Longe line work is one of the most basic, and at the same time, one of the most advanced training tools available. It is extremely useful in the early stages of training to condition a horse to carry a rider’s weight, and can be very nearly as important later in the horse’s life when he is more advanced. The purpose of longe line training is to create a horse with an improved way of going that will make it easier for a person to ride him. It can be considered a necessity for schooling and conditioning a horse of any level or discipline.
Some people think that longeing is only good for simple exercise of a horse that can’t be ridden. While it’s usefulness for exercising and schooling a horse that cannot be ridden is obvious, any horse’s movement and way of going can be enhanced by work on the longe line, whether it is capable of being ridden at the time or not. With the proper longeing equipment and technique, advanced training in balance, impulsion, self-carriage, collecting and extending, vertical and lateral flexion and more, is possible. For the purposes of this article, however, I will be focusing on basic longeline techniques, problems that can develop and how to correct them.
As with any training, one needs to have a clear view of what one is trying to achieve, not only in the next thirty days, but each time the horse is longed. There will not be any progress without a clear objective for each session on the line, keeping in mind the most important and fundamental precept in longe line work; the horse must be more relaxed and quiet when the session is over than when the session started.
Also, as with any training, time and care must be taken to accommodate the horse’s level of experience and it’s maturity, both physical and mental. Longeing can be mentally taxing for for a very young horse, and physcially, can contribute to splints in a horse who’s bones are immature. It is advised when longeing a young horse (less than three years old) to start with only 15 minutes at a time, even if not much actual circling is done, to allow the young horse time to become accustomed to the mental focus and concentration of the exercise as well as the physical stress.
BASIC POSITION AND EQUIPMENT
Longeing is of no value, indeed, it can be detrimental, if not done correctly. One needs the proper equipment . This is a bridle fitted with a plain snaffle or longeing cavasson, side reins, and a saddle or surcingle, and a longe whip. One also needs to understand how to use the proper equipment. The line should be attached to the bit in such a way as to give the handler the ability to use the line as one would use the reins. Usually, the line is run through the ring of the bit on the side nearest the handler, up and over the poll, and down to clip on the ring of the bit on the side farthest from the handler. (When the horse changes direction, this will need to change sides, also.) When the line is attached this way, it allows the handler a very fine degree of control over the horse’s movements, nearly as much as from the saddle.
While many people will longe a horse with the line attached to a halter, and a great deal of elementary training can be accomplished this way (such as when introducing a young or inexperienced horse to the concept of longeing), no advanced work can be done from the halter. One must also always be aware that in many cases, attaching the line to the halter encourages the horse to “lean” on the line, thus not properly balancing himself. Additionally, attaching the line to the bridle once the horse is ready to be schooled to ride, allows the horse to become accustomed to the action of the bit. The horse learns to accept and give to the bit and can work on the basics of stopping properly without having to contend with the rider’s weight. The horse who is not yet accustomed to carrying weight will find it much easier to understand and execute proper upward and downward transitions without the rider’s weight. There is less likelihood of the horse “leaning” on the bit for the downward transitions.
Hold the excess line coiled loosely in the same hand as the whip. This allows the hand closest to the horse to able to feel the horse and control the horse. The longe whip is to be used as a substitute for the rider’s legs, so one must be proficient in positioning and using the whip. Practice with the line in conjunction with the whip is necessary to avoid fumbling and dropping the equipment, which results in confusing the horse. The handler should be positioned slightly behind the horse’s midpoint so to be facing the horse’s ribcage, with the shoulders slightly opened toward the horse’s shoulders. The handler must be very aware of how his/her body is placed, and what signals they are sending the horse. Stepping toward the horse indicates for the horse to move out further on the circle. Turning the shoulders towards the horse’s rear indicates for the horse to slow down. Raising the whip tells the horse to move faster, holding the whip elevated means to maintain that gait. Dropping the tip of the whip onto the ground tells the horse that it is okay to slow down. In order to keep the horse moving freely in the correct direction, the handler should have their shoulders facing slightly in the direction the horse should be traveling. It’s important to understand that the handler’s position and the whip’s position can reinforce the voice commands or confuse them.
