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Tack & Riding

Step 5: "I'm so excited!"

Controlling Speed and Gaits

Back to Step 4: Standing Still    Next to Step 6: Water and Bathing

Editor's note: This article is part of a multi-lesson training series.

In step 1, you learned how to move your horse's hip over, so you should have a great, solid STOP on your horse now. In Step 3, you learned how to get a shoulder yield from the ground. Now in Step 5, you can properly lunge your horse and actually be teaching him something at the same time.

Many people lunge for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way. When you lunge for the wrong reasons, you just get a horse who builds up more and more stamina. When you lunge the wrong way, you can cause your horse to get injured or destroy his work ethic. For this lesson only, lunging is going to be basic elementary lunging. Although this lunging lesson may improve your horse's balance, strength and stamina, these are only side benefits; the real goals are to reinforce his respect for you, reinforce the STOP you taught him, teach himself to calm down when excited, teach him to GO when asked (establish a gas pedal), and truly build his work ethic.

Depending on the horse, this exercise can be adjusted to concentrate on more or fewer parts to suit your goals. A very forward-thinking and excitable Arab may do best with the part teaching him to calm himself down. A slow moving draft may learn more from establishing a good gas pedal. So, think about what kind of horse YOU have as you read this and apply this step as appropriate.

To start, put a rope halter on your horse and connect a lunge line while holding a lunge whip in your other hand. Your brake is the hand with the lunge line. Your gas pedal is your whip when pointed at his hip. Send your horse away to your left so he yields his shoulder away from you and starts travelling in a circle. Keep your circle only as big as needed so you can apply cues and get a response. If he's too far away, he may not speed up and will be harder to stop if he runs out on you. If he is too close, it may be hard for him to canter in such a small circle. Get used to what is comfortable for both of you.

From that point, understand that a larger circle becomes his reward (it's easier for him to travel) and a smaller circle is his persuader (he has to work harder). Adjust the circle by only 2-3 feet in diameter to make it easier or harder by feeding out or taking in the lunge line. If your horse pulls on you while he travels around, keep pulling his nose into the circle and giving slack until he begins to understand that leaning on the halter is uncomfortable.

Now that you have control, allow your horse to warm up in each direction. Do 3-10 circles in each direction and change direction with a complete stop and hip over each time. You're already building his work ethic by showing him that you understand he needs to be mentally and physically prepared for the work ahead and you won't just throw him into work immediately.

Once he's ready, establish a good, medium trot. Note that his medium trot is unique to HIM — it varies from one horse to another (see the important note below on reading your horse's stride). Ask him with the whip for more speed without breaking into a canter. If he canters, STOP him, then try again. The stop is his persuader to do only what you request. It's harder for him to keep stopping and going than to just trot faster. After a few repetitions, he'll figure this out and not break stride again. He'll start to extend his trot and hold it. Reward him by slowing him down with a gentle tug and a verbal command. I like to say, "And…slowww" and relax my body language as I breathe out. Your horse is watching you and will learn to do the same. This helps teach excitable horses to calm down and not get hyper about speed. Speed releases adrenaline in the horse and your horse needs to learn to control this when you're riding him so he doesn't get out of control when he gallops. Right here, you're starting to teach that lesson to him. The extended trot will also help a horse get stronger and more balanced while you're actually working on getting control of his mind.

Keep in mind what I call the "Rule of 3". Three good circles in one direction deserves a reward, a rest, and then a change of direction. Three good attempts at 3 circles in each direction constitutes a job well-done for your horse. Too much math for you? Just don't overdue it! As long as your horse is TRYING, not acting out, not pulling away, not bucking and acting disrespectful, you need to conclude the training by the Rule of 3.

If your horse learns from experience that when he TRIES for you, you'll ask no more of him than he can give, that will build lasting trust between you and a great work ethic. Push your horse more and more, even after he's done well for you multiple times, and he'll turn sour, and his behavior will worsen each time you work him. It's not about how much he sweats, it's about knowing when your partner has given enough to the partnership to end the day well.

