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.

Improving Canter Transitions

I had a very rewarding morning with Llani today. I’ve done a lot of work both on and off the lunge on his canter transitions.

When I started working with him he used to do this funny jump into canter. His hindquarters are very powerful and pushed him into canter, yet his front end often didn’t go anywhere, so it was almost like sitting on a pogo stick.

Initially I did a lot of work on keeping the rein contact very light, almost non existent, in the transitions and he really improved, travelling forwards into the canter. This was a great improvement, so o focuses on other areas of his work for a while.

However, his trot work has stepped up to the next level, with him much more consistent to the contact and working over his back, and soft in the neck. However, Llani started finding the canter transitions difficult again, and reverted to his pogo stick imitation. I think the improved balance and trot work meant it was difficult for him to engage the correct muscles for a good upwards transitions. When I allowed the trot to revert to it’s old self he managed the transitions fine.

So I began focusing on the transitions on the lunge using side reins.

Today really showed how everything is coming together. I took him into the school and he gave me a cheeky look before trotting off onto the left rein. He came back to walk after a few strides, and I knew that he was trying to make a game out of “which way around the circle will I go?” He began trotting actively immediately, tracking up, and in a steady rhythm.  As with most horses the first couple of minutes can be spent focusing him on work, not doing as many circles as possible in the first two minutes. 

Anyway, I clipped the side reins up, which are fairly loose to encourage him to take the contact forwards, and not to restrict his head and neck. Then I worked on his trot on different sized circles, using a bit of leg yield as he stepped out onto a bigger circle to engage his inside hind leg. He was really focused on me,and not looking for any distractions from the yard, and from the ten metre circle he was on I asked for canter. He struck off correctly, uphill and moving forwards towards the contact into a really balanced canter. I let him come back to trot after half a circle and sent him out onto a bigger circle so he could rebalance. I brought him in again to repeat the exercise as he can be a bit inconsistent with the transitions and practice makes perfect. He cantered beautifully, this time maintaining his canter for longer as I asked him to move out onto the bigger circle. After a couple more transitions, all of which were very correct I worked his trot again, which hadn’t deteriorated between canters, and then brought him in to change the rein.

I gave him a big fuss and then sent him out onto the right rein, which is slightly weaker. Funnily enough, it used to be his left rein that was weaker! I spent a bit longer in trot getting the correct bend and engaging his right hind leg, getting him to soften over his back, before practising the canter transitions on the right rein. This is the rein that he is more likely to do a pogo stick impression on, and the first one was a little bit up and down, and not so forwards, but after a short canter I brought him back to rebalance his trot. The second transition was much better!  He was relaxed and stepped forwards to  the contact, looking a bit more free through his shoulders. I think previously he has been ridden with a very short rein and not been allowed to move through his shoulder. After a few transitions on this rein I let him trot to finish, before letting him walk around on a long rein to encourage him to stretch forwards towards the ground, another alien concept to him.

I was really pleased with his performance today as he was very focused on me, and really tried to do exactly as I asked. Hopefully I can build on this next time I ride him.


The Shock of His Life

One of my little clients couldn’t make her lesson this week because she was going to the circus. This left me with a great opportunity to school her pony.

Now, he’s only eleven hands so I didn’t ride him. I have done before, but he’s very well behaved for bigger jockeys so I doesn’t help the problem my rider has.

On the left rein she turns him off the track, circles etc easily, but on the right rein he curls his neck up as she turns him off the track. I think her left leg is weaker than her right. On the right rein he also falls through that shoulder to the gate.

We’ve put him in the full cheek snaffle, and used side reins when she’s riding, which have helped, but no solved the issue.

My solution was to long rein him. That way he didn’t have the weight of me, but hopefully I could  still  influence his behaviour. 

After towing me round on the left rein for a couple of laps, he settled and I got him walking circles. He was very good, so I changed the rein.

Here, I tricked him a bit as I sloppily steered him down the long side before pulling the inside rein, mimicking a child, as children always ride hand first then leg when they remember! The pony curled his neck and carried on walking along the track, so quick as a flash I whopped the outside long rein against his side, mimicking the outside leg. 

He leapt forwards, as though he’d been electrocuted, completely caught by surprise at this outside aid. We carried on walking around the circle before trying to turn off the track again … He was brilliant – no hesitation and he kept his neck and shoulders straighter.

I had to repeat the exercise near the gate, but once told he was foot perfect.

After a lunge with the long reins I put him onto a single line and did some free jumping with him. He loved it! Taking me towards the fences before I was organised. The idea of this was to give him some fun and to let him feel the freedom of jumping without being restricted by his rider, although his rider has gotten much better at folding and keeping her hands forward. We finished by jumping a 2’3″ spread, which is quite impressive for a pony only jumping one foot with his rider.

I’m hoping that next lesson this pony behaves on the right rein, and allows his rider to feel a more correct turn.

The Pessoa

I quite like lunging with the Pessoa to show a horse where he should be putting his head and neck. I find that the pulleys release the pressure on the bit when the horse stretches into a long and low frame.

Anyway, the Pessoa can be mis-used as you can tighten the ropes and the horse stretches down until their nose is between their front legs. I used the Pessoa regularly with Otis for a couple of years but now find that lunging him naked is of just as much benefit to him as he has learnt to carry himself and work over his back without gadgets.

