Lunging a horse is something that many folks do but a low percentage seem to really understand the why’s and how’s. There are quite a few reasons to lunge a horse – in the horse training world, lunging can be used to educate the horse, to help the horse to learn to wait and pay attention for instructions – to go stop, back up and change gaits.
In the world of the “English” rider lunging seems to serve two main functions, exercise and consistency. It is fair to say that aside from lunging some of the so called “English” disciplines, such as dressage, also use a lot of ground work that would not be described as lunging.
Some riders like to take the edge off a horse’s stored up pasture energy by lunging them before riding. Lunging is helpful to allow the horse time to get focused before a ride. It is my view that the notion that lunging teaches “respect” is not correct – respect is something that cannot be forced and sometimes in this context fear is being referred to as respect.
In the Vaquero world lunging is mostly about basic communication, and mostly used when starting a colt, directional control, safely releasing energy, changing gaits and stopping in preparation for riding. Once horses are being ridden lunging tends to be used less often, unless it is for a specific purpose like a wellness check.
I don’t want to make a deep dive into lunging, there are too many (often debateable) things to think about, but what I do want to touch on is foot position while lunging. A common error is stepping backwards while lunging, doing so encourages the horse to step towards you, as it does when you lead it, invading your space.
Another odd thing is walking in big circles with the horse, as if it is being lead in a circle. in this case, the horse is not learning to be responsible for its own movements, it is learning to move away from a little pressure at its shoulder. When there is a constant drive, taking away from horse’s own work – it is not being trusted to make its own decisions. So avoid continually asking (nagging) the horse at the lunge.
Watch the horses:
If you observe how horses move each other in the pasture you will notice that the more dominant horse goes where it wants, when it wants, and the other, lower, horses step aside. That is part of what you are trying to achieve in lunging, to be the leader of the herd. You will also notice that the cues given by one horse to another don’t involve punishment, running in kicking and throwing a fit. The cues are far more subtle, the glance of an eye, the turn of the head, or the twitch of an ear.
But moreover, think about the direction of the feet, the dominant herd member just goes forward, the lower horses step aside. If the person lunging steps out of the way of the horse, the signal is being given to the horse that it is higher up the herd ladder. And this can have serious consequences with some horses.
Think about this story:
The carrot lady always went into the pasture with a pocket full of carrots, after all she “loved all the horsies“. The horses would come over and frisk her for treats, usually being rewarded for their efforts. She thought they were so cute and cuddly, she would rub on them as she handed over the sweet treats.
Then one day, she went out into the pasture and all the horses were at the far end, away from the gate. One of the horses noticed the carrot lady and started to trot over to be the first to get carrots before they were gone. Another horse also saw the carrot lady and didn’t want to be the last to the carrots, the race was on – the whole herd started running over to get their share.
Our carrot lady, seeing the whole herd running at her to get a carrot, panicked, she turned and ran back to the gate, afraid she might get trampled. But the horses were faster and caught up to her and her friend. As the horses crowed the pair looking for their treats, one of the horses accidentally stepped on the back of carrot lady’s calf muscle, tearing it open with front of its hoof and breaking her leg.
Carrot lady, of course, blamed the “pushy and dangerous” horse, she never realized how she had created the problem in the first place. If she didn’t treat the horses, fi she had stood her ground and not run away (inviting the horses to follow) the unfortunate outcome may have been quite diffent.
Back to the lunge:
As you lunge clockwise, plant you right (pivot) foot and step around it with your left so that you are turning at the same speed as the horse. Orient you body so that you are facing your horse’s hip, not his head and do not orient yourself to the same direction he is heading in. When you step as if to cut the horse off, by stepping as though your trajectory will intersect with his head, or a line slightly ahead of that, you will usually cause your horse to either slow, stop or change direction.
When you switch to the counter-clockwise direction do the reverse, your inside foot (left) becomes the pivot foot and steps (apparently) towards the horse, helping create impulsion. You should be basically standing in one place creating the illusion, for your horse, that you are stepping towards him – he will understand the subtlety better and faster than you will.
You might experiment by doing the reverse, and switching the pivot foot, then stepping backwards with the inside foot. You should notice your horse perceiving that step as an invitation to come into your space, and he might start cutting you off.
I have posted a video on your tube with my grandson, Michael, aka “Lil Rip” demonstrating what I am talking about, check it out here by clicking the link.