Some common problems are the horse moving in too close to the handler, turning and facing the handler (or trying to turn completely around to the other direction, leaning on sidereins (if used), leaning on the longeline, going too fast or, conversely, not moving enough.
Moving in too close to the handler
When a horse moves in towards the handler, many times the handler will react instinctively and step back away from the horse in order to get out of it’s way or to keep the horse from stepping on the line. Unfortunately, this sends the horse a signal that the handler has assumed a subordinate position, and is allowing the horse to be dominant.
Do not allow the horse to move you around, you are longeing the horse, he is not longeing you. When he moves in off of the outside track, step towards him, pointing the tip of the whip into his his ribcage if you catch the inward movement quickly and only need a step or two back out, or at the shoulder if you need to move him more aggressively to the outside . If needed, flick the whip so that the lash rolls up towards him. Be aware that the horse does not push you out of your spot, rather you push him back to the outside. In order to avoid either you or the horse stepping on the line, you need to practice until you can smoothly gather up the line as you step towards the horse, putting the excess in the whip hand.
Turning and facing the handler
Turning and facing the handler is most often the result of the handler having the incorrect position in regards to the horse. Often, they’ve allowed themselves to move to much towards the front of the horse, or turned their shoulders towards the horse’s rear. This can cause the horse to try to assume the position of being “lead” on a leadline instead of the position of being “driven” around the longeing circle. Another common mistake is to let the horse lose impulsion, this allows the horse to become distracted and lazy, and results in him trying to stop and get out of work.
Make sure you maintain the correct positioning. It’s critical to stop the movement of the horse turning before he actually gets into the turn. It takes practice, concentration, and close observation to detect the initial, small movements of a horse that is losing impulsion, hesitating, looking towards the inside and beginning to pivot. If you catch it early, step towards the horse and roll the lash at his hocks. Then, “drive” the horse around the circle by standing slightly behind the ribcage, holding the whip hand up to create a line pointing slightly behind the haunches, and keeping the longeline hand up to create a line towards the horse’s head and to take a feel of the horse’s mouth. The horse should be positioned in between these two lines. Push the horse up into your hand with the whip, asking the horse to step forward more energetically (at whatever gait) and to bend correctly. If your horse has already begun the pivot, quickly bring your longeline hand up high to block the pivot, while at the same time stepping towards him and pushing him forward with the whip. Done quickly and smoothly, this will surprise the horse and push him into the correct direction before he can argue. Immediately go back to asking him to work.
Some horses, unfortunately, have learned to pivot and face the handler as an evasion. If your horse insists on facing you, and backs away when you try to drive him forward, you must keep walking to follow his haunches. You must keep following the horse, trying to get yourself back into the correct position in relation to his haunches. This may mean that you and the horse will dance around each other for a while. Your horse will most likely try to continue backing away from you to prevent you from getting into the driving position. Calmly, yet stubbornly follow him. Keep the tip of the whip raised, this is the horse’s cue to move forward, for as long as he is going backwards, he is not answering the cue correctly therefore you need to keep cueing until you get the response you are looking for. Continue following the horse, maneuvering to get back into the driving position (the rear half of the horse). Eventually the horse will realize that backing away from you is not making you go away and furthermore, backing up constantly is hard work! At this point the horse will dart forward, sometimes much faster than you would have liked. That’s okay, it’s forward motion, not backwards, and that is, after all, what you were asking for. Immediately drop your shoulders, your whip and your leading hand, give a big sigh and relax and look away. Of course, you may have to maintain a good grip on the line, since the horse may be going to fast, but be as relaxed as possible, and make sure you don’t look directly at the horse for a few minutes until he slows down. Praise him constantly. If you do this without letup until he moves forward, it won’t take but a few times for the horse to come to the conclusion that this evasion is not going to work anymore.
