Running in Circles

 I was asked to write about lunging and I assume this means with no swear words. I don’t know why I said that; lunging is one of my very favorite activities. Oh, I remember now. Lunging is misunderstood, misused, and it can drive horses lame or crazy or shut down so far that their eyes look dead.

Like every other training aid in the horse world, it’s either a gift of communication and connection or a weapon of anxiety and domination. The very worst part? It’s a missed opportunity.

And like usual, no riding discipline is immune. It seems to start in the same place; lunging is used to run a horse into exhaustion. No matter the stress on joints and tendons, no matter the behavioral issue, just run ’em out of it. As if exhaustion ever trained anything positive.

The varied English disciplines go crazy with all kinds of gear meant to gimmick movement or head position or bend. Draw reins, side reins, pessoa… the list goes on. Trainers use them so they must be okay, right? When you research the purpose of these contraptions there’s a sales pitch that might almost sound like a miracle cure. As if saying it made it true. As if a forced position could be anything but cruel.

I’ve also seen a lunge line used with great lightness and finesse to help a horse find his balance and strength. I’ve asked untrained colts and gnarled rescue horses to transition through the gaits from my breath alone, and been given responses so quick that I doubted them. Longer strides and shorter, stretching, bending; anything that can be done in the saddle, can be done on the line. A soft request, delivered with patience and grace, can give a horse a fluid sense of confidence that is nothing short of glorious for both of you.

A few years back, a certified natural horsemanship trainer came here to evaluate a rescue horse. He was in my holding pen which happens to be round. The trainer landed like a helicopter, slapping a flag all over, and scaring the bejebbers out of both me and the horse. He panicked and ran, beginning a process that seemed to require tearing him down as step one.

It’s a common technique; it might get results with some horses. But I’ve also worked with horses who get hysterical when even asked to circle.  Not just nervous; full-blown hysteria. Training methods that involve physical intimidation aren’t dependable. Horses do not learn when they’re afraid, and we’re not that smart then either.

Too many of us have been taught some version of “tie them to the trailer, jam them on the bit, run them hard, and let them figure it out.” The idea is to let the horse “fight himself.” Even if it was a good idea, it’s a lost opportunity. At a time when we could be building trust by helping the horse, we abandon them to their situation. Then we get frustrated when horses don’t trust us.

Lunging a horse is an opportunity to connect, to partner and communicate in a supportive way. It’s an opportunity to play and work and feel strong, without the distraction of carrying weight. Lunging is a training aid. An aid, just to be painfully literal, is supposed to make it easier.

If I’m working with a young horse, or it’s a crisp day, or it’s been a while since the last ride, I might start with some free lunging. That’s a fancy term for letting the horse run at liberty in the arena. I like to cheer every explosion of bucking and farting. It’s a way that horses adjust their backs, literally getting the kinks out. When they run fast, I wave my arms encouraging them. When they begin to slow, I pretend to chase them and they pretend to be afraid. That flag of the tail and dip of the nose as he bolts past me is just him giving me a bit of a hoot in return.

If a liberty run isn’t possible, I’ll use a lunge line but encourage him to play when we start. It’ll be a bit more polite but bucking and head tossing is fine if he isn’t fighting the circle.

After he’s had some time to play, begin to ask for transitions. Be calm, give clean cues, and reward his response. Then ask for something else. Let transitions steady him with confidence and balance him with partnership. Let that lunge line tie the two of you in communication and understanding.

Here is the important thing about lunging: As much as it might warm a horse’s muscles, it’s meant to engage the mind even more. Use it as a time to warm up mentally, even more than physically, so that when you do mount, you and your horse are already working together.

Running in circles like a headless chicken is not the same thing at all. 

It’s easy to name call those who are ignorant or impatient. Those who don’t know better and those who are lazy or in a hurry. And particularly those who truly believe horses are fodder.

Some think that positive training is fine for trail horses but when the work gets harder, the rider has to get harder, regardless of disciplines. Even as positive trainers compete and win in all disciplines, the unstated feeling is that you must dominate the horse for any evolved performance. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I don’t think the problem is with training aids at all. The problem is with us. We’re limited by our judgment and marginal awareness. In our weak hearts, we bully horses because we don’t believe horses have the capacity to choose to join us freely. We don’t believe we’re capable of inspiring the kind of work we want. We underestimate horse’s intellect and sense of humor. We think we have the only brains in existence.

