Step-by-step guide to lunging

Step-by-step guide to lunging

Lunging is a great way to keep your horse fit, but are you working them correctly? In this guide, BHS Level 4 complete coach and dressage rider Stef Eardley discusses how to lunge your horse safely and effectively.

What you’ll need:

For the horse:

  • a lunge line
  • a lunge whip
  • a bridle or lunge cavesson, or both
  • a roller with side reins or a training aid
  • protective boots or bandages (optional)

For the handler:

  • a hat
  • gloves
  • sturdy boots

Why lunge your horse?

Lunging can be a great way to exercise your horse, especially if time is short or you’re unable to ride. Aside from helping to build and maintain fitness, lunging offers lots of benefits:

  • Encourages suppleness, engagement and obedience
  • Improves balance, especially in young horses
  • Allows you to assess how your horse is working from the ground
  • Adds variety to your horse’s work
  • Plays a major part in training young horses to accept the contact and get used to their tack without the weight of a rider
  • Can be an effective part of rehabilitating your horse from an injury

How to tack up and prepare for lunging

The simplest lunging tack is a correctly fitted bridle or lunge cavesson (or both – they can be worn together as long as the noseband is removed from the bridle) and a roller with side reins or a lunging aid. If you plan to ride after lunging, your horse can wear their saddle and the side reins can be attached to the girth.

TIP: To get your side reins the right length, measure the distance from your horse’s girth or roller to behind their ears. This will help you make sure they aren’t too tight. Your side reins are there to mimic the rider’s contact, not to fix your horse’s head into position.

How to lunge your horse in 5 steps

Lunging your horse correctly takes time and practice. If you’re at all unsure, ask your instructor or an experienced friend to assist you for a few sessions until you feel confident. Another good tip is to watch an experienced lunger work their horse to see how they get the best out of their horse and what exercises they use.

1. Choose your surface

Lunging should be done on a non-slip surface that’s as flat as possible. Lunging can be quite wearing on a horse’s joints, so avoid hard surfaces such as baked ground (this means avoiding your field in the hot summer months). Unless your horse is well behaved, opt for a smaller area to lunge in, as you may find you don’t have enough control. A round pen or an area with a sand, rubber or carpet-fibre surface is perfect.

2. Maintain a ‘triangle’ position

To get your lunging position right, imagine a triangle with you at one point. Stand in the middle of your circle, looking towards your horse. Your lunge line and whip form the two sides and your horse makes up the third side. This will ensure you are in the correct position to drive your horse forward with your body language and help deter them from getting in front or behind of the movement.

3. Warm-up your horse for work

A session on the lunge should be similar to a riding session, so start by allowing your horse to stretch down in walk and trot before working them in trot and canter.

4. Work equally on both reins and use transitions

Just like when you’re riding, you should be careful to work your horse equally in both directions. Depending on your horse’s level of training, this might mean asking for equal circles in walk and trot, or walk, trot and canter on both reins. If they’re stiffer on one rein, try starting off on their good rein to build their confidence and help loosen up any tight areas. Asking for lots of upward and downward transitions will get them listening and powering forwards from their hindquarters, as well as sharpening them up to your voice commands.

5. Remember to cool down

Always follow your session with a stretch in walk on both reins (you can remove or loosen your side reins for this). Keep them walking forwards and don’t let them dawdle along, continuing until their breathing has returned to normal.

TIP: Working a horse on the lunge is more intense than riding, so don’t overdo it. Five to 10 minutes equally on each rein with plenty of walk breaks is sufficient for a lunge session. As your horse’s fitness improves, you can increase the time.

What to look out for

1. Your horse should respond quickly to your body language and voice commands. When you use your voice, for example saying ‘trot on!’, use a confident, encouraging tone, reinforced with ‘driving’ body language that directs your energy slightly to the back end of your horse to encourage them forwards. If they don’t respond, follow up with a flick of your whip so they understand what’s expected. When asking for a downward transition with ‘And woah’, use a softer, more relaxing tone and relax your stance, lowering your eyes and softening your gaze. This approach will help your horse understand what you’re asking them to do.

2. Your horse should have an even suppleness through the body in the direction of the circle, tracking up or slightly overtracking, and shouldn’t be falling in or out through the shoulder. If they’re struggling on one side, try these in-hand exercises to improve your horse’s flexibility.

3. A good swing through the loins with a soft tail shows they are working freely. Your horse’s neck should be reaching forwards into the contact or out and down, depending on whether they are working up into a contact or down into a stretch.

Common lunging mistakes and how to avoid them

  • Poor handling of the equipment
    Dropping your lunge lines or getting them muddled is potentially dangerous, so practise handling them before you start lunging. You should hold the reins in big, neat loops, well off the ground, and be able to shorten and lengthen them easily. If you don’t feel confident with this, practise picking up your lunge line and looping it around your forearm (from your fist to your elbow) until it’s coiled into loops. Drop and repeat until you can do it without thinking. You must also be able to use the whip independently in your other hand.
  • The horse is strong and pulls against you
    Practise using half-halts on the rein as you would if you were riding to steady and balance the horse. Use a smaller area to lunge so you have more control and start with a smaller circle.
  • The horse comes in on the circle
    Use the lunge whip to keep the horse out by pointing it at his shoulder. If it’s a young horse you are teaching to lunge, ask someone to stand by their outside shoulder to guide them and keep them out on the circle in walk.
  • The horse runs off
    If the horse decides to take off and you can’t stop them, gradually decrease the circle size and use half-halts and your voice to steady them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from an expert.

Lunging is a great way to build and maintain your horse’s fitness. But it can be very demanding, especially if they’ve had some time off. Try combining your lunging sessions with these four exercises to build your horse’s core stability.