Lunging is a valuable training tool that every horse person should be able to do well. It’s also something horse people often don’t agree on. There are those who believe that:

  • free lunging is a better option than using a lunge line
  • lunging is used only for “fresh” horses to get rid of excessive energy or get the “bucks out” before riding
  • lunging should be avoided as it damages the horse’s joints

When done correctly, with care for how your horse carries himself and encouraging bending and stretching, lunging can improve his posture, suppleness and balance. When done incorrectly or for the purpose of allowing your horse to blow off steam, it reinforces crookedness and hollowness, and stresses his joints and mind.

Lunging allows you to see your horse’s whole body and how well he is using it. The way in which your horse carries himself while being lunged will be the same as when he’s being ridden. You can see if he engages his hindquarters or falls on his forehand; if he stretches and lifts his back or hollows it; if his body follows the bend of the circle or leans into it.

If your horse doesn’t lunge well, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon to see these behaviours:

  • refusing to go forward
  • turning and facing in
  • bucking, rearing or bolting
  • rushing around the circle unbalanced and counter bent

These problems are often caused by miscommunication and misunderstanding. Horses see and interpret our movements, posture, alignment (position relative to them) and energy based on their perception of the world which includes herd dynamics, predator/prey dynamics and equine body language. When we understand and apply their perceptions to lunging, we resolve those problems and are able to do so much more than send our horses around in never ending circles.

Here are the three key areas that affect how well your horse will lunge:

Proper Alignment. Alignment refers to your position relative to your horse. When lunging, what matters most is where your core, hips and shoulders are aimed.

To lunge your horse in a way that makes more sense to him and works with equine body language and psychology, you have to use correct alignment and be mindful of how you’re moving your horse.

Horses don’t pull each other forward; they drive or “push” each other using their personal space bubble. We apply this concept while riding when we send the horse’s hindquarters forward into our hands. But, when lunging, people often hold the lunge line like they’re pulling the horse forward.

Hold the lunge line like you hold a rein – upper arm parallel to your side, elbow bent and supple allowing a soft contact through the lunge line. Standing between your horse’s shoulders and hips, aim your core (navel) into his shoulder and your hip nearest him (your right hip if you’re lunging to the left) into his hip.

Ask your horse to move forward by pushing your personal space bubble into his flank and only start walking after he starts moving. You walk a small circle while pushing him around a larger circle.

Practice this position and way of walking by pushing a single wheeled wheel barrow in a circle. To move the wheelbarrow smoothly and easily in a circle to the left, you must angle your body slightly into the arc of the circle. Your left shoulder (on the inside of the arc) is open (slightly behind your right shoulder). Your hips are aligned with your shoulders.

With the correct alignment, you’re in the best position to send your horse forward from the hind quarters into your hand. You can also correct your horse if he’s crooked or unbalanced by moving his shoulders and hips – just as you do when riding.

Correct Buttons. You can sculpt your horse into a straight, balanced shape by pushing his hip, barrel and shoulder with stronger energy from your core (only toward the shoulder), hip (only toward his hip), arm or whip. This way, you’re talking to him through your own body in a way that makes sense to him.

The buttons your horse understands are:

  • flank – forward
  • hip – move hindquarters away (front end will turn in)
  • barrel – bend
  • shoulder – move front end away (hindquarters will come in)

Appropriate Energy Level. Ideally, we want the horse to respond to our lightest energy – simply aiming your core or pointing toward the part of the body you want to move away from you. Start there, but if your horse doesn’t respond or challenges you, gradually bring your energy up until he responds. You’ll stress your horse (potentially causing fearful or aggressive behaviour), when your energy is too strong or inconsistent. If you use too little energy, you’re horse won’t respond.

You can increase the energy you’re sending with a whip without using it to hit the horse. You can use the whip to point at, touch or gently tap, or twirl the lash in the direction of the specific button you want to activate. To increase the energy coming from the whip, move the whip quickly in successive circles towards the horse without touching him.

Always bring the whip’s lash from the ground upwards towards the horse without letting it go above his mid-line. Bringing the whip from behind you, up and towards the horse is an aggressive movement similar to a horse rearing and striking. (To experience the difference yourself, have a friend use the whip in the two different directions towards you.)

When you lunge your horse using the correct alignment, pushing the right buttons, and using the right amount of energy, you’re speaking to your horse in a way he understands and that makes sense to him. You can use lunging to help your horse improve the balance and strength he needs to carry a rider without stressing his body or his mind.

In part two of this article, I will explain how using contact, transitions and lateral movement while lunging help improve your horse’s balance, rhythm and relaxation.

Basic Equipment

Halter (web or leather not rope), bridle (snaffle bit or bitless) or a cavesson

Saddle or surcingle (optional) – secure the stirrups so they don’t fall down and bump your horse’s sides or elbows

Cotton lunge line without a chain or rubber stopper

Lunge whip

Quick Tips

  • Ensure that the halter, bridle or cavesson you’re using to lunge your horse fits correctly and does not move up near his eye.
  • Rope halters are not suitable for lunging as they move around too much, apply unnecessary pressure and do not allow for consistent contact.
  • When lunging with a bridle, remove the reins or wrap them securely around your horse’s neck so that he won’t step through the loops when stretching his neck downward. To wrap the reins, put them over your horse’s neck, then twist them around each other tightly. Secure the reins by threading the end of the throat latch between the two reins and doing up the buckle.
  • Attach the lunge line to the bit using a bit converter or by putting the line through the inside bit ring up over the poll and clipping it to the outside bit ring. Do not attach the lunge line only to the inside bit ring because it’s very easy to make the horse crooked as well as pull the bit through the horse’s mouth.
  • If using a bitless bridle or halter, clip the lunge line to the inside ring.