Why lunge your spooky horse? After all, the problems occur on the trail or at the showgrounds, right? While that may be when you feel the effects of spooking the most, your horse will learn more quickly and thoroughly when not dealing with the additional stress of an unfamiliar location and dozens of distractions.

Groundwork is an important part of training and has many uses. For one, you can lunge for short periods or long-line a horse that is too young or unfit to be ridden. If you are a new rider or nervous about your horse’s spooking, groundwork will allow you to deal with your horse’s fears without the risk of you falling off. You can determine your horse’s sensitivity to triggers before climbing aboard and you can work on relaxation, rhythm and balance without a rider’s interference.

Since the focus of this series of articles is bombproofing, we won’t be covering the details of how to lunge or long-line in detail. There are good books and articles available to help you with that if you have little experience or would like to brush up. But here are a few of the basics to get you started if you have a horse that has been lunged before. For very green horses, please consider getting expert advice or reading a book* on training a horse to lunge.

  • If you plan on lunging often, invest in a lunging cavesson. This is a halter with a padded noseband with several rings on it to attach the line. It keeps the horse secure and responsive without worrying about damaging his mouth. Additionally, you can change directions without stopping to reverse your equipment.
  • A sturdy, well-adjusted halter will suffice if you are working the horse only briefly, or are just starting out and will eventually switch to a cavesson or bridle.
  • If you choose to lunge in a bridle, use a snaffle bit only. The advantage of a bridle is that the green horse also can learn to respond to bit pressure.

There are a number of ways to attach the line depending on your needs. The two most common involve clipping the line directly to the bit ring or  running the line through the near bit ring, over the poll and clipping it onto the opposite side. This method is believed to even out the pressure on each side of the horse’s mouth and may provide slightly more control. Remove or tie up the reins to prevent them getting caught up in the horse’s legs.

  • Use side reins only with the assistance of someone experienced if you have never used them before. For the purposes of this article, they are not necessary, but they can help prevent a horse running high-headed and hollow.
  • Carry a whip, which will be your supplemental “go” aid, in your right hand. When not using it, it should be in the resting position, either pointed behind the horse and at the ground (as in these photos) or flipped over in the hand to point behind you and away from the horse. If you are inexperienced or your horse is flighty, this position minimizes inadvertent signaling to the horse.
  • Your body language and your whip will communicate to your horse whether to move slower or faster and most people pair these with voice commands so that, as the horse gains experience, the commands can be transferred to work under saddle and while leading. Vary the gaits randomly and frequently to encourage attentiveness. Only once the horse is relaxed and obedient should you introduce obstacles.

Once you are ready to introduce obstacles, it can be helpful to start with one you’ve already used such as the tarp from the previous lesson. Alternatively, I recommend using a relatively benign object to start with. This will give your horse confidence that you will not be pushing him too far out of his comfort zone. The coloured jump ends in these photographs, for example, in an unusual configuration or a traffic cone laid on its side. You’d be amazed how many horses that are completely oblivious to regular cones react quite differently to one tipped over.

Start with your horse at a distance at which he notices the obstacle, but is not unduly worried about it. Continue to work him until he is relaxed and responsive before moving closer. Do not look at the object. Watch your horse’s body language. If he remains tense or gets worse, gain a bit more distance. Work plenty of transitions to keeping him thinking about you rather than fleeing.

Make sure to change direction and work both sides of the horse. Some horses do not easily generalize an object seen from one direction to one seen from another, especially if they look different from side to side. Remember to let your horse investigate the object if he so chooses. Be sure also to use objects that are under control and cannot hurt the horse. Ensure that anything loose cannot fly up or away and actually strike your horse or that larger objects cannot fall down.

Some suggestions for scary items include:

  • Plastic bags tied to the fence
  • Umbrellas
  • Beach balls
  • A cooler or tarp hung from a fence or over a barrel
  • A jacket draped over a jump standard, tree branch or fence post
  • A person waving a flag or opening an umbrella (remember, movement adds intensity)
  • Helium balloons
  • A tractor (start silent and progress to idling if your horse is sensitive)
  • A child’s wagon (start empty and stationary then work up to filled with objects and then moving)

A good bombproofing lesson should appear relatively boring. If your horse has not spooked and is working willingly near or over the object, you have accomplished your goal. Your goal is to teach the horse that strange objects are not harmful and to stay attentive to you. If you are seeing lots of strong reactions in your horse you have pushed to hard too soon and are keeping him outside of his comfort zone leading to stress and anxiety. This will have the opposite effect of what you want, causing him to sensitize rather than desensitize. Remember, from Part 1, you want to gradually increase his comfort zone by pushing at it gently to build his trust that you will not put him in danger and to increase his confidence.