First things first, let me clear up some terminology. I don’t tend to use the word “lunging” a whole lot because I feel it tends to draw up the image of sending your horse in endless circle after endless circle in the hopes of tiring him out. I hate to break it to you, but that isn’t an effective training method. It is merely a poor coping skill in an attempt to keep someone safe on an untrustworthy horse. Instead, I prefer to use the term “line work”. Essentially, line work is the same as lunging. It just happens to be a less popular term and can be expanded to include more than just sending your horse on a circle. Today I will stick with my preferred term of “line work” even though I will essentially be discussing an improvement over traditional lunging in order to get your horse supple, relaxed, and focused.
So now down to business! Groundwork can be a great way to check in with your horse on where he is at mentally and physically. It can also be a great tool to prepare your horse physically and mentally for a ride or any other kind of work you are hoping to later do. My favorite initial groundwork tool for this is line work to supple the horse.
Basically when you are doing this work you are asking the horse to bend on a circle and soften his body. This suppleness in turn helps the horse relax while also providing him with a better range of motion through his subsequent stretching. This is fairly equivalent to the long rein stretching warm up I do with most of my horses under saddle if I opt not to do groundwork first.
The first part of asking your horse to supple on the line is to get him forward. Your horse doesn’t need to be running, but he needs to be in front of your aids and willing to move out when asked. I start out with a walk and test that my horse is indeed in front of my aids by gently asking for a trot. If the horse doesn’t respond well then I will work through that issue before continuing on.
The next step is to ask the horse to bend in slightly with a small tug on the line. If the horse gives to the line, steps under with his haunches, and stays straight in his shoulder then your work is done. However, very few horses will start work with this level of softness and relaxation. If your horse isn’t perfectly supple already then you need to add energy and direction in order to help the horse release the bracing that is preventing a proper bend. You have two options for how to proceed: you can ask the horse to move his shoulder out or ask him to move his haunches out.
Moving the Haunches Out on the Line
Let’s start with moving the horse’s haunches out since that is generally easier to accomplish, especially with a tense horse. If I am working with a new horse I will always start by asking for the haunches.
To supple the horse by moving his haunches out on the line you will first ask for some bend by applying a light pressure on the line. At the same time, you step slightly towards the horse’s haunches, which also adds pressure to the line. As you are taking a step towards the haunches, use the end of your line to apply some pressure directed at the horse’s haunches. You can escalate this pressure by allowing the rope to fall with intention on the haunches if needed. As soon as you get the inside hind to step away from you, release and carry on lunging for a few more steps. Repeat as necessary until the light tug on the line gives you a smooth, effortless yielding of the hindquarters.
If your horse doesn’t respond to your increasing pressure by stepping his haunches out and instead tries to run forward on the line, increase your pressure on the line by stepping towards the tail. This positions you back from the head while still keeping pressure on the haunches. You can do this fairly dramatically without using the end of your line to further amp up the horse until he lightens on the line and steps his haunches over. Then repeat until he is no longer rushing forward.
Moving the Shoulders Out on the Line
Moving the horse’s shoulders out is similar, but often requires slightly more finesse. Similarly to the haunches, you will start by drawing in on your line to create a small bend. As you are bending, step towards the shoulder and direct the end of your line at the horse’s shoulder. You can increase pressure on the shoulder as needed until the horse softens his neck and steps over with his shoulder.
Be careful not to apply too much pressure to the line as this will draw the horse in and make it harder to step the shoulder over.
If the horse runs when pressure is applied, apply slightly more pressure to the rope and wait for the horse to settle and give slightly. Release as soon as the horse makes a small effort to supple. You can also try stepping towards the horse’s tail to yield the haunches if the horse gets quick as a way to get the horse to settle. This is one reason I like to work on the haunches first.
Be careful not to be greedy with the shoulder and reward a softening of the neck as much as a step over with the shoulder in the beginning. As you both become more proficient you can begin to ask for both a softening of the neck and a step over with the shoulder.
Alternating between moving the haunches out and the shoulders will help soften the whole horse. In turn, the horse will relax. Once the horse is supple and relaxed you can build on this exercise to ask for more reach in the laterals and more engagement of the hind end. All of this work helps engage the horse’s core and hind end, which builds his topline and improves his long term health. Next time you can’t or don’t want to ride or need to get your horse settled, try this exercise out. It is a must have for everyone!