As I’m doing a lot of lunging at the moment I’ve had to think of ways to make it more interesting for both me and the horses.
Which means a bit more polework and some jumping. When lunging over poles the onus is on the horse to go over the poles because as a lunger you have less control over accuracy than if you were riding the horse. So you have to introduce poles and jumping in such a way that the horse doesn’t learn that there’s an option of running around the poles. Then it’s far more fun for both the lunger and the horse, and you can develop their confidence and technique without the added weight or impact of the rider and their balance.
Before introducing poles the horse wants to be settled in their work, not too sharp and focused on the lunger. Then lay out one pole perpendicular to the fence, with plenty of room either side. Having the edge of the pole against the fence will prevent the horse running around the far side of the pole. Then it’s a case of knowing the horse – are they young or new to poles? Do they like jumping or do they have the tendency to be cheeky with poles (this may be more applicable with ponies!)? Are they confident with poles or jumps or do they rely on the rider to give them confidence?
If I feel the horse needs more support, or clarification over the question, then I will place a couple of poles on the inner side of the first pole to help channel the horse straight over the original pole. Sometimes I place a block or low wing by the first pole, which will later become the stand to build a jump and the guide poles can be leant up on this to make more of a barrier, and to make the question crystal clear.
Depending on the horse’s approach to new things and their experience, I will either lead them over the pole or walk or trot them on the lunge over the pole. I work on both reins until they are happy, and settled in the approach to the pole, neither rushing or backing off. If I’m honest I don’t tend to do too much in the way of cantering over poles. Going that much faster means I have less influence to avoid a sneaky run out and I find the horses better balanced in trot. Besides, any jumping we do on the lunge is not so high that they can’t jump from trot. If they pick up canter on the last handful of strides then that’s fine.
Back to building up the pole work. Once one pole is negotiated confidently I add in a second, about 4’6″ away from the first to make trotting poles, adjusting the distance to the horse I’m working with. We work over these until settled and then I add in another. I keep them on a straight line and put in as many as I feel the horse will benefit from. Using this step by step approach I find that most horses accept the exercise and take responsibility for going over it. I can also then judge how quickly I can build the exercise up next time and if the guide poles are necessary. For example, an experienced horse that I know well can probably go straight onto three trot poles.
When a horse is working well over poles on the lunge they are maintaining their rhythm throughout, improving their cadence, and using their back muscles to facilitate lifting each leg slightly higher. It’s also a good test of balance for them and horses who find it difficult tend to rush as they lose their balance. Not having the hindrance of the saddle or rider’s weight can help a horse learn where and how to carry themselves and build up the necessary muscles. This means that the horses learn to think for themselves for and to place themselves in the correct place.
When normal trot poles are established on the lunge, it’s a case of providing variety. Placing them away from the fence if the horse is committed to them, altering the number of poles, adjusting the distance to teach the horse to lengthen or shorten, placing the poles on a curve and raising the poles.
Raised poles exaggerate the step of the horse, so improving their cadence, suppleness and balance. Some horses just rush through and clonk each pole as their feet traipse over the poles, so it’s a matter of encouraging them to stay steady while they learn to lift their feet higher and more slowly over the raised poles. Without a rider to balance, young horses usually get the hang of raised poles quite quickly.
Do you keep the lunging gear on a horse while doing pole work? I think it depends on the horse and the gadget. If the horse is calm and experienced with poles then I will often leave them as they are. If they are likely to get excited or exuberant over the poles or if I think the side reins or Pessoa or whatever gadget they’re wearing will hinder their negotiation of the poles then I’ll take it off. Side reins can help a horse stay rhythmical and straight. A Pessoa can help encourage a horse to engage their core and lower their head as they lift their back over the poles so can be useful with raised poles if the horse tends to hollow their back instead of engaging their core.
When moving onto jumping on the lunge horses need to be naked so that they learn to jump without hindrance.
I always build the jump up from a cross pole, to an upright and then a bigger upright and then oxer if needed. I like to keep the jump adjacent to the fence and use the guide poles to help focus the horse unless I know that they’re confident jumpers. I approach it in a forwards trot, allowing the horse to pick up canter if they want. Going over the jump, it’s important for the lunger to keep moving parallel with the fence and to allow the lunge line to skip through their fingers as needed, so that the lunge line doesn’t jerk the horse’s head on landing. If the horse feels hindered on the getaway it may put them off future jumping. I have them jumping from both reins, keeping the question simple so that they can focus on finding the right take off point and improving their technique in the air. And I make it as fun as possible so that the horse enjoys the exercise and builds their confidence. Then their bascule over the fence improves.