How to Lunge a Horse
Do you ever find that your horse has way more energy than you want them to have before you get on? Or maybe your horse is distracted by something and they’re having a hard time focusing. Is there a horse training tool or exercise you can use to address these situations?
What does it mean to lunge your horse? Lunging is when you work your horse around you in a circle. This can be done with a lunge line, a long lead rope, or in a round pen without ropes. Lunging enables your horse to move forward while also giving you the ability to control its feet and movements. This can be useful for a number of reasons:
- The horse can burn excess energy before being ridden
- You can direct your horse’s focus to what you’re asking them to do instead of what they are distracted by
- Provides an avenue of correction for certain behaviors
- Enables your horse to learn how you communicate using body language
While lunging is a technical exercise that can initially be hard to grasp, it is a great tool to have when it comes to working with your horse. To get a step-by-step walkthrough on how to lunge a horse, keep reading!
Supplies You’ll Need to Lunge a Horse
There are a few different ways you can lunge a horse. If you’re looking to burn your horse’s energy, you may lunge them with a lunge line. Lunge lines are long ropes usually ranging from 30-50 feet long. This enables your horse to move out on a larger circle around you. You can also free-lunge your horse without any ropes in a round pen.
In this article, I’m going to address lunging from a training standpoint. For training purposes like focusing your horse’s energy or teaching your horse to respond to your body language, it’s best to use a halter and lead rope to lunge your horse. While a lead rope is shorter than a lunge line, it will give you more control of your horse’s movements and less rope to get tangled in as you learn!
That being said, here is the equipment I will be using to lunge my horse:
- Halter (I prefer a rope halter)
- Lead Rope (12-14 ft)
- Lunge Whip
Now that I’ve covered the supplies you’ll need, let’s get into lunging!
Positioning Yourself When Lunging Your Horse
Knowing how to position yourself when lunging your horse is perhaps the hardest concept to grasp for those of you just starting out. How you position yourself can dictate whether your horse moves forward, comes to a stop, or even changes direction. That being said, your horse won’t properly lunge around you unless you properly position yourself.
Center of the Solar System
When lunging a horse, the horse will move around you in a circle. You will stay in a stationary spot in the middle of the circle simply turning to with your horse as they move around you. A good analogy for this would be you’re the sun and the horse is the earth. Like the earth, the horse is going to move around you, the sun. Since you’re the sun, you shouldn’t have to move out of your spot at all.
One thing I tell people who are learning how to lunge their horse is to draw a small circle in the dirt around themselves. As they lunge, they need to try and stay in that circle as much as possible. As the handler, if you’re moving around too much in the middle of the circle, you’re going to confuse your horse. By staying in your circle and remembering that you’re the sun and your horse is the earth, you can minimize your movements.
The Tip of the Triangle
When it comes to lunging a horse, positioning yourself and keeping track of the rope and lunge whip can be confusing. You may find yourself fumbling over the equipment and getting distracted, which will lead to you confusing your horse. When lunging your horse, position yourself from the center of the circle to always face your horse. As your horse moves around you, you’ll move with them, keeping your body facing them.
In your hand parallel with the horse’s hind-quarters, hold your lunge whip pointing down towards the ground right behind the horse’s hind legs. In your hand parallel to the horse’s head, hold the lead rope. With the lead rope and lunge whip in your hands extending towards the horse, you’ll notice that you form a triangle, with you being the tip of the triangle. When you stay in this position, you encourage your horse to move forward around you at a steady pace.
Understanding a Horse’s Driveline
Did you know that horses have an imaginary steering line? The “driveline” is an imaginary line that runs through your horse’s shoulder. Depending on where you place yourself in relation to this line will determine what your horse does. As a prey animal, if there is something coming at the horse from behind the driveline or shoulder, the horse will move forward. If there is something coming at the horse from in front of the driveline or shoulder, the horse will stop or turn the other way.
To get your horse to move forward and around you, you’ll always want to stay parallel to behind their driveline. This position will encourage the horse to move forward and around you. If you find that your horse seems to be getting confused and stopping or randomly changing direction, look at how you’re positioning yourself in relation to the driveline. You may be getting in front of the line without realizing it.