Harsh training is a statement that denies the fundamental beauty, strength, and intelligence that horses embody from their first day. Worse than that, we become a flat mean caricature of our own potential, as if the only way to assimilate some of their magic is through domination. The first tenant of training horses should be that we aspire to their level.

Or maybe we have it backward. Maybe horses are the training aid meant to teach us something beyond aggression and belligerence. Something like self-respect and civility.


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

60 thoughts on “Running in Circles

  1. Ashlyn

    Do you have any advice for a horse that turns to face you if lunging is even hinted at?

    I’ve just recently gotten into positive training and I love it! And I honestly never did much lunging in the first place. The most lunging he has ever had was 7 years ago when I still boarded my horses and my then trainer lunged him some. But I recently went to walk him on the lunge line(he’d had a massage and I just wanted to get an eye for how he was moving) and he made it clear that he would happily pivot all day before walking out on the lunge line. He knows he allowed to tell me “no” on stuff and it’s not like lunging is the only goal I have in life..but I’d still like to conquer it haha. I’m sure it has something to do with the way I’m holding myself, but if you have any tips for explaining it to him and working with him in a positive way, I’m all ears!

    1. Thanks for reading, Ashlyn, and without seeing him, I’m just guessing. First and always, go slow and breathe. You want you shoulders to be addressing his front should and back hip, you stand at or behind the drive line. (Girth area.) Stare at his hind, not his face. Leave the line slack and energize from behind. Think of “sending” him more than “leading” him. Then give him time. Good luck, thanks.

  2. You share my views and experiences with horses, Anna. So glad to find your work.

    I lunge to connect and converse with my horse, not to wear out the fresh. Indeed one has a more willing partner on the other side of play, but that’s not because I put a dent in the rich reserve of energy my horse holds.

    I appreciate in particular your insight that I mistook too, the notion that more sophisticated work like dressage meant more seriousness. It took awhile for me to bring playfulness to this endeavor but it became essential to our progress. It’s the energy my horse loves most in me, and I in him. Playful curiosity about all the ways we can communicate and dance together.

  3. joepote01

    Thank you for another great post, Anna!

    Just a few years ago, when I knew even less about horses and horsemanship than I do, now, I was told to lunge a horse as discipline…punishment for misbehaving. The horse doesn’t do what you wanted him to do? Put him on a lead line and make him run circles for a while!

    It didn’t take long to realize that approach was not working well…but I still didn’t know what to do better. I suspected I wasn’t doing the lunging right…but didn’t know what ‘right’ was.

    I’m still not very confident with lunging…and still suspect I’m not very good at it. However, I have become much better at slowly and calmly moving a horse around on a lead line, being very particular about the feet. I’ve become much better at asking for two steps back or just one step forward. I’ve become much better at asking for a right shoulder turn and insisting that the right leg is to really move over beneath where my right stirrup would be if mounted. I’ve become much better at asking for a left hindquarter turn and expecting the right leg to really cross over and reach.

    And along the way, I’ve discovered the truth in this statement you made:

    “Here is the important thing about lunging: As much as it might warm a horse’s muscles, it’s meant to engage the mind even more. Use it as a time to warm up mentally, even more than physically, so that when you do mount, you and your horse are already working together.”

    It’s all about the mental connectedness. The physical movement should be moving us toward working together better, mentally.

    I’m still not very good at lunging…but I’m far enough along to have figured out it is less about physical work and more about mental…less about physical exertion and more about clear cues and precise responses.

    Thanks for the reminder! 🙂

  4. Oh Anna, thank you for your insight. As a vet, I see sooo much poor communication between horse and human., everyday. Many times during the day I want (and sometimes do) to ask the owner to step back, take a deep breath and let’s just listen to the horse for a few seconds. He’s telling us what’s wrong and where he hurts we just need to shut up and listen. Oh if we could just really listen…

  5. JKS

    Amen, Anna. We start every ride with a bit of lunging, as a warmup and an opportunity for BOTH of us to get our heads in the game. If he’s got a buck or two in him that day, better he work that out on the line. If we start and he’d rather canter than trot or walk, what he’s telling me is that canter FEELS better, and then it’s up to me to help him get that sore/stiff stifle warmed up (arthritis is a bitch, but the work keeps him sound). We don’t ride til he’s gotten a chance to stretch low, and we’re connected enough for me to ask for gait changes with a breath. And if we can’t get there for whatever reason, then maybe we don’t ride.

