Everything in Moderation

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.

Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.

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In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!