What is the actual purpose of lunging your horse? Everybody seems to do it. But why? There are several trains of thought that we will explore.
Lunging To Make Your Horse Tired
Some people believe they must lunge their horse to get him calmed down before they ride. If that is the case, there are some bigger missing pieces somewhere in his training. After a colt has had his first few rides, where you lunged him around a little to get his feet untracked, he should no longer need to be lunged just to prevent him from blowing up when you climb on. People with older horses may view the purpose of lunging as a way to get the freshness out and make their horse safer to ride. But to really make an adult horse start to get tired, you would have to lunge him a long, long time. On a side note, when your horse is fresh, that’s when he should be at his best, not at his worst.
Lunging to Spend Time With Your Horse
Others view lunging and other groundwork as a way to simply spend time with their horse. And that’s a great goal! Any interaction with our horses can be an effective teaching opportunity, but we also need to remember to just enjoy being around them. Life is short. Stop and smell the horses.
The #1 Purpose Of Lunging is Communication
So what is the most useful purpose of lunging? It isn’t to send the horse 90 miles an hour in a circle for 10 minutes hoping he will decide not to buck. The whole purpose is to build communication. When I first started doing horsemanship clinics, we didn’t do any groundwork. I figured that these were not colts, so they shouldn’t need groundwork before we started the riding exercises. But I soon realized that doing groundwork was critical because it gave the participants multiple opportunities to establish some communication with their horse. It’s an opportunity to practice causing the horse’s thoughts and intentions to be directly connected to, or a result of, your thoughts and intentions. That is the purpose of any groundwork with your horse, including lunging.
What are the other essential groundwork exercises? Grab my free Groundwork Checklist here: Groundwork Checklist
One thing I see all the time. People try to lunge their horse when the pieces required to do that are not yet in place. Before a horse can lunge correctly, they must be able to stop from a light cue. There also needs to be some front and hind end control. The shoulders should easily yield away from you. The horse should be able to face up, and to NOT face up. It’s amazing how difficult it can be to have a horse stop and NOT face up. But that needs to be established.
Lunging Mistake #1
Probably the biggest mistake people make while lunging is to allow the horse to come into the human’s bubble. That will cause the human to yield to the horse which is never a good thing. Not because we want to be an unfair ‘boss’, but we do want to be the leader. A horse craves leadership. The purpose of lunging your horse is to help get that established. If your horse has been taught to back up from a slight wiggle of the lead rope, and yield his shoulders, you can use those skills to keep him out on his circle when lunging and doing direction changes. The way you guarantee your horse will not advance towards you is if you advance towards him.
Lunging Mistake #2
You raise your arm and ask your horse to lunge. Maybe you even come in with the flag to show him you want him to begin lunging. But when he starts going around, you keep your arm and/or flag raised (which is a form of pressure) so he never has a complete release. Be sure to lower your arm when he begins traveling. If not, your raised arm and/or flag will begin to have no meaning to the horse and defeat the purpose of lunging.
Lunging Mistake #3
Your body position is a valuable form of communication. Pay attention to your drive line. Being at his hip will encourage forward motion. Stepping towards his front end will encourage slowing or stopping. I like to ‘chase’ a horse’s hip as they travel around me. That seems to encourage them to keep moving better than if I remain still and lifeless while they’re lunging around. It also causes an obvious change when I stop chasing the hip to ask them to slow down, stop, or change directions.
Lunging Mistake #4
Whether you’re lunging at liberty or on a halter, you want your horse to have some flow and cadence. You don’t want his movements to be choppy and rigid. One mistake people make is adding speed to their lunging too early in the process. The horse may choose to go faster than you are asking, but that is simply another opportunity to communicate an idea. Change your approach to let him know that he can slow down and calmly lunge at a walk. When he slows down you will know you have successfully made your idea become his idea. That is the purpose of lunging your horse.
To see this in action, watch this lunging demo at a clinic where the horse became more sure about where he needed to be and what he needed to do: How To Lunge A Horse Correctly
I have never jumped on the pinball lunging bandwagon. I call it pinball lunging when a horse is sent around the pen at a lope and then expected to jump around, change directions, and go the other way. It reminds me of that arcade game where the ball bounces all over the place. Actually, I rarely lunge or do round pen work any faster than a trot. If the purpose of lunging is communication, then a walk or trot should be plenty fast enough to get that established.
Listen to my podcast ‘Round Pen Etiquette’ here: Carson James Podcast
Remember that slow is smooth. Smooth is Fast. Speed ahead of accuracy is useless.