Longeing Lessons for Your Horse

Longeing involves working a horse on a large circle, while you stand in the center and direct his efforts. Just as if you're riding, you should be able to make adjustments in your horse's gait, speed and posture through longeing. What would it be like if every time you put your horse on the longe line, he knew the routine
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Longeing involves working a horse on a large circle, while you stand in the center and direct his efforts. Just as if you're riding, you should be able to make adjustments in your horse's gait, speed and posture through longeing. What would it be like if every time you put your horse on the longe line, he knew the routine
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Longeing involves working a horse on a large circle, while you stand in the center and direct his efforts. Just as if you're riding, you should be able to make adjustments in your horse's gait, speed and posture through longeing.

What would it be like if every time you put your horse on the longe line, he knew the routine? He didn't have to be excited, and you didn't have to fear his getting out of control. He could just enjoy stretching his legs and getting into the Zen of the movement.

Done well, longeing is a wonderful tool. Old horses, young horses, horses recovering from stresses or injuries, and those at shows or events where there's no place for turn-out, can be given a chance to stretch their legs in a controlled situation.

Beyond the obvious workout, longeing can also do wonders for a horse's mental outlook. But too often when we see people longeing their horses, it looks anything but safe. The horses tear around in tight circles, kicking, bucking, and pulling at the end of the line.

We hear people talking about longeing their horses to "wear them down" or to let them "blow off steam." Longeing can help, but not in the way they envision.

Although handlers mean well, there's no advantage in letting a horse race around a small circle. Such practices can be dangerous for both horses and people. When the horse is left more-or-less on autopilot, balance and control are compromised, and the chances of him hurting himself are high. We're also letting him warm up by doing all the things we don't want him to do when we're riding him.

Horses don't need to explode when they're all keyed up. Sure, a horse coming out of his stall may have extra energy. But it's his emotional or mental energy that supercharges his restlessness. So we're going to use longeing exercises at the walk to help settle the horse mentally and emotionally.

We'd be remiss if we didn't tell you that longeing can be dangerous. It's not uncommon for a frisky or untrained horse to kick at the person who is beginning to longe him, in the same way that a horse might kick out when being turned out to pasture. The U.S. Pony Club recommends that you wear a helmet when longeing a horse. You'll also be using a long line or rope that can be unwieldy if you don't know how to handle it or you're not careful.

Merry-Go-Round

  • Establish a longeing pattern that teaches your horse to relax mentally.
  • Start with a short line to encourage cooperation.
  • Feed slack when your horse is behaving calmly.
  • Focus on getting a swinging, resistance-free walk.
  • If the horse becomes unruly or threatens to kick, pull his head toward you.
  • Keep the longe line off the ground.

We should also tell you that John Lyons does not ordinarily longe his horses. Whenever possible, he rides. If and when he does longe, he makes sure first that the horse is mannerly and trained in the basic "give to the bit."

Equipment
You want a flat, cotton-like line at least 30-feet long, without a chain. A shorter line is fine if you're longeing ponies or miniature horses. The line should be easy to hold and loop, which is why nylon is usually not a good choice.

The longe whip should be five to six feet long, with a lash at least that length. The longer the whip, the better, though longer whips are more difficult to control. If the horse is afraid of the whip, you'll have to do some sacking out with it before you can use it effectively as a communication tool.

The horse should wear boots to protect his legs. This is less necessary at the walk, but if there's a chance that the horse will play, or if you choose to advance to faster gaits, it pays to protect the legs, especially the fronts.

For yourself, you might want to wear a well-fitted pair of gloves.

If you talk with a variety of experts, you'll get a variety of opinions about what to put on the horse's head. There is no perfect solution to the problem of how to attach the longe line to the horse's head.

European and dressage enthusiasts who regularly longe their horses often use a longeing "cavesson." It's similar to a halter with three rings on a padded noseband. The longe line is clipped to one of those rings. The longeing cavesson is probably the safest approach because it can be adjusted and fastened securely.

For longeing a well-trained horse who is unlikely to pull, some experts clip the line to the horse's halter. If you longe with a halter, use one that fits well and can be adjusted in such a way that it won't turn on the horse's head and inadvertently rub his eye.

There's also the option of clipping the longe line directly to the horse's bit. If you merely clip the line directly to the snaffle ring, you may risk pulling the bit all the way through the horse's mouth. This is scary and painful for the horse and interferes with control. This is less likely to happen with a full-cheek snaffle bit, because the long cheek pieces serve as a brace. The pressure from the full cheeks also offers additional help in turning the horse's head.

Some experts advocate putting the line into the inside bit ring, then running the line up over the horse's head and down to the bit ring on the far side. This makes a pull on the longe line fairly severe because when there's tension on the line, it's transferred to the horse's poll (the top of his head). It also pulls the bit up in the horse's mouth, in what is termed the "gag effect."

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Preparing Yourself
When longeing, you'll be some 15-20 feet or more from your horse, so recognize that you won't be able to use brute force to control him. You'll want to communicate with his brain and get him to cooperate with you.

Before longeing for the first time, get familiar with handling the line and the whip. Practice letting the line out and reeling it back in, without getting it tangled, and without shaking your whip. Because if you're not careful, the first time your horse gets frisky and you try to pull him in, you'll end up waving your whip around. Everyone does, with the result that the horse gets more excited.

Avoid letting the line drag on the ground, either the part connected to the horse or the bight, the excess. It is incredibly easy to get tripped by the line or worse yet, dragged. And never put your hand or wrist through the loop at the end of the line.

