Lunging is done for a number of reasons.

One can be to allow an exciteable or young horse time to release energy prior to ridden work. Another can be to warm up a horse prior to work under the saddle. It can also form the basis of good ridden work and, in itself, can serve as a lesson for the horse.

Indeed, early work on bending and flexing the horse can begin on the ground and start to familiarise the horse with the aids he will experience when the rider is onboard.

As mentioned in the previous article, pressing the bit against the horse’s tongue will cause pain to the horse. This will result in evasions and defensive behaviour from the horse. Riding with low hands creates exactly this problem. It’s generally referred to as riding with a “backward” hand as the rider exerts a backwards rein aid in order to ask the horse to come rounder. There are two common evasions. Firstly, is raising the head above the bit and hollowing. Second, is ducking behind the bit and becoming overbent. Be assured that they are both evasions and both should be discouraged and corrected at an early age!

For the horse to become confident with the riders hands, he or she needs to be encouraged to play with the bit. This is achieved by mobilising the tongue. This simply isn’t possible if the very action of the rider’s hands exerts a pressure directly onto it. As such, a gentle nudging action at the corners of the mouth is much preferable. This doesn’t cause the pain associated with using the bit action on the tongue and nor does it restrict the tongue preventing the horse from playing and ultimately accepting the bit in his mouth.

Another thing to note at this point is that the horse should not be encourage to lean on the bit; seeking it as almost a 5th leg. The horse should carry his own head.

There is a common misconception in the horse world. This being that a low hand is needed to encourage the horse to drop his head and a high hand will encourage a horse to come above the bit and hollow. Quite the opposite is infact true. The horse’s neck acts as a massive lever to the rest of the body. Raising the horse’s head high will cause a redistribution in the weight from the forehand to the quarters. Raising the head enough will cause the horse to take a step backwards.

How to Begin

With the horse in his usual bridle, the handler should hold both the bit rings with each hand. A gentle pressing action upwards towards the ears will result in the horse taking a step backwards. Here we can see how the early teaching of reinback can begin from the ground.

Next, holding only the inside bit ring, a gentle upwards action should be applied to bring the horse’s head round to the inside. This will result in the horse dropping from the poll.

The reason?

It is mechanically impossible for a horse to raise his head high while flexed to the side. Consider this as follows:

The weight of the rider and the pressure on the mouth frequently results in a horse hollowing his back and raising his head; the frequently named star gazer outline. This causes the lower neck muscles to elongate. The upper neck muscles and the back muscles contract.

Now consider the following:

If the horse’s neck is bent considerably to one side, his inner neck muscles contract and the outer muscles extend. While in such a position, the horse, physically, can not raise his head and contract the upper neck muscles.

Thus, bending the horse’s neck laterally will result in a dropping of the poll. Incidently, this is frequently seen in riders employing rollkur; where the horse is ridden over deep and with strong lateral flexion. The difference is, here, the lateral flexion is used to teach the horse to lower the poll and immediatly, the hand is released. The bend is created with an upward nudge of the rein, encouraging self carriage and exerting pressure on the edges of the mouth. In rollkur, the hand is set low and the bend created with either a fixed hand (frequently combined with a strong curb rein), or with the use of auxillary reins such as the draw reins. In this scenario, the head is kept in strong lateral flexion with constant pressure applied to the tongue.

Through exerting small amounts of upwards pressure on the bit rings from the ground, early lateral work can also be taught; for example, shoulder in. This is usually started on a small circle with the rider using a lunge whip to control the quarters and replace their own leg.

It is vital to note that while working a horse from the ground like this, ANY over bending should be strongly corrected. This is done with an upward nudge on the bit rings again. Similarly, if the horse leans on the bit and stops supporting his own head, the same correction should be applied.

Correction Work

With a horse that has a tendency to work very hollow under saddle, working from the ground like this can form the base of correctional work. In this case, the rider should hold the outside rein with one hand and position it at the horse’s poll. The inside bit ring can be held directly. Walk the horse around on a 20 metre circle exerting small amounts of upwards pressure on the bit rings. The horse will respond by dropping his poll and the rider should release the pressure as a reward. Once the horse becomes more compliant, the outside rein can first be moved to approximately half way down the neck and, eventually, the outside rein can be passed over the neck and layed loose so that the horse learns to respond to just being asked by the inside rein.

From the ground, the horse is therefore learning that the correct response to a nudge of the bit is to lower the head, it’s also the most comfortable option.

The Aim of Ground Work

Following these exercises will result in a number of benefits prior to ridden work commencing (and indeed as a useful partner to ridden work).

The horse will be familiar with the rider’s voice aids.
He’ll have learned the correct response to hand aids from the rider.
He’ll be familiar with reinback
He’ll be familiar with shoulder in.

This is a fabulous basis for the early education of the young horse or the correction of undesireable behaviour in the older horse.