How to Ask Your Horse to Move Forward When Lunging
There are three different ways I ask my horse to move forward into the next gait when lunging; through body language, vocal cues, or with the lunge whip. To learn more about each method and when to use it, read on!
I will always harp on using body language as your main method to get your horse to do anything since that is how horses naturally communicate. Up until this point, you have maintained the “tip of the triangle” pose in the middle of the lunging circle where you are facing your horse and you have one hand with the lunge whip and one hand with the lead rope. When asking your horse to move forward with body language, you are going to change your stance.
Imagine leading a horse next to you. You, as the leader, face the direction you want to go. To lead your horse forward, you simply face forward as the horse is and take a step forward to encourage the horse to go forward next to you. Well, it’s the exact same thing with lunging! To ask your horse to move forward into the next gait, simply turn your shoulders forward and away from the horse and step into the movement. For a sensitive horse, this will be enough to tell them to pick up the next gait.
If your horse doesn’t initially go into the next gait, you can push your horse forward with your movements by widening the circle you initially drew in the center. This will enable you to walk and push (staying behind the driveline.) The more unwilling the horse is to pick up the next gait, the more movement you need to create. This can be with your arms, legs (like marching), etc. As soon as the horse picks up the next gait, relax your movements to reward.
Not everyone likes using vocal cues, but I personally do, and lunging is a great tool for teaching them! The reason you may want to use vocal cues is that it signals to the horse to do something without having to add the physical stress that comes with traditional pressure training. If you want to use vocal cues, here’s how you do it:
When asking your horse to do something specific, always state your vocal cue. Let’s say I’m asking my horse to trot. I’ll say “trot” first and if the horse doesn’t respond, I’ll tell the horse to trot using my body language so that they clearly understand what I want. All the while, I’ll continue to state my vocal cue until my horse responds correctly. If you are consistent with using your vocal cue any time you ask for that specific movement, the horse will start responding to just your words in no time!
So, when do you use the lunge whip? The lunge whip is for reinforcing your cues to move the horse forward. With a well-trained horse that knows how to respond to body language and pressure, you may rarely have to use a lunge whip. With any other horse, using the lunge whip can help them become sensitive to responding to the lightest pressure.
The only time you are going to have to use your lunge whip is if your horse does not respond to your body language cues or your vocal cues. Only after you have escalated to the highest pressure of your cue, then you use the lunge whip. For example, you’re trying to get your horse to trot just by changing your body language. You’ve turned your shoulders forward, widened your personal circle to push them forward, and animated your movements, but the horse still doesn’t respond. Then, and only then, should you start lightly waving the lunge whip behind the horse to encourage them forward. The reason to follow these steps is that it will eventually teach the horse to respond to the lightest pressure, or you just turning your shoulders.
If the horse doesn’t respond to the light waving of the lunge whip, then increase the pressure to a good elbow-bending wave with more movement. If the horse doesn’t respond to that, go ahead and whack the ground with your lunge whip.
To help you grasp the concept of teaching your horse to respond to the lightest pressure, visit my article Teaching a Horse to Yield to Pressure: Easy Exercises.
How to Ask Your Horse to Stop When Lunging
Now that you can get your horse going forward, how do you get them to come to a stop when lunging? Here are some methods I use:
Disengaging the Hind End
While I’ve started with body language for everything else, I’m going to start with disengaging the horse’s hind end when it comes to asking your horse to stop. The reason for this is that this exercise can actually help your horse grasp how they are supposed to respond when just using your body language.
All the power horses have comes from their hind end; this includes the power to buck, rear, bolt, and move forward. If you can “disengage” the hind end, you can control the horse’s power to move forward and get them to come to a stop. The visual indicator that the horse’s hind end is disengaged is that they will swing their hind end around by stepping one back leg in front of the other.
To introduce this exercise, start off with simple groundwork rather than lunging. Not every horse is familiar with this movement. Start by standing next to your horse’s withers, facing the horse. Pick up on your lead rope for the horse has to dip its nose around and towards you. Make sure your horse can do this without moving or fighting the pressure. Once you have that piece in place and you ask your horse to turn their nose, at the same time you’re going to step and create motion towards the horse’s hip. The horse should then swing their hind end away from you by stepping one back leg in front of the other.