Back to the purpose of my post. I have lunged Llani naked regularly to encourage him relax and go forwards. I find he is now less tense, and you can see the muscles working from neck to hindquarters, like a wave of energy through his body. This partnered with Llani’s ability to lunge in both directions without turning in, made me decide to introduce the Pessoa.

I took the opportunity this morning, when I had lots of time, to fit the Pessoa. I let the sheepskin hug his quarters as I led him to the school, so that he could get used to the feeling of being “hit up the bum”.

I quickly sent him out on a circle, and didn’t spend too long walking – he’s just learnt to stay out on a circle, so I don’t want to give him an excuse to turn in (I try to extend the walking period each session, and finish with a long walk down on a circle). Llani was so funny! He waddled with his hind legs as he acclimatised to the feel of the sheepskin under his tail. I just encouraged him to trot and let him take his time getting used to the Pessoa.

It didn’t take as long as I anticipated for Llani to adjust and begin to trot normally, so I soon halted him to clip up the rest if the Pessoa. Obviously I wanted to set it into the lowest position but I had to be careful Llani didn’t feel too restricted because then he wouldn’t want to go forwards.

It was fairly loose, but Llani’s immediate response was to lift his head to resist the Pessoa. I think it’s the result of being ridden in draw reins or with a heavy hand. I let him stand and relax a bit, before asking him to walk on. Albeit reluctantly, Llani stepped forwards and after about half a circle was holding his neck in a longer frame. It was a fragile outline but he was really trying for me, so I asked him to trot on. In the upwards transition Llani often comes up and back at the rider, so I’m hoping that the Pessoa will help stop this habit. The trot was very staccato as Llani held his head up, resisting the Pessoa. I sent him forwards and suddenly Llani stretched forwards a bit, as he often does when I ride, before dropping his nose and lifting his back. Unfortunately for Llani, the Pessoa released go the pressure when he worked correctly, and he couldn’t feel a heavy rein contact. He jerked his head up, losing his balance, and resumed trotting as he had before. I describe riding Llani as being a parent. He wants his hand held all the time, and for the rider to put him in the right place. I will explain this theory another time.

Gaining a bit of confidence, Llani stretched forwards and engaged his back, and allowing the Pessoa to go slack again. This time he managed to maintain this for two strides before reverting to his usual trot. He seemed it appreciate the alleviation of pressure.

After working on both reins Llani managed to stretch and engage his back for a few strides at a time. I didn’t work him for too long as Llani isn’t used to working in that way, and then I unclipped the Pessoa to let Llani stretch and cool down. I was surprised with how much he had unlocked and released his trapezius muscle. His neck stretched out from the wither hugely!

I think the Pessoa will really help Llani learn how to work correctly which hopefully I can build on when I ride him and he can build a better top line. It will be interesting to lunge him naked in a months time to see if he’s holding himself up.

Learning to Stretch

I`ve been working with a Welsh cob, Llani, who has done a fair bit of showing a couple of years ago and has some issues to overcome, and the last couple of days he`s really started making big steps forward.

He`s quite a forwards, spirited horse but he feels like he has been ridden with the handbrake on – from hand to leg as opposed to leg to hand. Initially I spent a couple of weeks lunging Llani naked, to let him feel free and unrestricted as well as improving his balance and suppleness. The first few sessions he trotted with his head in the air in a disjointed trot. You could see the muscles in his neck starting to relax and work properly, but when you reached his back the ripple of muscles stopped. I`ve only concentrated on walk and trot, with the odd canter to loosen him up, but also letting him trot over random poles to encourage him to lift and flex his back a bit more. Yesterday we had a breakthrough. Llani gave a snort and let his breath out, showing he was actually relaxing, and then his head dropped and the wither lifted. His stride is already very floaty, but it changed in cadence as he engaged the correct muscles. Finally, you could see his body rippling down from his ears to his dock. He only managed to keep this position for a stride before losing his balance and raising his head.

Today Llani settled quicker into a steadier rhythm and started lifting and working over his back a bit quicker and holding the frame for longer periods, which is great news. The next task I have is teaching him to change the rein easily. As a show horse he was never led from the off side and when I turn to stand on his right, he spins on the forehand to look at me. It`s very frustrating because he doesn`t seem to learn! Once I can stand just behind his girth I can usually send Llani away from me, but timing is of the essence because if I spend too long by his side he reverses to look worriedly at me. I`ve taken to leading him from the off side too, to try and desensitise him. He`s getting better and tonight he keenly walked by my left shoulder, instead of dragging himself behind and to the right of me.

In terms of riding Llani I`ve been doing a lot of hacking to encourage him to take a more even rein contact and to be a bit straighter through his body. I`ve been getting him up in front of my leg so that he is less likely to spook at any ghosts, and this is also helping him take the contact forwards and stretch at the base of his neck. I`ve done bits and pieces of schooling with him, focusing on his rhythm and suppleness by riding hundreds of circles.

Below are some photos taken on the ground, at the beginning of the last schooling session, in the middle and then you can see Llani starting to stretch at the base of his neck in the last photo. He`s used to being held together in quite a collected outline, so all of this is very alien to him, but after the last couple of days work I`m hoping he`ll start to understand what I want from him more.
photo 1

Llani before being worked.

photo 2

photo 3

Slowly thinking about taking the contact forwards in walk.

photo 4

The first trot, when he likes to put his head in your face.

photo 5

Cooling down and learning how to stretch slowly.