My friend and student Lisa lives in Pepperell, MA, so we don't see each other often. In order for her to get her questions answered, we've begun corresponding about them via email. After writing back to her the other day, I decided to share our Q & A with all of you. Please feel free to add a question or comment of your own, or email me with another topic!
In her last email, Lisa asked:
1) What are the main "goals" we are trying to accomplish with lunging?
2) What is the optimal equipment? What's acceptable equipment?
-Connected riding halter, which you said you'd don't like for lunging
-Lunge cavesson, which I don't own, but could buy
-Surcingle (which I own) - would be used for long lining.
-Regular bridle, and if so, do you prefer lunge line to go over the poll, or under the chin? If under the chin,
[one trainer I've worked with] has people loop the lunge line around the inside bit ring before passing the
line under the chin so that the line doesn't pull the bit as much.
And I answered,
1) The goals and priorities of lunging depend on the horse. In general, though, lunging should provide an opportunity for the horse to get exercise and education in a way that promotes softness, balance, and confidence. Proper posture MUST be prioritized throughout. The only exception to this rule is the rare occasion when one must prioritize leadership. For example, many horses on the lunge line will suddenly stop and pivot on their front feet to face the handler. (This is usually preceded by the handler getting ahead of the horse and out of the driving position.) This is a challenge of authority, and when the handler sees it coming, they need to use body language or occasionally the lunge whip to keep the horse's shoulders on the track and keep them moving forward. This sometimes results in the horse throwing their head up and tightening their topline for a moment. All efforts should be made after the fact to get the horse soft and long again as soon as possible, and avoid making this mistake in the future. It is also worth noting that if the horse is going to such great lengths to challenge the handler who is asking them to go forward, they are probably pretty unhappy about being asked to go forward, either because they don't feel right in their bodies, or in the relationship.
I feel I should go into detail here a bit with regard to posture. One crucial element of good posture is a slight bend, or flexion. (Like what we ask for with a cheek press*, or when we ask a horse to 'walk the S.'*) Without this gesture, a horse cannot be in self-carriage. The temptation, then, is to continually ask for the inside bend while lunging. This is nearly impossible for a horse to do, unless they have built the required strength and flexibility over a very long period of time. The alternative is to ask the horse for an occasional outside bend. This can be achieved simply by the handler gesturing towards the horse's shoulders for two or three strides to move them out. (There are other ways but this is the simplest.) This should happen no less than 3 or 4 times a circle at the walk and once or twice at the trot, depending on the size of the circle. If the horse or handler doesn't know how to utilize both bends on a circle yet, then groundwork with changes of bend should be executed after no more than 5 minutes of lunging, after which it's time to change direction.
Another element of creating good posture is physical input from the handler. In other words, there's very little sense in having the horse go round and round without the kind of support a good yoga teacher offers with occasional assists. Everyone has their own way of doing this: Peggy [Cummings] with her combing and sliding*, and meeting and melting*, and also body awareness exercises at the halt and walk; Manolo [Mendez] with his long bamboo cane, tapping or supporting different spots; Linda [Tellington-Jones] with her body wraps, and also her wand, stroking and pointing. Even just using ones body language, one can activate different parts of the horse. The important thing is that the handler should be involved in the dance, supporting the horse and helping it release tension and move more freely.
It is also important to note that anything fixed will result in tension in the horse. This is obvious when one thinks about equipment, like side reins or tie downs, but also applies to the size and shape of the circle. To prevent physical (and mental) fatigue and tension, alternate between going long, then shrinking the circle to 15 metres, etc. It's important to mix it up, and to do it without creating resistance in the horse. Just like riding, we have to be careful not to drag the horses around by their heads, and instead guide and support them with our whole bodies. If they are heavy on the line, or the handler is muscling them around that way, remedial work for both handler and horse is immediately in order.
A side benefit of lunging is that moving the horse forward off of our own body language creates a certain authority that can put the horse very much at ease. It puts the handler in a position to be the one to decide how to respond to a potential threat, and most horses like knowing that we are 'on it'. It also shows them, when done well, that we 'speak horse', since movement is their primary form of expression. For this reason I usually don't do much lunging until I've had a chance to do liberty work, but even without the aid of a round pen, we can get a lot done on a loose line with very clear and concise physical directions coming from the human. I believe a lunge whip can be very useful in this context when used with finesse.
2) Optimal equipment is anything that a) attaches directly in the center of the nasal bone b) fits the head snugly such that it won't rotate out of place when a contact is taken. The best example of this is an Iberian lunging cavesson (like Manolo [Mendez] uses). I don't have one of those, so I take my Connected Groundwork halter and tie the rope directly to the center of the noseband when I want to lunge. (If you do this be sure to tie a knot at the far end or the whole thing can slide right through your hands.) You'll note that what the two have in common is a jowl strap as opposed to a throatlatch. The latter can be attached snugly, preventing the equipment from sliding into the horse's eye; the former has to be left loose because of the windpipe, and thus requires that the chinstrap be cranked down to keep the equipment in place. This isn't ideal because it creates tension in the jaw.
I would never lunge in a regular bridle unless I could clip or tie the longe line to the noseband, which sort of defeats the purpose. I suppose it is possible to teach the horse to respond correctly to the pressure of the lunge line on the bit, but it is much more likely to result in tension in the jaw and poll, and twisting in the neck.
Surcingles are great for attaching bodywraps or therabands, or for ground driving/ long lining. They don't need to be used every time. All the previous ideas apply for long lining. It's crucial to do the groundwork first to make sure that the horse understands how to release at the poll and lengthen their neck in the direction of the rein aid. Long lining can be done in a regular bridle, or a Connected Groundwork halter, and is often a great way to help the horse integrate their Connected Groundwork. If long lining is done with a bit, in-hand work to create correct (soft) response to the bit should come first. Here's an example of the beginning of that process [from Mark Russell]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w5NV6bwtrY
Thanks for reading. Happy lunging!
*cheek press, walking the S, combing and sliding, and meeting and melting are all copyrighted Connected Groundwork terms.