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Lunging Basics for Youngsters

Lunging a horse

Training Question

I have an 18 month old colt. I have spent a fair amount of time with him and can do a lot of things with him. However, much of what I have read leads to being able to lunge them on a line – that’s where I encounter a problem. I can’t seem to make him understand to move out. He wants to come in close to me – one article said to tap him with the whip and he would move away from the tapping – no such luck. I don’t want to have to scare him into making a distance between us.

The only thing that has worked a little, at least to help him get the idea of moving around me, has been to tie a treat to the whip and use the “carrot on a stick” idea to get him to move in a circle around me. Unfortunately, he is quite intent on the treat and I don’t think he’s understanding what I am wanting. What else can I do?

lunging a horse
lunging a horse

Trainer’s Response

Even though the “carrot on a stick” might be working, there will be times when you’ll need to lunge the colt and you won’t readily have a carrot and stick available. So, you’ll definitely need a new method of teaching him to move out in a circle.

The very first thing you need to do, is to read and completely understand the following articles:

1. Sensitizing and Desensitizing

2. The Patience Game

Once you have done this, you can continue reading this article. The reason you didn’t have any luck with the tapping is because, when you use this method of training, you need to be very patient and consistent (as with any training regimen).

The key factors to understanding this method of training are in the 2 articles listed above. This method of training is called “conditioned-response” training, or “sensitizing & desensitizing“.

You will be teaching your horse to respond to a certain cue.

The specific cue will be when you tap on his shoulder with the whip (and eventually, only when you point to his shoulder with your hand or rope). For the purposes of this article, I will explain how to do everything from the left side, however, you’ll need to apply the same techniques on both sides of the horse.

Start with a shorter, dressage-style whip (because you will be standing very close to the horse at first).

Put a halter and lead rope on your horse and take him to an area free of distractions where he will be calm. You must start off in a calm area in order for the horse to focus on what you are teaching him. Once he begins to progress nicely, you can then challenge him by taking him to more exciting and distracting areas. But, for now, since horses learn best when they are calm, start in a calm environment.

Start by standing at your horse’s left side facing his shoulder.

Hold his lead rope about 6 inches from the snap, but hold it loosely so that he will be able to step away from you (but not so loosely that you cannot ask him to stop stepping away from you). Now, raise the dressage whip and begin tapping on the point of his shoulder. Your tapping should be about 1-2 taps per second, and the tapping should not be so hard that it hurts the horse, and also not so soft that he can get away with ignoring it.

The most important part of this training is to keep tapping consistently until the horse responds as desired. He may respond in less than 1 second, or it may take him 30 minutes to respond correctly. DO NOT stop tapping until he has responded correctly. If he steps forward, back, raises his head or performs any other action other than stepping away from you, KEEP TAPPING.

The very instant that you see any effort from him to move away from you (even if he is only “thinking” of moving away from the pressure), immediately reward him by removing the annoying tapping. If you see him begin to shift his weight into the outside leg, stop tapping. Stroke his neck softly and tell him he did a good job.

The horse learns the cue within 20 minutes.

Once you have rewarded him for making the correct movement, wait about 3 seconds (no longer than 5 seconds), and begin tapping again. Repeat the exercise over and over until he steps away from you consistently every time. For some horses, this can be accomplished in less than 5 minutes, and for others, it can take a whole day. The average horse learns the cue within 20 minutes.

Once he learns to respond to the tapping by stepping away from you, you can begin the transition from the physical contact (with the whip) to visual contact. You will be slowly transitioning from tapping with the whip to only pointing with your hand or lead at his shouler.

To do this, first point to his shoulder with the whip. Wait 2 seconds. If he does not respond by stepping away from you, tap him on the shoulder to ask him to move over. Repeat this until he will respond by stepping away from you when you point to his shoulder from about 1 foot away.

You can then begin to take a step back and point to his shoulder from 1 1/2 ft. away. When he learns to respond consistently to this, you can take another step back and teach him to respond from 2 ft. away, and so on.

Consistency and patience

You will soon be able to ask him to go out into a full circle around you by simply pointing to his shoulder. Remember that these same techniques can be applied to teach him to move his rear away from you, to move forward, or to slow down. By teaching all three of the maneuvers, you will be able to stand in the middle of the lunge circle and have complete control over his speed and direction by pointing at his shoulder for him to move out, and pointing to his rear to ask him to move forward.

You can then progress your training by taking the horse into more exciting and distracting environments. Do not jump from a calm arena to an active horse show expecting your horse to respond the same. Instead, take small steps in between. Go from the calm arena, just just outside the arena. Then, go into a paddock or arena where 1 other person is riding. Then try in an area where a couple people are riding, and so on. By doing this, you will ensure that your horse will respond as desired in even the most distracting situations.

Through consistency and patience, your horse will become a Lunging Pro! Remember, this method works on every horse. If you feel that it is not working for you, just come back here and re-read the articles to see what it is you’ve left out of the process.

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