In the lunge lesson, the horse is under the control of the trainer rather than the rider. In addition to his usual bridle and saddle, he will have a lunge rein attached, either directly to his bridle, or to a padded harness worn with the bridle, called a lunging cavesson. A lunge rein, or lunge line, is a rope or webbing strap, approx. 10m long. With one end having been attached to the horse’s head, the other end is held by the trainer. This helps to guide the horse on a constant circle and assists in controlling the speed. The trainer also holds a long whip (the lunge whip) and keeps this pointing towards the horse’s back legs or slightly behind the horse. This replaces the trainer’s legs, allowing her to keep the horse moving forwards. The horse is not hit directly with the whip, but moving it or cracking it in the air behind the hind legs helps to keep the horse moving forwards. The main control though, comes from the trainer’s voice. When she addresses the horse, she should be loud enough for him to hear easily, and clear in her instructions. Upwards transitions (going faster) are sharp, quick and the tone is upward. Downward transitions are longer, more drawn out, the tone softer and slower.
When a horse is being used for lunge lessons, he needs to stay focused on the lunger and not on the rider, which is challenging if the rider is shifting her weight and losing her balance. The trainer has to keep working with horse to help him keep his rhythm and tempo, whilst teaching the rider at the same time. The more established and schooled the horse is, the easier for all three parties.
The benefit for the rider is huge. A beginner or novice rider can start to develop balance, stability, feel and confidence on the back of a moving horse without having to think of control at the same time.
As humans, our bodies have a huge reliance on our hands – if in doubt, our hands try to take over. (Think about if you start to slip on ice – the first thing you do is out your hands out to catch yourself). When we are learning to ride a horse, it is tempting to use the reins as something to hold onto for balance, rather than a route of light communication with the sensitive mouth of a living creature. By using lunge lessons, we can tie the reins out of the way and allow the rider to develop skills totally independent of the hands (we call this an independent seat).
For experienced riders, lunge lessons still have huge benefits, mainly in learning how to control the horse purely off the seat and legs, rather than the hands. They can also continue developing core strength, balance and co-ordination.
What will you do during your lunge lesson? Well, this varies according to where we are starting and what our aims are. We will always start in walk, and then rising trot, to warm up both horse and rider, increasing blood flow and loosening muscles and joints. After this we may work with no reins and / or no stirrups, through a wide variety of exercises. The more advanced rider may work on transitions, changing pace or with in the pace, up to and including piaffe and passage if the horse is capable.
Obviously these lessons are one on one with the coach. The horse needs to be well versed to working on the lunge and have a sensible nature. A horse who is very hot, sharp or spooky won’t lend itself to a good lunge lesson. The footing of the arena needs to be good, since the horse will be travelling on a constant circle, slippery ground will encourage him to lose his footing.