I work with many horses, and lunging is one of the most fundamental and vital training tools that I use, from backing a young horse to strength and balance training with an older, more advanced horse. While their purpose for lunging may evolve throughout their careers, the basics of lunging remain the same. Some horses take to it with ease, while others simply will not or cannot lunge correctly.
If your horse won’t lunge, the first step toward helping him is identifying why. Doing this will give you a better understanding of how to help him. Most of the time, any issues can be ironed out with relative ease, but sometimes they go a bit deeper and require a little more thought, effort, and perseverance on your part.
So, your horse won’t lunge. Don’t panic. The last thing your horse needs is a person in distress trying to push and pull without any apparent plan. Take your time and give your horse the time he needs. Together as a team, you can work through the problem calmly and systematically and avoid any further stress or conflict for both you and your horse.
Find out why the horse won’t lunge
There are so many reasons why a horse won’t lunge, from a lack of understanding to fear, physical discomfort to pain and even youthful playfulness to out-right bull-headedness. Before you become frustrated and take more drastic measures, or become disheartened and decide to give up, take a step back for a moment and consider the following things:
Age and experience
Is the horse young and green (uneducated) and just beginning his training on the lunge? When first starting training with a young or inexperienced horse, keep in mind that he has no idea what he is supposed to do. You are starting with a blank canvass, and your actions will affect the eventual outcome.
Young horses tend to be more playful and explorative in their training. A sudden burst of energy followed by an abrupt halt and spin are not uncommon. Even so, they should be dealt with swiftly yet gently. If kept engaged and entertained, most young horses are willing to oblige as long as they clearly understand what they are supposed to do. Be sure that you have a clear vision of this yourself before you step into the ring.
Is the horse physically able to lunge? In other words, does he have any pain or discomfort of which you may not be aware? Is he older and finding the workload too strenuous? Ensuring no physical obstacles are causing a problem will give you the peace of mind to proceed with confidence.
Any sudden changes in behavior warrant further investigation. A call to the vet doesn’t always need to lead to a visit and a call-out fee. In some cases, a quick discussion is all you need if the vet knows your horse well.
Type or breed
The energy levels and ability of different breeds of horses differ considerably. High-energy light-footed thoroughbreds find lunging easier than laid-back solid-built Percherons. Be fair in what you are expecting.
Is the horse kind and willing or stubborn? Has his temperament changed either suddenly or gradually from eager to please to difficult and obstinate? Is he challenged and mentally engaged? An idle mind is the devil’s playground, and this applies to horses too. He will look for ways to entertain himself if he gets bored.
Energy levels – Current workload and nutrition
We get tired. Horses get tired. Remember, horses are not machines and have physical needs, including ample rest, a relaxed lifestyle, and a healthy diet to maintain energy levels. When increasing the workload of the horse, be sure to increase the nutritional intake.
If a horse has had a traumatic experience while lunging, this can affect his willingness to perform. I have seen a horse step on a lunge rein hanging on the ground and flip over. I have witnessed ancillary equipment (such as side reins) over-tightened to a point the horse was in physical pain. Excessive use of the whip out of frustration is an all-too-common occurrence. Incidents such as these can scar the horse mentally and diminish his trust in the trainer and the activity.
The ability of the trainer
Is the trainer experienced and knowledgeable enough to give the horse guidance and direction and address issues as they arise? As the trainer, you are the responsible party in the relationship, and you need to take the lead with confidence; if you are unsure, never hesitate to call on the help of someone with more experience.
What to do if your horse won’t lunge
When facing a horse that won’t lunge, there is a simple yet effective troubleshooting program that you can follow to help you first identify the problem and then work with the horse toward correcting it.
1. Back to basics – in-hand and voice training
Start from the beginning as you would with a green horse. Spend time with, and play with your horse. Going for walks is a great way to bond with your horse while at the same time developing invaluable training tools such as mutual respect and trust.
Teach him voice commands while working with him in-hand
- Practice transitions between halt, walk, and trot. As you proceed from halt to walk, click your tongue and say “walk-on” in a high tone, and if necessary, gently touch his hindquarters with the whip. When going back to the halt, say “whoa” in a low tone and apply light pressure on the rein. If he responds well, reward him with a “good boy” and a pat. Not food. Constantly feeding treats leads to bad habits, causing horses to become pushy and rude.
- Horses identify the tone of your voice more than the word itself. They also carefully study your body language, and with practice, you can use this as a powerful tool.
- Practice leading from the left and the right. I often see horses who are lovely on the left rein, and when changing to the right rein, suddenly become uncomfortable and unsure. This is because everything we do is from the left side (leading, tacking up).
- Repeat exercises until the horse shows quick and positive reactions.
2. On the lunge
If you have a lunge arena, this can help, but it’s not necessary. Lunging is all about respect and understanding, and I often see that lunging in a round pen causes the trainer to become lazy and not maintain proper contact with the lunge rein.
- As you begin on the lunge, ask someone to walk with the horse out onto the circle. You, as the trainer, remain in the center. This gives the horse a clear idea of where he is supposed to go. As he learns, the assistant can start to move away, the horse remaining on the circle.
- Be confident. If you look worried, are fumbling with the rein and whip, losing eye contact, and being unclear with your body language, the horse will lack the faith in you to follow your lead, or he will take advantage and begin to misbehave and test boundaries.
- Keep him entertained. Don’t expect the horse to go round aimlessly for 20 minutes. Use exercises such as transitions and pole-work to keep his mind occupied.
3. Practice Patience and Perseverance
I am yet to come across a horse (who is physically able) who cannot be trained or re-trained on the lunge. As mentioned previously, take your time, give your horse time. There is no point trying to rush the process; all you will do is ultimately prolong it.
- Be kind. You are the one expecting something of the horse, not the other way around. He would be content in his paddock eating grass rather than working up a sweat.
- Know when to be firm. Never allow a situation that could potentially be dangerous to pass by unchecked.
- If he makes a mistake, repeat the exercise without reprimand. Once he does it correctly, you can reward him. Do not unnecessarily scold the horse; all you will achieve is to cause anxiety during the lunge session and worsen the situation.
4. Know when to ask for help
There is no shame in asking for help, only allowing a situation to escalate to a point where you can no longer handle it.
- When you are unsure what to do next.
- When you feel there is a physical problem preventing the horse from lunging correctly.
- When you feel unsafe, if the horse is charging, spinning, or bolting excessively, you think it is becoming dangerous for you or your horse.
A horse doesn’t see ‘right and wrong’ the way you do. He only knows what he wants to do and that different behaviors lead to certain consequences (either pleasant or less-enjoyable). He will adjust his behavior accordingly.
Lunging is a team effort. Be willing to accept that you may be just as much to blame as your horse for the fact he won’t lunge. No matter the cause, there is always a solution. You need to be patient and thoughtful about how you handle the situation. Don’t forget to enjoy your horse.