When longeing, you'll stand more-or-less in one position with the horse circling you, or you'll walk a small circle, sort of following his movement. With a perfectly trained horse, you'll face his side, as if there was a straight line from your belly button to his girth. The same body language you use in the round pen works when you're longeing. When you want to slow the horse or push him away from you, move forward, parallel with his shoulders. If you want to speed him up, move parallel to his hips.

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The Mechanics
We'll begin by assuming that the horse is halter trained, and ideally that you've worked through some of the Lyons bridlework lessons. Lead your horse to a quiet area, preferably a small arena or the corner of a larger arena. Put the longe line in your left hand and the whip in your right hand. Stand facing the horse's shoulders. You're going to begin with the line very short, approximately two feet, and then let it play out to make a larger circle, depending on your control of the horse.

Begin by asking the horse to go to the left. Stretch your left hand to lead the horse one step to the left and to create a visual signal. Raise your whip to about tail level to tell the horse to step forward. The moment he does, lower your whip below his hocks. It's important to condition yourself to only use the cue when you want him to move, or to speed up. Don't nag with it.

If the horse doesn't move forward, tap the top of his left hip with the whip until he does. If he swings his hindquarters away from you, step to your right so that you can continue asking him to step forward. Stay out of kicking range.

When the horse is walking, feed the line to him until he's in a circle about 6 or 8 feet from you. If you sense that the horse may kick, pull his head toward you.

After four or five steps, say "whoa." If he doesn't stop within two seconds, pull the lead rope toward you to make the circle smaller. The moment you sense him about to stop, release the line. Let him stop. Walk up to him and pet him.

Begin again, as before, and when you feel you have good control, let the line out in several-feet increments until the horse is about 15 feet from you. If the horse moves too fast or cuts in on the circle, shorten the line and step closer to his shoulders. That encourages him to stay out away from you, and it also tells him that you could possibly crowd into his path. In a worst-case situation with a horse cutting in, return to basic leading lessons, teaching him to give to pressure and to move his shoulder away from you.

If the horse is too slow, step to your right, so you're parallel to his hindquarters, and use your whip to signal him to go forward. Keep the whip at tail level or below. When he speeds up, relax your whip hand and move yourself back into the position facing his girth area.

Horses on the longe line have a tendency to pull to the outside. Don't let the horse lean on your hand. Instead, bring his nose slightly toward you and ask him to move forward. Usually, that will give you a few steps that are well balanced. Repeat that effort every time you feel that he's pulling, as if to make the circle larger. If he's pulling a lot, return to "give" exercises. In time, you want the horse's nose, spine, and tail to all be on the circle, so that requires that he turn his nose slightly toward you.

Your goal is to keep things very quiet as you accustom your horse to specific cues-"go that way," "speed up," and "stop." Usually at this point people feel like nothing's happening, so they let their signals become mushy. Keep it specific.

Once you feel that you have good control and that your horse understands each of the signals, change direction and teach the same cues from the other side. When you feel that you have good control, you can lengthen the line. However, don't allow the horse to pull the line through your hands.

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Handling the Longe Line

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There are two main methods of holding the line. The safest is to layer flat loops in your hand. That way, there's no chance of the line suddenly tightening, trapping your hand and getting you dragged. Lay the line across your hand. Bring the line forward and fold it back.

The second method is to hang large loops from your hand. The trick is to make the loops big enough that they won't entrap the hand if the horse pulls the line suddenly, but not so large that there's any chance of stepping into the loops.

Whichever method you choose, practice reeling in the line before you have a horse at the other end. There's a knack to adjusting the length without getting the line tangled.

Using flat loops is awkward at first, but the added safety is worth the added effort.

The Good Stuff
You've worked through all the set-up in order to get to this, your real objectives-relaxation and rhythm. Look at the shape of your horse's body, and see if he looks lazy, excited, or just right. If you were riding him, would he have a going-someplace attitude, an "I don't want to do this" attitude, or an "I'm about to blow up" stance? Use a combination of all the signals you've taught to get the horse stepping lively, but not hurrying.

Notice the rhythm of his footfalls. Does he seem to be in a rush or do his steps seem even? Here's the big value of starting your longe lessons at the walk. If you can condition

your horse to go into a nice, swinging, relaxed walk, that routine-along with the specific cues-will give you control when your horse is feeling frisky. Rather than let him zoom around, he'll have the security of a familiar exercise he can relax into.

If he's too pokey, raise your whip to his hock level and shoo him along with it. Try to avoid hitting him. At the same time, let a few feet of the line out so he can enlarge the circle. Vary the speed until your horse has a fluid, easy-going walk-like a great trail horse.

Let the size of the circle help you to control the horse-bigger when the horse is doing fine and smaller when you need more control. If the horse goes too fast or bounces into a trot, talk with him gently as you pull the line, making the circle smaller. The moment he begins to slow, ease the line.

Next month, we'll longe at the trot and canter and help you solve any control problems that crop up. Resist the temptation to move onto faster speeds until your horse is relaxed and walking in a good rhythm. That will be important at a later point when he's all wound up, because he will want to do more than walk.

But if you've been consistent in teaching your horse the system, he'll know the rule-nothing more exciting happens until he gets a relaxed, free-moving walk. He'll learn emotional control, so he lets his steam dissipate rather than explode. And you'll be able to enjoy working with your horse on the longe line without fear of things getting out of control.