You can build muscle and condition on your horse by using lots of transitions both between and within gaits on the longe line.
This goes beyond the usual walk/trot/canter at the end of a 20-meter line. Your horse may need new cues, and you’ll need to refine your whip work. But it’s easy to teach your horse and packs a powerful workout in a relatively short period of time.
Here’s the basic drill for a 20-minute session:
Warm up for five minutes at the usual walk/trot/canter in the first direction. Pay attention to getting a clean, calm walk to start, and don’t move on to the extra demands of transitions unless you can also return to walk whenever you want.
Attach the side reins and then spend the next five minutes on transitions, with several brief walk breaks. Switch sides. Spend five minutes on walk/trot/canter and the final five on transitions, again with walk breaks.
You should devote several sessions to vocabulary unless you already have vocal cues that will work with these exercises. After your horse responds readily to your vocal cues, you can introduce transitions over the next several sessions in the following order:
• Working trot/lengthened trot.
• Working canter/lengthened canter.
• You don’t need to do all these transitions to get a conditioning benefit. The simple trot/walk and canter/trot exercises can suffice. Adding the more advanced transitions can make your horse more adjustable and responsive for his work under saddle. However, this is a strenuous workout, and you may also want to modify it if you’re planning to ride afterward.
You can use standard equipment, but you’ll want the longest whip you can find and that you can handle easily. If you can’t keep your horse out on a 20-meter circle from your pivot point, then you’ll need to walk a larger circle. You should also use a cavesson or add a halter with a chain under the jaw for the line attachment so you don’t jerk the sensitive bars on your horse’s mouth if you need to make a quick correction. If your horse has the cues down, you may be able to use a simple bit attachment for the end of the line.
Your horse will need to distinguish between the cues you give for transitions between gaits/within gaits and the general sorts of noises you’ve used in the past to just keep him going at times. A general “cluck” won’t work here.
When you want a transition between gaits, precede the command with the word “And”: “And walk.” “And trot.” “And canter.” This command acts as a pre-cue to the horse that he’ll need to prepare for the change of gait.
Your horse also is helped by the tone of your voice. In addition to using “and,” you should be consistent in making the tone of your voice go up or down for the appropriate transition.
When you want a transition within a gait, such as working trot to lengthened trot, drop the “and” and substitute a specific word or sound to mean an upward or downward transition.” “Go, go, go” or a “sssss” sound works well for an upward transition to a lengthening and can also translate easily to work under saddle. “Easy” is likewise a good choice for a downward transition from a lengthening to a working gait.
• Trot/walk transitions: This exercise inserts a couple walk steps into longer trot phases. From working trot, ask for a transition to walk while keeping your whip near the hock. After one or two steps of walk, feather the lash near the hock and quickly give a command for trot. It may take awhile for the horse to understand that this should be clear transitions up and down and not a couple steps of jog between trot sets. When he learns to clearly go from trot to walk and immediately back to trot, you’ll see that he’ll start to work with his hocks more under his body. This exercise may require that he works on circle that is smaller than 20 meters — if so, keep the transitions sets fairly brief and then send him back out to 20 meters in working trot.
• Canter/trot/canter: This differs from the walk/trot exercise in that you’ll keep the number of trot and canter strides relatively the same. From working canter, ask for a transition to trot, keeping the whip pointing to the hock. After several trot strides, ask again for canter. You should be able to build up to two or three transitions on each 20-meter circuit. After you’ve done this exercise, you should take a walk break and then return to a regular canter circle so the horse doesn’t anticipate transitions.
• Trot lengthenings: After your horse has done several trot/walk/trot transitions, don’t break to a steady walk. Instead, feather your whip near the hock and say “go, go, go.” If he increases his power and thrust for several strides, then say “easy” and point the whip toward the shoulder. You’ll want to avoid actually touching him with the whip so that he doesn’t misunderstand and change gaits. Be happy with small increments of lengthening as he catches on to the idea. If you can’t keep the horse out on 20 meters for this exercise, then you can send him in a straight line down the side of the area for several strides of lengthening.
• Canter/lengthenings: This works the same as trot lengthenings and should be attempted only if the horse stays out on a 20-meter circle and is calm in working canter. Do only a few strides of lengthening at a time and then return to working canter. You should stay on a circle and not go down the long side because the turn back onto a circle would be too abrupt.
• Canter/walk: You can try this exercise after the horse is clear on trot/walk and trot/canter transitions and has been building his strength over several weeks so that he’s working well off his hocks. The horse should also have no tendency to turn in on the line. From a steady canter, point the whip near the nose and give a sharp tug on the line, timed just after the vocal cue. He’ll jog several steps to start but with repetition and praise should become clear about canter/walk. After several repetitions, you should return to a steady canter so that he doesn’t anticipate, followed by a walk break.
Keep your sessions brief, about 5 minutes a side after the loosening phase. Work quickly from transition to transition: A couple circles of trot/walk/trot, followed by trot lengthenings and a circle of walk. Then perform two or three circles of canter/trot/canter, followed by canter/walk/canter and finally canter lengthenings. Again, return to walk if your horse needs a quick break or to settle down. Finish up with a steady trot to loosen him up again, and then remove the side reins to walk.
(See Horse Journal April 2005 for an article and product review about side reins.)
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