collarbones to open. The rider usually then has a better upper body position.
Upper Body Exercises
Beginning at the top of the upper body, is checking that the head is sitting centrally on the body and the rider is looking straight ahead. Turning the head slowly left and right, or lifting the chin up and then down to the chest, can help loosen any of these muscles and relieve tension if needed.
Rolling the shoulders up and back can have a similar effect to the arm circling exercise above. If a rider carries tension in their shoulders, then getting them to lift their shoulders to their ears and drop them whilst exhaling can “blow away” the tension. This is one of my favourite Pilates warm up exercises! This is best done in walk.
Holding both hands out to the side, turn the upper body at the waist so the rider is looking into the circle, and then out onto the circle. Be aware of any changes to the seat bones in this exercise. The rider should feel the muscles on their sides working. This movement can push insecure riders out of their comfort zone as they are moving out of their usual position so require more balance. If they are happy doing this is walk I sometimes give it a go in sitting trot to test their balance. The kids calls it the helicopter exercise.
Once the upper body is looking more correct I try to improve my rider`s proprioception, and ask them to imagine that they have headlights on their hip bones, points of shoulder, and chest. These lights should ideally point forwards. As they ride round the circle on each rein, get them to focus on the lights showing them the way. This stops riders collapsing one side, and encourages them to turn their body around the bend. Imagine the spine is the centre of the carousel and the body is rotating around it.
Ideally, riders want to sit squarely on their seat bones, but so many pitch forwards. I ask riders to shift their pelvis around in halt and walk until they’re aware of any asymmetry and their seat bones. Then we look at rocking themselves back, so they are sitting on “the back of” their seat bones whilst keeping their upper body tall.
Taking the feet out of the stirrups and then drawing the knees up to the pommel of the saddle, will put the rider onto the correct part of the seat bones, and this should become obvious to them. Slowly let the legs down without shifting off the seat bones. Repeating this gets the leg muscles loosening. If your rider is quite competent then bringing the knees away from pommel tests their balance and stretches the hip flexors. This is tough though, so be gentle!
Sitting trot is the most effective way to improve the seat, and if a rider is comfortable, then work them without stirrups. If they aren’t, do short bursts of sitting trot with stirrups taking rising before the position slips. The rider should soon be able to sit well to the trot for long periods.
Swinging the whole leg, from the hip, will open the hip flexors and help the rider lengthen the leg to create that elusive vertical line.
If a rider has stiff ankles then rotating the foot without the lower leg swinging will relieve tension here.
The knees up and away exercise above, is really useful if a rider tends to grip with their knee and turn their leg in, thus blocking the horse at the shoulder. After opening at the hip the rider is more able to drape their leg around the horse’s barrel.
Keeping stirrups, for a rider who has an insecure lower leg, getting them to stand up in their stirrups and keep their balance in walk, and later trot, will help stabilise and strengthen the lower leg position. To further test their balance, they could hold their arms out.
I like to keep exercises simple, so my rider can devote their attention to how their body feels, not on what they should be doing. Then you can build the complexity according to how the rider is coping (and indeed the horse to these weird goings on on his back), so you’re less likely to cause an injury, but continue to build their confidence and ability. Getting riders to ride with their eyes closed can enhance their feeling and use of other senses, and also test their balance. If they are a novice rider, you could test their feel for trot diagonals and canter leads, and awareness of foot falls, which takes the pressure away from working without stirrups. There’s a whole plethora of exercises to improve the basics for all riders, which creates the building blocks for the more technical and exciting exercises, whilst also making these exercises easier and more achievable for the rider.