There’s been a few articles circulating recently about the detrimental effects of lunging. But before we condemn lunging forever more, let’s look at it from both sides.
Lunging is coming under criticism because studies are finding a positive correlation between horses working on circles and joint injuries. So perhaps lunging isn’t the problem here, it’s the number of circles a horse does?
I’m a great believer in doing everything in moderation; the horses I know with the longest active lives and fewest injuries are those who have a varied work load. They lunge, they hack, they do flatwork, they do polework, they jump.
From what I can see, if you do a lot of flatwork and lunge a couple of times a week then this combination puts your horse at risk of joint injuries because of the number of circles the horse does. But if you predominantly hack or jump so ride fewer circles, then lunging a similar amount has less cumulative stress on the joints.
Then of course, there is your lunging technique. There’s the old adage that lunging for twenty minutes is the equivalent of riding for an hour. I think this is an important guideline to bear in mind so your horse isn’t trotting in endless circles for an hour.
Also, do you lunge continuously on the same size circle, or do you vary the size and walk around the school in order to incorporate straight lines? Do you use transitions and variations to the gait, or just keep the horse moving in their comfort zone? Do you divide your lunging session up into periods of walk, in-hand work, such a lateral work or rein back? Trotting for twenty minutes on a fifteen metre circle stresses the joints much more than a varied lunge session.
Think about why you want to lunge? For a tense horse like Phoenix, I find lunging once a week is beneficial as she is more likely to relax and stretch over her back, which is then taken forward to her ridden work. She can do this naked, and not having my weight or the saddle on her back helps her stretch her back muscles. Some people love gadgets, others detest them; I think they are useful in the short term when used correctly to help direct the horse into working in the right frame. This is something an experienced rider may be able to do from the saddle, but a novice rider can’t, and in order to improve their horse’s way of going and increase their working lifespan, they need help to develop the correct musculature.
For some horses lunging can be useful for warming them up before you ride. They may be cold backed, or a bit sharp. But this type of lunge shouldn’t be much more than five minutes. Equally, if you think your horse is feeling fresh one day, it’s safer to lunge and get rid of their excess energy rather than have an accident riding.
Lunging is useful for assessing lameness as it is usually more pronounced on a circle or turn. Also, without the rider you can see more clearly if it is a bridle lameness or not.
So there are valid reasons for lunging, and I think we can reduce the risk of joint injuries by not lunging for too long or too often, and improving our lunge technique.
We’ve already said that it’s the number of circles a horse does which damages their legs, so let’s change our approach to a lunging session to reduce the number of circles.
Start in walk on a large circle, walking yourself so that the circle becomes less round and has a few straight lines on it. Then go into trot and work on the same principle; some circles where you stand still, mixed with some wanderings. Use transitions and spiraling in and out to give variety to the circle. Use poles on a straight line to add to the variety. The only time I don’t do a huge variety in terms of transitions is when a horse is learning to carry himself differently (for example taking his nose down and out) or needs to improve his rhythm. But then I use wanderings to break up the circles. Think of doing short bursts of canter, and focus on improving the quality of the transitions rather than having a stamina workout.
After a few minutes of trot or canter work have a walk break, getting your horse to relax out on a big circle. When you change the rein, take the opportunity to do some in hand work with them. It may be rein back, shoulder in or other lateral work. But equally it could be some general ground manners such as standing still as you move around them.
I think my pet hate, and what I think would be a large contributor to horses having joint issues and a routine of being lunged, is when a horse is literally allowed to gallop round, fly buck, and turn them inside out at the end of the lunge line. These short bursts of acceleration and deceleration on a turn are far more likely to cause injuries than when a calm, well-mannered horse being lunged. Apart from the fact it’s dangerous to the handler, it’s poor manners and in my opinion a recipe for disaster. They aren’t working correctly, and you can’t check for soundness or any other issue, so the lunging is of no benefit to anyone.
I’d be interested to read more about the studies into lunging and lameness to learn more about the quality of the lunging technique, as well as hearing more about the study horses conformation, age, workload and routine, to see what other factors could be contributing to any lameness. Then we know if lunging is as detrimental to our horse’s wellbeing as is being suggested. But otherwise I will continue to believe in everything in moderation, including moderation.