On lungeing before riding...

This year, I spent all of the session before mine settling Odie. (Settling him down involved standing on the end of the lunge line watching him canter circles around me, until his brain reconnected to his feet and I had downward transitions working again. If he won't do transitions on the lunge line, I'm SURE not getting on him!) 

Steuart's response...

Please don't be offended by what I have to say, but I feel the need to take issue with this strategy. I sympathize with anyone who has a horse that they consider dangerous on the flat and they want to event. True, it's often possible to tire, or bore a horse enough on the lunge line that it is then more submissive under saddle. But to go to an event or a clinic and lunge for a long time before all of the stress of what is to come is pretty tough on them. Maybe the clinic wasn't stressful for the horse, but if you longe first you are getting instructed in how to ride and warm up a horse who's been longed, not a fresh horse. 

I generally don't like to challenge people's methods, especially when I haven't seen them in action. In this case the lungeing may have been the best strategy for the horse and rider. But there are a lot of very effective ways to warm up and settle a hot horse under saddle, and when they are done the horse is listening to the rider's aids and is ready to perform. They are similar to lungeing in that they can be monotonous and even hypnotic for the horse, but they have variety and constant interaction between the horse and rider. 

I know very few event horses who can be put on a longe line in a public setting like a clinic or event and will behave well, especially when asked to do downward transitions. Waiting for that sort of obedience before getting on to warm up would make us all late for our dressage tests!

On lungeing for my life...

While we're on the lungeing topic, I got a call this week from a woman who wanted to send her 14 h Chincoteague pony to me for a month to learn to lunge. Seems that the day before the little hussy had kicked her twice while she was trying to lunge her. Pony is fine under saddle. 

I said I didn't think she needed a month here. She was 5 minutes away, so I went there. Sweetest little pony on the ground that you ever met, but sure enough, the minute she got ten feet away on the longe line she swerved toward me, ran past, and tried to plant a foot on my head. Nothing like that sort of agressive behavior to get your blood circulating on a cold day. For a few minutes I felt like a bullfighter, but fortunately I had a lunge whip rather than a red cape. After two or three passes where the whip was planted on her ass as she kicked she decided to respect my space and lunged fine. We'll see if she remebers the lesson next week and whether she'll afford the same respect to her owner. 

Anyway, this was a case where I think lungeing was effective for a different reason than we've been discussing. The pony had learned the opposite of what is taught by the natural horsemanship people, and what is taught through correct lungeing. She learned that she was the dominant one and could move the human away. In round penning we teach the horse to move away and it has a huge effect on their psyche, establishing the relationship that is the foundation of our ability to train horses. Some use round pens, others use longe lines, and some just use their legs, but it's the same lesson. They all work because we are playing the game that is the foundation of horses' social order. We're "herding" them.

On alternatives to lungeing...

With all this talk about using "other" methods to calm a hot horse down and get them to focus on you, I was wondering if someone could share some of their methods?

Steuart's response:

OK I alluded to this when I was showing my bias against lungeing, so I guess I'd better speak up. 

It used to amaze me to see good event riders winning dressage on very young off-the-track Thoroughbreds at their first training level events. My horses were inattentive, unsteady in the bridle, and losing. I still have a long way to go, but I have surprised myself in the last couple of years with some good scores on some really green, hot horses. 

The breakthrough came when someone, or probably a bunch of people pointed out to me that I would soften my aids, particularly soften my leg, when I felt that the horse was on the verge of explosion. I would back off, hoping to avoid sending them through the roof. I thought if I relaxed, they'd relax. I did it especially the moment that I entered the arena. 

What I learned was that yes, parts of your body need to stay relaxed, but that the explosion or the spook, or the unsteady playfulness can be replaced by attention to the rider if, and only if, the rider has something positive and forward to say. The rider must keep telling the horse to move its hind legs. Especially when you feel the horse on the verge of some uncalled for act of self expression the legs need to ask for more engagement. A common mistake is for the hands to ask for a half halt and the legs do nothing. That's just telling the horse he did something wrong rather than asking him to do something positive and it takes his confidence away. Hot horses find peace in movement and activity, not stillness. Obviously the hands must stay where they belong to maintain some sort of a round frame through all of this or the wonderful energy that is being created by the horses enthusiasm and your leg will not be circulated within the horse and you'll be bolting across the warmup area or out of the dressage arena. Also the seat has to be educated and flexible enough to absorb that movement and energy in a way that it flows rather than gets obstructed. 

Oh yeah, I was supposed to be talking about how to settle a hot horse in the warmup and all I wrote was some fundamentals about how to ride that take decades to achieve. I guess that's because it's the only stuff that works on every horse. Here's some stuff that's a little more specific that has worked for me in the past. 

Karen O'Connor said in her recent demo ride on a hot young horse that you have to find where the horse is at peace and work there. That says a lot about this subject. 

Some horses settle at the walk, doing lots of bending, overbending, and lateral work. It's like doing stretching exercises in motion. It only works if the horse submits somewhat to the leg and the bit. It is not done on a loose rein. It connects the horse to your aids and it releases endorphins in the back and neck that calm the horse. I saw John Lyons do it last weekend at the MD Horse Expo as a method of dealing with a spooky horse. It's good for riders whose bodies clutch at the trot. No bouncing against the horses motion to block the progress. 

Some horses need more motion than that and do well starting out trotting steadily until their attention is yours. This would apply to a lazy horse that doesn't give enough engagement and energy at the walk for that method, to a horse who doesn't submit to the aids enough for the walk stretching, and to a horse who is too jazzed to walk loosely. You trot forward and try to find a steady rhythm that is peaceful to the horse. You gradually push the horse into the connection with your hand that you seek. You do 20 meter circles, lines, diagonals or whatever. The changes of direction start to get the horse to soften in front. As the horse settles you may be able to overbend and stretch down and around. By that point you should be ready to go back to some walk work, canter, etc. 

Some horses settle best by cantering for a while. Someone mentioned that the best flat work she'd ever felt was when she was late for a cross country school and cantered a few big circles in an open field to warm up. This guy undoubtedly felt his peace rolling along in the open without all those damn half halts and transitions and with his rider up off of his back a bit. She found that peace and was able to carry it into her other work. 

I have a strictly dressage horse who does canter pirouettes, two tempi lead changes and great trot lengthenings. For him it's the most difficult movements that get his attention and make him settle into his work, but we have to get to it gradually. If I jumped on and tried to warm up with two tempis he'd probably buck me off. His peace is found doing different movements as his mind and body become more engaged with mine. I have to be careful to stay within his "peace zone" as I ask him to do more and more difficult work. 

So maybe I should qualify my earlier posting against lungeing at events and clinics. If a horse truly finds peace in movement on the lunge line and you can get on and carry that peace into your under saddle work, then I guess it's the right strategy (if he isn't overworked on the lunge). 

Hope that is of some help. Oops, its 8:45 am. I better get my butt to the barn or I won't have any peace all day long!