Once you can do this exercise, it’s time to apply it to lunging. As your horse goes around you, pick a spot behind your horse that you can walk to when the horse passes it. It can be a fence post or a bush. As your horse is passing the object, reach your hand down the lead rope and pick up on it as you walk directly towards your horse’s hind end and the object you chose. The horse should swing their hind -end out of the way so they end up facing you, even though you’ve stepped out of your circle.
To get a more in-depth look at disengaging the hind end, visit my article 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Horses.
By practicing the groundwork exercise of disengaging the hind end, you teach your horse how to respond to movement toward the hind end: they should swing their hindquarters around and come to a stop facing you. Notice when you initially did the groundwork exercise, you turned your shoulders in the direction of the hind end to get the horse to disengage. I’m going to apply this same concept to get my horse to stop when lunging.
When asking your horse to stop using body language, there are a few things you can do. Firstly, stop your movements. Up until this point, your movement has been pushing your horse forward. By relaxing and coming to a halt yourself, you will communicate to your horse that they should do the same. Secondly, instead of turning your shoulders forward to ask your horse to move forward, turn your shoulders backward. This is often enough to get your horse to slow down or stop.
For a hind end disengagement for a complete stop create movement toward the hind end from your standstill. This can be as simple as leaning towards the hind end. If that doesn’t work, take a step toward the hind end. If that doesn’t work, you may have to go back into the disengagement exercise mentioned above.
Lastly, you can step in front of the driveline. While this is more of an exercise used in free lunging with no ropes, you can also do it with a lead rope. Simply step to where you are parallel in front of the horse’s shoulder. You can even put your lunge whip in your other hand and place your lunge whip in front of the shoulder if that is more comfortable.
Just like with vocal cues asking your horse to go forward, you can apply vocal cues asking your horse to stop. I actually use a buzzing sound that I do with my lips. Anytime I ask my horse to slow down or stop, whether it’s with traditional pressure or body language, I use my vocal cue. If you are consistent and repetitive, your horse will pick it up quickly.
How to Ask Your Horse to Change Direction When Lunging
When it comes to lunging, one concept you may find overwhelming is how to get your horse to change direction. Here is a step-by-step walkthrough:
Moving the Shoulders
The first thing both you can your horse need to have an understanding of is moving the shoulders. A horse will move in the direction that their shoulders point in; if you can control the direction of their shoulder, you can control where the horse goes. To begin, I’ll share a simple groundwork exercise to practice.
To safely move your horse’s shoulders so that you don’t get run over, the horse will need to be able to pivot on its hind end by crossing one front leg in front of the other. To do this, stand beside your horse’s head. For the initial exercise, simply put your hand up to the horse’s eye and make a pushing motion. The horse should move its head away from the motion and they may even step away with their front feet. That is what you want them to do. The horse may not want to move, but instead, try to stick its head up over the pressure. If that is the case, try and keep your hand at their eye until they step away. If using your hand isn’t enough, remember to step towards the horse to communicate they need to get out of your space and step away. Your horse should move away from this pressure by crossing one front leg in front of the other.
Once the horse can do this simple exercise, it’s time to start applying it. Now, stand a few feet in front of your horse and slightly to the side. Simply take your lunge whip and lightly wave it next to the shoulder closest to you. The horse should step away from the lunge whip by crossing its front leg one in front of the other. If the horse just wants to back up, you can walk towards the shoulder as well to communicate they are supposed to step over. Make sure you practice this with both shoulders.
Applying it to Lunging
Once you can do these two groundwork exercises, asking your horse to change direction will be a piece of cake. I encourage people who are in the learning process to always ask the horse to change direction from a standstill. This means you will first need the horse to come to a stop and face you. This can be done by disengaging the hind end. Once the horse is facing you, simply ask them to move their shoulders in the direction you want them to go.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, lunging is a very technical exercise. However, it can be a great benefit once you know how to do it and use it with your horse! While most of what I covered here can be applied to free lunging in a round pen, you can get a complete rundown of using a round pen in my article Lunging a Horse in a Round Pen: How-To Guide for Beginners.