After his break during the beginning of 2019, Thunder was impeccably behaved coming back into work. But he was also fat and unfit. Really, really unfit.
To be fair, I wasn’t the fittest I had ever been, either. Thanks to my job at the Arab stud, I was still exercising 2-3 horses a day, but they were mostly either babies or impeccably trained old show horses. The former requires mostly the “hang on and don’t die” muscles to operate; the others are so soft and light and smooth that they barely require muscles at all. Certainly none of them were the full-body workout that is riding a half-schooled dressage horse whilst not really having any idea of how to do so.
So when J told us that we needed to get fit, he was totally right. He put us to work lungeing for 20 minutes three days a week (schooling once or twice a week) and so, combined with having tons of babies to work, I find myself in the middle of a lunge ring quite frequently.
To be honest, I kinda like lungeing. I mean, it’s extremely boring (Thunder is getting a bit tired of it now) but I sat lungeing exams for my stable management modules and might pride myself just a teeny bit on being a bit on the pedantic side when it comes to lungeing.
Lungeing can be a little controversial sometimes. Many trainers absolutely swear by it (lookin at you, J) while others prefer hills or cavaletti for fitness. Personally, I think all of the above can be beneficial depending on the horse and human and situation. But lungeing can certainly be a tool for evil.
Lungeing has a set of benefits that makes it an important tool in my toolbox, though. Some of them include:
- Teaching the unbacked horse to move in rhythm and balance, respond to voice commands, and accept tack
- Laying a foundation of fitness without the rider’s weight – for horses with poor topline or unbacked youngsters
- Allowing a less experienced person, like a good groom, to exercise the horse for a busy rider (it takes a few months to learn to lunge really well, much longer to learn to ride)
- Warming up a stiff back before riding
- Perhaps most importantly, giving the rider an opportunity to see the horse move, which allows one to connect what it feels like to what it looks like.
Lungeing, however, is often easily misused. Even though there’s no rider involved, it’s still hard on the horse’s body. Typically lungeing involves fewer walk breaks than riding and working on a circle isn’t easy on the joints. I have a few ground rules to help lungeing do what all training tools should – make the horse’s life better.
- Preferably not before four, and certainly not before three. Look, five minutes twice a week won’t kill your two-year-old. But I don’t work my three-year-olds more than three or four days a week, and even then, only for 15 minutes at a time. Just enough to show them how to move in balance. Four-year-olds can do 20 minutes or so, but slowly and judiciously. What are you going to do with a four-year-old anyway? They’re basically camels with no brains at that age.
- Whatsoever you do to one side, do also unto the other. Nothing makes a horse asymmetrical faster than asymmetrical lungeing. Working the weak side harder than the strong side mostly only makes the horse stiff and resentful.
- Lungeing is schooling. My pet peeve is horses who CHARGE off onto the circle in a mad trot. No. Mine are expected to stand stock-still until asked, at which point they shall walk briskly and calmly onto the circle and continue walking until asked to trot. All transitions should take place on voice command. When asked to stop, they stand quietly. This makes life much more relaxing for the horse.
- Lunge in all three gaits. Some babies, especially the gawky types, have trouble cantering on a small circle. Apart from those, mine lunge in walk, trot and canter. Jackhammer trot is not a gait.
- Pay attention to gait quality. The gaits in lungeing should be the same as under saddle, if not better due to the lack of encumbrance from uncoordinated humanity. Jackhammer trot is not a quality gait. Young horses should be able to lunge smoothly and in balance without gadgets in all three gaits before being expected to carry a rider. Nothing is worse for the horse’s joints and muscles than tearing around madly, hollow and counter bent.
- If you use a gadget, understand it. I like elasticated side reins and maybe a neck stretcher/chambon, but only for horses who already understand the contact and are strong enough to carry themselves. I prefer introducing the contact on the long lines. That way, they can have plenty of little stretch breaks while the muscles develop.
I’m sure others have different rules, and that mine will change over time, but that’s what I’m doing right now. And that is how I try not to die of boredom while lungeing 6 horses in a day lol. But it’s starting to pay off.
Here’s hoping J will be happier with us next week. Thunny certainly feels a LOT more powerfully forward under saddle now – the canter-walks are suddenly back, a medium trot came out of nowhere (yesssss) and we even have changes again. Yay!
Glory to the King.