Round and Round We Go: Safely and Effectively Lunging the Dressage Horse!

Lunging is an integral part of good horse training and management. There are a myriad of reasons for lunging a horse, including: to introduce a young horse to tack; to train the concept of contact and connection; to improve balance, bend and thoroughness without the interference of a rider; to educate the seat of a rider; to evaluate how a horse is moving; to get the edge off an energetic horse that may be too hot/dangerous to ride; to give an easy day for a horse in hard work; or to prepare a horse for driving or double lunging. ! !

So many great uses! Unfortunately lunging badly can be both detrimental and downright dangerous for both horse and rider, so it behooves every trainer to teach every horse how to lunge well, and also to go over the basics of safe lunging practices with every horse owner. ! !

For the horse that means a safe place to lunge (good footing, ideally a large round pen for a young horse). Lunging a well trained horse in an open ring is fine as well and in some cases I prefer it as I can move the horses up and down the long sides - this saves my footing and also gives them a break from going round and round. I always lunge horses with good protective boots all around, and bell boots in front. !!  

For the handler it means safe well adjusted tack, wearing gloves, not wearing spurs and ideally donning a hard hat as well. Probably the most dangerous thing on the lunge line for the handler is getting a hand or a foot caught in the lunge line, so always be aware of where the lunge line is - no loops near the ground where you can step on them, no loops around your arm. If a horse runs away and you get caught it could be a horrible accident. Another dangerous time for the handler is when you first begin lunging - horses should never be allowed to bolt off (often the next thing is a buck or kick out, and I know people who have been very badly hurt by this). 

A well trained horse must learn to walk away calmly out to a circle before picking up the trot. Bucks and leaps are part and parcel of lunging sometimes, but it should never be allowed to happen close in to the handler. !!

It takes time and practice to become skilled on the end of that lunge line, and it’s best to start with a horse that already lunges quietly - that way you can first learn how to handle the whip and lunge line without tripping over them. Once you have a handle on your new appendages try to imagine that you are still the rider, the lunge line (along with properly adjusted side reins) is your rein aid, your body and whip positioning is your leg and seat, and your voice is the fine tuning of your aids. You can use your body and whip to drive a horse forward, to push him out on the circle, to increase or decrease tempo and engagement. With practice your lunge line will do much more than stop your horse; it will help you develop a better and more nuanced connection with your horse’s mouth while keeping him on a circle or moving him down the arena wall. ! !

The scope of this article is much too small to get into detail of training, but I have one issue that I must address. Too often I see people lunging horses with side reins that are adjusted waaaay too long. A horse that has been correctly trained on the lunge line should accept a connection to the bit just like they should under saddle. Of course they don't start out trained to accept contact, and cranking up short side reins on an untrained horse is a recipe for disaster, but shortening the side reins gradually over time to reflect how you would like your horse to go when you are riding him only makes sense. ! !

I lunge some horses quite often and others much more sparingly, depending on why I am lunging. I am not 100% happy with my training unless I can say that my horse is going on the lunge line looking like I want to have him feel under saddle. Is he loose, round, active and in balance? Is he accepting contact in a balance and frame that is appropriate for what I am asking for under saddle? Is he sound and moving through his body well? Does he respond quickly yet calmly to my voice, body and rein aids? ! !

When I can say yes to these questions then I have trained my horse to lunge well, and this work will be really helpful to me under saddle. It also readies my horse for further training on the ground such as double lunging and work in hand. Lunging is a indispensable part of good dressage training, not merely a way to get out the bucks and possibly get a little dizzy in the process.