Once you've lunged successfully at the three speeds of your trot over a period of a couple weeks, you can try the canter. Now keep in mind, your horse has been persuaded not to break into a canter up to this point, so you need to teach him it is now OK to canter. Think about this, we've been trotting circles on a loose lunge line with his nose pointed generally forward to maybe slightly into the circle. When riding, we often ask for a specific lead at the canter with our leg and our hands. Everyone thinks that leads come from our legs alone, but we do use our hands too and the horse knows this — they feel everything. What we also do is pick up very slightly on the inside rein (or the one we want to be our lead leg if we're out on the trail). Therefore, when we ask for the canter on the lunge, we need to slightly pull the horse's nose into the circle as we simultaneously send him forward. Bending his nose forces him to want to take the correct lead — the pull into the circle feels like a half-halt which forces him to want to shift his weight to his hindquarters for an expected stop, yet the go forward cue is also used to send that energy forward. It's a recipe for a soft, collected canter…at least for the first stride. Whether your horse holds the gait or not will take practice on both his and your parts.

As soon as that first stride is taken, you need to let his nose out so he can balance and carry it forward. Never let his nose get outside of the circle or he can run away with you. If he slows down too much, but doesn't break stride, pull his nose in again and send him forward. If he breaks stride to a trot, STOP him, just like you did when he was trotting, then send him off again. He'll find it easier to just continue cantering. Add the gas pedal without pulling on his nose so he can do a slow gallop, then gently pull his nose in a little and verbally slow him down, but keep the canter going. You'll find your canter will keep getting softer and more naturally collected from this exercise. You'll also find a horse more relaxed about speed and not trying to run away with you the next time you're riding him.

Fine tuning the size of your lunge circle can help fast horses slow down and slow horses speed up. Small circles are harder for ALL horses. Bring fast horses into smaller circles and let them out to a bigger circle when they slow down (their reward). Start slow horses in smaller, harder-to-work circles, and let them out to larger circles as a reward for continuing to move forward. Soon, both types of horses will consistently move forward at a steady and relaxed pace of your choosing when they know at any time you can make the situation harder for them. With this exercise, you've also reestablished their respect for you by once again proving you have control of their feet.

You can continue these exercises under saddle later. Control the trot at all speeds and you may find that your horse moves slower and faster just off of your seat. You'll also gain more confidence in your ability to control your horse and feel safer in all situations.

When starting this training, I try to watch a horse walk at his natural walking gait and note approximately how much distance is between his two front legs (the distance between the forward and backward front legs) as he steps. I ask myself, "what is the length of that stride? Is it a foot? Foot and a half? What?" Obviously, a short-legged pony will have a shorter stride than a leggy Thoroughbred. But I've seen Quarter Horses with short strided walks and Quarter Horses with long strided walks. How a horse is built does affect his stride, but so does how much he's stretched his muscles. Maybe he was a pasture potato; or maybe he was lunged a lot as a 2 year old and had acres of pasture to run around in. You need to set a starting point to measure against later and the walk is the most reliable gait since all horses have walked around for most of their lives before the first time you ever saw them.

Then, when a horse trots for me on lunge, I EXPECT that the medium trot stride will match the length of that walk stride. I'll know right away if that horse is "cheating" me by short-striding at a medium trot if his legs don't give me that same spread of distance between them. Watch for this, and don't allow it too happen. Push a horse like that forward right away or else he'll know he's able to trick you. If he knows that, it won't be the only time; he'll try to pull that stunt over again and again as time goes on. You'll never know when your horse is starting to work for you and gives you an extended trot if he starts off by cheating you up-front. He'll have already lowered the bar of your expectations for him — you need to recognize that and deal with it right away — he/she is a smart cookie!

Back to Step 4: Standing Still    Next to Step 6: Water and Bathing

Jennifer Goddard has been training horses of various breeds for over 20 years using her natural horsemanship methods. She has also ridden and shown in multiple disciplines and is owner of Levaland Farm, a 30 stall horse farm in Massachusetts. Jennifer has a degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson College, and is also President of Equine Business Solutions, a business specializing in the starting and running of equine businesses.

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