Training your horse to lunge – the positive way!

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Lunging is a traditional means of exercising horses for lots of different reasons; whether that is for weight loss, to help them learn to move with better bio-mechanical balance on a circle in order to develop their asymmetries or to help desensitise them to wearing tack during their initial backing.

In the majority of cases, horses are taught to move out and forwards away from the handler by seeking to find escape from the application of an aversive stimulus such as energy drive from the human or a lunge whip. As the horse moves away to escape those stimuli in the first few training sessions, they experience relief (reinforcement), which, with repetition, enables them to learn about the subtlety of the handlers body language cues as they become adept at avoiding increasingly less obvious escalation.

However, what many horse owners don’t realise is that there is another, much more gentle way to teach our horses to lunge, one which doesn’t require any energy ‘drive’ at all, nor a whip to be in sight! So we can still reap those exact same benefits that traditional lunging would allow us, but by using appetitive stimuli (emotionally enjoyable things which are added to the environment) through positive reinforcement in our training instead. This actively develops your horse’s confidence and optimism at the same time as building a relationship with you that can be trusted and relied on to be consistently enjoyable.

There are many ways to go about training lunging positively – you can be as imaginative as you like with the positive techniques used to build it. Generally speaking most of these tend to involve targeting of some kind or another – you might use send-to-targets such as a circle made up of targets or even a hand-held target of some kind. Perhaps you might use mats (foot targets) or even proximal space targets at the beginning to get started.

You can also make clever use of the environment to set you and the horse up for success. I used a combination of hand-held targets and clever environmental set up, the Magic Circle to create these behaviours with this horse. You can see a snapshot of the process in this video –

I have previously increased the environmental set up to a massive Magic Oval with straight sides and half 20m circles at the ends, where she had more space to explore trotting and cantering. This worked really nicely as it meant she had lots of time moving straight as well as allowing her to prepare in her balance for a large turn at the ends.

However, she’s a big horse and I am finding I am now blocking her progress because I can’t run as fast as she needs me to! Her physique and gymnastic balance in her movement has improved so much, she is now ready and able to begin exploring trotting and cantering on a full circle. The next step therefore is to teach her to move around a large circle without me also needing to move along with her. This will give her the space to be able to continue exploring her own balance much better and will also help with discriminating and generalising the verbal cues I have taught for the walk, trot and canter behaviours.

The image shows the environmental set up I am using for this – the Magic Pole Circle! A much reduced version of the Magic Circle – just to give her some visual guidance as I start to gradually add more distance between us.

I just adore the endless possibilities when working this way, it’s just a question of working out what the detailed criteria are of the behaviours we would like our horses to do and then using our imagination to create ways of building them. I like to think of it as sculpting, adding and moulding more and more layers of the clay as we go – the end result is whatever we want it to be!

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