    When I first got him, he didn’t know how to walk on the line. I had to teach him that here, work on the lunge is different. No running all crazylike, thank you. Just a nice relaxed walk please. And the difference shows- he’s a much more relaxed gentleman, overall.

  6. Tracey Sands

    So much wisdom and compassion in these words, as always. I love your description of free lunging (as well as lunging on a line) as a chance to play together, and also the reminder of the important physical role that bucking can play for a horse, beyond the enjoyment of the movement. It’s so much more fun for horse and person to think of ourselves as participating in play rather than forcing an adversary to bend to our will. So much safer too, if done wisely and with awareness. Thoughtful and playful training creates that kind of mutual trust in a way that bullying and dominance never will.

  7. Karen

    My response to “Maybe horses are the training aid meant to teach us something beyond aggression and belligerence. Something like self-respect and civility.”, I say WhooHoo!!!! and I agree totally.

    1. I haven’t written it all out, but I’ll give it a try soon. For now I’d say it’s in every post, but not a post by that title. I dislike all of the current terminology that can be deceptive or faddish. What are you thinking?

      1. I’m used to training dogs where “positive” means positive reinforcement only. Traditional riding relies on a lot of pressure/release (negative reinforcement). Have you changed your cues from that model or just using them in a softer way? where “positive” = no punishment.

      2. I would say that’s true, I thought that might be what you were referring to, but horses are very different than dogs. I do not punish in the standard sense.

      3. I’ve got a young horse I’m trying to to all R+ with. He moves INTO the dressage whip beautifully with shoulders and hips, but I’m still trying to dream up directional cues that can be as subtle and informative as a light hand or leg can be. We’re just getting started under saddle now, and at this point I’ve targeted directional movement and then associated that with a neck rein cue which will work fine for this phase of his training. I’ve ridden and shown for 40+ years now- but this is just a fun new project with no deadlines or pressure – and we’re both having fun with it. I know a lot of folks are doing clicker training on the ground, but I’d love to find more folks who have really taken R+ to the saddle with them.

      4. Wonderful journey you’re on; what fun. And what a challenge. Yes, I would say I go for an equine version of R+. That is the traditional foundation of dressage, but I also have to say that for all the similarities in dogs and horses, there are many differences as well. Good luck.

  8. Love, love, love this! The descriptions are exactly how my trainer has taught me to lunge–and I thought she was the only person in the world who knew this! Silly me…

    Anyhow, I especially like your description of how you can control gait and pace with body language. My horse was taught this before I got her, and I just had to learn how to speak her language. I was so totally surprised and delighted the first time I free-lunged her over some jumps and discovered that if I saw her approach was a little too fast or a little too slow all I had to do was either tighten my core a bit as if asking for collection (slow down), or push my chest out a little further and my shoulders down a bit (to ask for more pace). It was like some kind of freakin’ magic, but such a positive chargel to experience!

  9. Celeste

    Once again you have written another amazing blog. I keep hoping these seeds you send to my heart will grow to my brain and come back to me when I’m actually with my horse. Not well expressed but thank you.

  10. Maggie Frazier

    Having boarded at a barn where a dressage “trainer” taught – I wasnt impressed with the manner in which she “trained”. I rode on the trail – but watching her dominate the various owner’s horses really turned me off. She did kind of get her comeupance (!) finally – having brought a couple warm-bloods over from Europe – one of which proved to her she could NOT dominate him and also made clear that she was afraid of him! She sold him soon after & from what I heard, his new owner never had a problem with him. Strange – that, huh?
    As with every discipline – there are the people who give it a bad name, huh?
    Love hearing about one who gives dressage a very good name…

  11. Thanks for another great blog. I am a big proponent of horse people needing to lighten up a bit and have more fun but clearly I still need reminding! I appreciated your comments about letting the horse have a buck and get the kinks out.
    When you talk about *rewarding the horse* for his responses to your cues for transitions (for example), what does that look like for you?

  12. sofiarikeraj

    Wonderful article!!! The connection and trust with your horse is the key and the lunge line is such a marvelous tool !!

