I thought I’d explain how to work a horse on the lunge in a way that’s more interesting and complex than the usual walk, trot and canter. Even though periods of straightforward work like this is useful to building fitness, balance, posture and muscle tone.
This exercise helps engage the inside hind leg, improves suppleness and gets them pushing up in the subsequent upward transition.
After I’ve warmed the horse up, and put them in side reins in trot I’ll usually start adding this exercise. They need to be in the right frame of mind, so sometimes I canter to make sure they aren’t too energetic or overly responsive to my aids and body language. One mare I lunge needs to be quite physically tired before she’s open to some mental questions, otherwise she just leaps around!
From trot, I bring the horse forwards to walk and spiral them in. To do this, shorten the lunge line steadily and keep the tension in it so that, along with some little half halts, they start to bring their forehand in. The lunge whip stops the hindquarters falling in by pointing quietly at the hock. I find raising it and almost pushing it towards them, helps keep the hindquarters in the correct place. If the horse falls in too quickly, I use the same technique with the whip at the shoulder. This is why you want them to be accepting of your aids because they need to step quietly away from the whip as opposed to doing a Scooby-Doo moment and leaping in the air at the smallest movement.
Sometimes I’ll repeat the spiralling in element of this exercise until I’m sure they’ve completely understood it, and are looking supple enough for the next stage.
With the horse walking on a ten metre circle I start asking for some shoulder in. In a similar way to how I asked them to spiral in, I’ll half halt down the lunge line whilst pushing the whip towards their inside hind. The whip is mimicking the inside leg and is a bit more active than when I spiralled in. After all, we want the inside hindleg to step under the body.
Once the horse has walked three or four strides like this, I release the tension in the lunge line to allow them to straighten up, and then ask them to trot on. Usually this transition is very active and the trot is very springy as they’re working nicely from behind and using their backs well.
Some horses will trot off instead of stepping under, so it’s important to keep the whip movements minimal and the contact down the lunge line enough that you can quickly correct them. They soon start to get the idea, especially if you use your voice to ask them to trot on, rather than waving the whip at them.
Asking for shoulder in will highlight any stiffness or asymmetry. It will also encourage more inside bend, but if the side reins are the correct length then they will soon support the outside shoulder. One mare I’ve been lunging is significantly stiffer in this exercise on the left rein.
It can be frustrating because one week she may be stiffer and more resistant than the previous. Incidentally, who do you blame when training doesn’t go quite right? Your horse? Or yourself? The correct answer is yourself! Try to work out why they aren’t doing the exercise like they did last week: are you asking differently? Are they sore from yesterday’s workout? Did they find it too hard last time so are more reluctant? Have you done the same preparation work, or tried to go from step two to step five? Are they in the right frame of mind and warmed up sufficiently?
So yes, this mare has days when she’s forgotten how to bend her neck to the left and when I ask for shoulder in she falls in through the left shoulder, looking out on the circle, and instead of using her lazy left hind leg she brings her shoulder to me. So I end up backing away out of her way without realising and she escapes doing the exercise.
To overcome this, I’ve been focusing on improving her bend and riding shoulder in under saddle to help her suppleness. Then in hand I’ve been clipping on my reins to the lunge bridle and flexing her left and right. She’ll turn her head all the way to the right without taking a step, but she’ll avoid bending to the left by shifting her hindquarters right. I think there’s also an element of losing her balance here. So I do some stretches like this, and then try to get her to walk and flex her head left and right. Again, she struggles with bending left. I also ask for some turn on the forehand to get her stepping under with her left hind leg without loading the left shoulder.
Usually after this in hand work she remembers that she can bend to the left and we get a much better attempt at the shoulder in. Moving her up into trot is helping strengthen that left hind leg too.
Whilst trotting on the left rein she can be reluctant to give a true bend, but today she seemed to understand more that the whip flicking towards her left hind leg meant it was to come under her body more and that extra effort gave her left bend and then she gave a beautiful, floaty trot, pinging along effortlessly. She also began to track up better and improved the activity of her hindquarters.