Bolting around the circle can be dangerous. If the horse takes off too fast and tries to drag the line out of the handler’s hand, the handler should immediately drop the longewhip in order to be able to use both hands. Allow the line to slowly feed through the hands while walking and moving with the horse. The objective is to maintain a contact with the horse to keep control, but the handler must understand that the there is no way a person is going to stand there and stop a bolting horse. Trying to stand in one place and hold the horse in that spot will result causing pain to the horse’s mouth, which could lead to greater panic. It’s also going to result in either the horse pulling the line completely out of the handler’s grip, or pulling the handler off their feet. The only way to maintain a bit of control, keep a grip on the line, stay on your feet, and allow the horse a chance to calm down is to keep contact with the horse through the line, yet move with him till he stops. I’ve had horses bolt while longeing, either from being startled or because they’ve realized that it’s possible to yank a line from a handler’s grip. Most horses that do this deliberately have learned to do so because the handler tried to stand still and stop the horse from running off. It doesn’t work. However, if you move with the horse, letting the line feed through your hands as needed, and keep just a firm pressure, the horse will calm down quickly if it’s been startled, or will realize that it is not able to pull the line from you, (and in fact, it’s uncomfortable to keep up that pressure) and they stop fairly quickly. Allowing the horse to move yet maintaining control will keep a startled horse from learning a bad habit and will discourage a horse from continuing to try his learned “trick.”
By far the most simple problem to fix is the lazy horse. This horse simply doesn’t respect the handler or the longewhip enough to work. Any horse will be lazy if they think that they can. In the case of the lazy horse the handler must increase the “asking” until they get a response from the horse. For some horses, this will only take a cluck and raising the whip’s tip. For other horses, you may need to “roll” the lash at their hocks. Some horses will need to be flicked with the lash before they are convinced they actually need to work. It’s important to get the horse’s attention and to make sure the horse understands that this is time to work, not play. A lazy horse can develop several annoying habits, such as leaning on the side reins, leaning on the longeline, and traveling on the forehand. Being lazy gives the horse time to think up other tricks to get out of work, such as turning and facing the handler and bolting.
Leaning on the side reins occurs when the horse is allowed to be lazy and lose impulsion. The handler must take care to encourage proper forward movement when longeing the horse. If a horse has side reins, a saddle or surcingle, a bridle or longeing cavasson, then the horse needs to be working, the same as any other work under saddle. Tacked up, the horse should not be allowed to play, buck, or be lazy. The only time I will allow the horse to be lazy or to buck or act silly, is if he is untacked with a line attached to a halter. The only time I do longe this way is after a long trailer ride, or after he’s been stalled for a longer time than normal for some reason. This is strictly to allow him to stretch his legs and work any kinks and excess energy out. After he is settled, I then tack him up properly and expect him to work. I’ve never had a horse not know and understand the difference, as long as the handler is consistent.
Leaning on the longeline most commonly occurs when the line is attached to a halter ring. This problem will generally fix itself when the line is attached properly to the bridle. If the horse does seem to be leaning on the line when the line is used with a bridle, the handler should make sure they are not keeping a “fixed” hand. Basically, the reason and the cure is the same when under saddle. The handler’s hand is fixed on the “rein” and the horse leans on it. The handler should start a gentle give and take with the line, maintaining contact with the horse’s mouth, while encouraging the horse to move forward with more energy with the longewhip. Simply do not give the horse something to lean on, and make him move forward.
Basic longeline work with a horse can be a great way to get to know your horse’s temperament, it’s way of going, problems with gaits or balance and what needs work. Observing your horse from the ground gives a rider a better understanding of how that particular horse moves and it’s likes and dislikes; seeing how a horse naturally moves without a rider will help with understanding any problems when the rider is in the saddle. It’s also a good way to create a rapport with the horse and to facilitate understanding, trust and respect between you and the horse.