  13. Enjoyed your post. I learned to “run to tire” when I took hunter/jumper lessons and didn’t think about it much except as a way for my horse to get his jollies before calming down to work. He’d change directions turning his head away from me and I didn’t know what that meant. Some years later, both of us more aged and experienced, I lunge sometimes, mainly to give him a chance to, as you mention, get the kinks out – show off, box, jump, buck, rear & spin, toss his head – all things I don’t want him to do when I’m riding! I find this especially useful when I’ve been away for a few days. After a few minutes, he’ll slow down and pay attention to my voice, my body language, and transition when I ask him, turn in to me when I offer him space to. I do this with and without saddle, without a line when I’m in a small pen (50′), and with a line when I’m in a large arena. When i’m using a lunge line, he’s usually pretty good about not pulling me when he’s amped up, but I also reserve some of the line to let out if necessary!

  14. K'lyn Keller

    My paint horse loved “proper” lunging because it was a game to him. He would literally hunker down and “dance” with his front legs, waiting for the cue of right or left, which was just a nod in the desired direction and off he would go! It was ALL about playing with us!

  15. My horse used to be nervous at shows so when we arrived I would give him a lunge with just a snaffle bridle and lunge line. If he was calm and cantered quietly I would stop after a few rounds , not more than maybe 4 minutes. But if he was nervous he would give a few bucks and farts and toot about a bit and then settle. It seemed to allow him to get the jitters out. It never took more than 10 minutes ( including going in both directions) and just let him blow off some steam. I don’t do it anymore as he is now much calmer at shows and a hand walk to see the venue is all that is needed. Thanks for another excellent post.

  16. Robyn

    Hear, hear Ms. Blake!! The meaning of aids is so misunderstood, it requires feeling, listening, awareness…sadly we humans find using our senses a mystery…myself included. You mean a lot to all of us-many thanks.

  17. Kate SchmidtHopper

    And proper longeing with correct cavesson can help rebalance a horse. Shame to waste the opportunity…we need more in hand training for people who hope to be horsewomen

  18. Marji

    Winderful and I couldn’t agree more. Would be nice if your blog was in the hands of those who do these horrible things to the horses. How anyone can think this is ok and not abuse is beyond my understanding
    Ding. Hirses are sentient beings. They could have a whole different relationship with themselves and their horse if they adhered to the above.

  19. Laurie

    Anna, truer words have never been spoken. I didn’t participate for the longest time because I didn’t know how to lunge and every time I witnessed it , it looked like horse torture. I do work with a long line now; especially now since the round pen looks like the Amazon (weed control has been a bit of a challenge this year). I like to attach the line to the halter, walk away a bit leaving plenty of slack, turn and face the horse, and wait! I like to see what the horse wants to do. If he takes off at a trot, that’s great, if he quietly walks on that’s great, if he stands and stares at me and I end up walking back and giving him a rub that’s great! Time and observation are great teachers. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for more time.

  20. Jennifer Canfield

    Had horses all my life, trained with professionals, never felt like I knew as much as they did, never felt accomplished enough. Come to find out I didn’t want to “accomplish” what they did because I never liked the way the horses felt or acted. Over the past few years, older and wiser, I’ve sequestered myself away from everybody and interact with my horses on my own time, in THEIR own time, and in my own way. They have taught me more in these past few years than I learned in all the previous years. They are expressive, happy, trusting, and I’ve never felt so much joy and had so much fun.
    Anna, I loved your post. Just like all the others, it went right to the core. You have a special way of digging up the truths we need to read.

    1. Thanks, I hate to think how little support there is for this kind of work, that we have to isolate to escape the rhetoric . . Great comment and good job. Thanks, Jennifer.

  21. Jo Ann Kotchkowski

    Anna, had to smile with your post on lunging. My first horse (who lived a wonderful 32 years) was an Arab gelding. I swear he talked to me all the time. I had been taught as most of us were, to lunge before any ride. On one such occasion, he simply stopped and looked me right in the eye. I was “no, come on, we have to do this”. He complied once more and stopped again looking me right in the eye with a ‘really?’ face. I clearly heard him tell me we had to stop this silliness. Last time I ever lunged him. I think about him and miss him every day of my life. he taught me so much and all the horses after him have benefited from me listening to them and not the noise. Love your books and posts. Thank you for being the voice for what we can’t always articulate. Jo Ann

    1. We all agree that horses are sentient, and it’s high time we act like it. Good job of listening to this INDIVIDUAL. (Like you had another option…:) ) Thanks Jo Ann

  22. Diane

    I love this post:-). I recently had an NH trainer tell me that she never allows a buck on the lunge line. She said it is a sign of disrespect and she would get after the horse by yielding the hind quarters after this behavior and change directions. I am new at learning horsemanship. How would you have responded to her is she would have made this comment to you?

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