Nothing strikes dread in the heart of Canadian riders like these three words: “Winter is coming.” Many of us turn to lungeing to help deal with Arctic temperatures, reduced turnout and horses with the cold weather sillies. Far more than just an opportunity for horses to burn off some extra energy, when performed correctly, lungeing exercises can improve the connection between horse and handler, build strength and improve balance while maintaining the horse’s fitness over the winter months.
Poles, poles, and more poles
Going around in circles may (or may not) help get the sillies out, but it contributes little to your horse’s training progress. To add variety and challenge to your lungeing routine, try incorporating ground poles and raised cavalletti. The possible configurations are limited only by your imagination and the number of poles you have available, but here are two basic setups to get you started.
Always start with a basic line of poles on the ground. Once horse is comfortable, gradually increase the challenge by replacing a pole with cavalletti, and eventually increasing the cavalletti height. Don’t rush the process. If your horse gets confused or frustrated by the change, simply return to the previous stage to instill a sense of confidence.
1. Increase/decrease the distance between poles
Changing the distance between poles will encourage the horse to lengthen and shorten his stride, a wonderful gymnastic exercise to improve strength and encourage the horse to think about where his feet are. Place two groups of three poles at opposite sides of the circle – group A is spaced more closely together to shorten the stride while group B is spaced farther apart for lengthened stride. Encourage the horse to maintain a steady rhythm throughout the entire circle. A variation using a smaller number of poles is to set one group of poles on a curve following the arc of your lungeing circle. The ends of the poles nearest the middle of your circle will be closer together, while the outside ends are farther apart. Simply adjust the size of your lungeing circle to ask the horse to lengthen or shorten his stride.
2. Three-circle setup
If your arena has sufficient space, set up a line of poles on three individual circles for each of walk, trot, and canter. Adding transitions between the gaits as well as within them increases the difficulty level and adds interest and variety to the routine. This simple setup allows the handler to alternate between lines simply by adjusting the location of the lungeing circle and to increase/decrease the horse’s stride length within each gait by guiding him to the inside or outside of each circle.
An infinite number of exercises can be done on the lunge line including transitions, lateral work, obstacles, even small jumps. We asked some of Canada’s top dressage riders and trainers for their favourite tips and tricks:
“My favourite way to lunge in the winter is with draw lines that go over the back, through the surcingle at the side rings, to the bit, and then clip between the front legs. As long as it isn’t too tight, this ensures a wonderful stretch and depth in the frame to keep their lower backs supple when many come out chilly and tight in their low backs in the winter. I also like to stand them under a solarium before work, and always lunge with a quarter sheet under the surcingle so their backs stay warm!
“In terms of exercises, I set four short trot poles and have them approach from a small trot, encouraging higher steps, and then ask them to move forward on the other half of the 20m into 4 longer trot poles (see exercise #1). That way they are adjusting forward and back within the circle; it’s a great exercise to enhance their flexibility and quality of steps.” – Ariana Chia, grand prix rider and trainer, Winnipeg, MB
“I like to include the basic lateral work at a walk into lungeing sessions so that you develop more flexibility and can create a more interesting workout for both you and your horse. I would also suggest trying to find your horse’s own unique ‘sweet spot’ trot – where the horse is relaxed and rhythmical in the slowest trot he can do, while still tracking up into the tracks of the forefeet and springing from one diagonal to the other. When you have finely-tuned control of the tempo, all of a sudden your horse will become more relaxed, more swinging and more cadenced.” – Roberta Sheffield, 2016 Paralympics and 2018 World Equestrian Games Canadian team member, Lincolnshire, England
“A Manitoba winter can easily include two weeks at minus 45-degree weather.; that means no turnout for your horses! Lungeing my horse is particularly important during the winter months. Lungeing can allow your horse to stretch their long back muscles and help to engage their hind end. It also provides a change from riding and makes them think differently. I think horses really appreciate the alternatives to regular riding. This is why I love ground poles and cavelletti. My horses love the change, you can see it in their faces! They go over those poles like they are heading to Spruce Meadows! It is good for their brains, their top lines, their balance and stifles. It can also help the rider build confidence with their four-legged partner.” – Brooke Mancusi, FEI junior competitor and 2018 NAYC team member, Winnipeg, MB
As with any training endeavour, the safety of horse and handler should be paramount. The handler should be experienced and knowledgeable, and the horse should be well-trained on the lunge before attempting any of these exercises. Some important safety tips to keep in mind:
- Never attempt to lunge on unsafe, icy, or frozen footing
- To avoid excess strain on joints and soft tissues, maintain a minimum circle size of 15 metres
- Pay attention to your horse’s fitness and fatigue levels. Start with just a few minutes at a time and gradually increase the duration of your lungeing session as the horse builds strength
- Handlers should always wear gloves and appropriate closed-toe footwear
- Experts recommend using a properly-fitted lungeing cavesson instead of attaching the lunge rein directly to the halter or bridle. If a bridle is used, reins should be removed entirely or secured safely through the throatlatch
- Side reins, etc., should be connected to a properly fitted lungeing surcingle. If one isn’t available then they can be attached to a saddle which has the stirrups removed or secured
- Equipment such as side reins, Vienna reins and Pessoa systems can be beneficial training tools when used correctly, but if used incorrectly can do far more harm than good. Use only under the guidance and supervision of a knowledgeable and experienced trainer.
BEYOND THE CIRCLE
Lori Bell, a grand prix dressage trainer and owner of Horse Haven Imports in Beaverton, ON, has an alternate suggestion to combat winter boredom and add a little fun to your horse’s routine: stop going around in circles and start playing with a purpose.
“I started learning to play with obstacles when I began working with Todd Owens, a Parelli instructor, and it made such a difference that I now incorporate it into my regular training routine,” says Bell. “Playing with obstacles can be fascinating and so much fun for both rider and horse. It has taught me to really pay attention to my horse, to teach him based on his own particular personality and learning style, to understand when he is ready to learn, and respect his limitations while helping him to overcome them.”
Here are six fun obstacles found around most barns which can be incorporated into a variety of games and exercises. Work from the ground with the horse on a lunge line or long lead rope.
Barrels – Ask your horse to walk between two plastic barrels while they are upright or lying down, pushing them closer and closer together as his confidence grows. This can help with situations such as loading on a trailer. You can also simply ask the horse to touch a barrel with his nose, working up to hanging his neck over and then touching the barrel with a front foot.
Tarps – Very, very gradually work up to placing the nose on, neck over, and then feet on the tarp. Increase the difficulty by having the horse walk across, then trot and canter over the tarp in both directions. By show season, a large puddle in the middle of the ring will no longer be a big deal to your horse!
Poles – First ask the horse to simply touch the pole with his nose, then place the neck over. Progress to touching with a front foot, walking, trotting and cantering over. Straddling the pole can progress to side-passing all the way down the pole and backing up over it.
Traffic cones – Pylons are perfect for weaving around and in and out of. This exercise encourages your horse to focus more on you and less on his environment; he will learn to become very attuned to your slightest aid to move away or towards an obstacle. As with most obstacles, you can also ask the horse to touch with a foot, straddle the cone, walk over the cone, step on the cone, etc.
Dollar store items – Crushed plastic water bottles, small cutting boards or mouse pads, pool noodles, balloons, and flags can all be used to encourage the horse to be more inquisitive, confident, and relaxed. Have the horse touch them, stand on them, ride over them, and allow you to rub the objects on their bodies.