How to Safely Teach Your Horse to Longe
The word longe (which can also be spelled lunge) is from the French language meaning ‘lengthening out’. It is the process of moving a horse around on a circle on the longe line while the trainer stands in the center.
The training of the horse on the longe line has many benefits. It teaches the horse to be obedient and improves his balance and coordination. He will learn to work off voice commands and to trust the trainer. The horse will also learn to accept a connection to the bit. Work on the longe is extremely useful in rehabilitation for horses that are coming back into work after an injury or hiatus and need to become stronger and fit enough to carry the weight of the rider. Work on the longe line is also useful when the vet pays a visit to assess soundness as the horse can move freely but in the gaits requested and in both directions on a circle.
Once a horse is trained on the longe it can also be utilized to teach a rider an independent seat as a trainer can take control of the horse on the longe line and the rider can work on their position and aids.
The longe line you select should have a rotating clip attachment so that it does not become stuck on the cavesson or bridle and can turn freely. An ideal longe circle is 20 meters, and you should have plenty of extra line carefully looped up so you don’t trip over it, in case you want to go larger with the circle or the horse pulls back or takes off.
As horses can pull on the longe line it is very important for your safety that you wear leather gloves. Riding gloves are ideal as they are not too bulky. The trainer should never wrap the longe line around the hand as if the horse pulls the line could injure or even sever fingers. I would also point out here that this is the same case when leading a horse on a rope. Never wrap a lead rope around your hand!
The longe whip is approximately 71 inches long and it should never be used to harm the horse or to admonish him. The horse should be comfortable with the whip being moved about over his body and have no fear of its use. The whip is used merely as an instructive aid and is a substitute for the leg aids.
Your horse should be bridled and should accept the bit. The bit should be a snaffle bit of some sort.
Over the bridle you can place a securely fitted cavesson. The longe line will be attached to the ring at the front center of the noseband during initial training.
With or without a coupler the longe line can be used on the bit by threading it through the inside bit ring first, going under the chin and attaching it to the other bit ring on the outside. The longe line can also be run over the front of the nose, or up over the poll. The kindest bit attachment position is to connect it under the chin.
You will also need a surcingle and side reins. The side reins are attached to the rings on the side of the surcingle and from there to the side rings of the cavesson or to the bit. The side reins should have a good elastic feel to them either through a rubber donut or through elastic in the rein.
Finally it is prudent though not necessary to protect the horse with boots and bell boots. The horse may become excited, rush his gaits and hit his front feet or involve himself in other hilarities so protection is a good idea to prevent injury if he knocks himself.
The First Lesson
It is useful though not absolutely necessary to have an assistant to help you the first few times you longe the horse.
Do not add all the above equipment at one time as this may overwhelm the horse. Begin by teaching the horse to bridle and walk him and halt him by your side with a lead rope attached to the bit. Then add the cavesson. Then add the surcingle being careful to slowly and gently tighten the girth. Never do it up tightly all in one shot. Then you can add the boots and finally attach the side reins to the surcingle. To begin with attach them on the lowest ring, one on each side and loop them over the top of the surcingle and attach them to the top ring for now. You don’t want to add side reins until you are at your location and ready to work.
Ideally the area you choose to longe your horse will be fenced and the ground as level as possible with a non-slip footing. Not everyone has the benefit of a neatly groomed indoor arena or well-footed round pen and grass will do just fine as long as it is not wet and slippery.
Always start your horse on the left rein. This is important as most horses find this rein the easiest on which to learn. The assistant will be on the inside of the circle with a gloved hand on the longe line while the trainer will stand in the center of the circle with the longe line in their left hand and longe whip in their right. The idea is to form a triangle between the horse, the line and the longe whip pointed toward the rear of the horse. The trainer should always seek to be behind the horse’s eye and step slightly to the back of the horse if necessary to stay in that position should the horse stop or slow down. At this stage the trainer will issue a walk command and the assistant will encourage the horse to walk on. The trainer will ask for a halt and the assistant will halt the horse keeping the horse out on the 20 meter circle. This should be repeated several times on this rein. The horse should not be allowed to move in toward the trainer or move further outside of the circle parameters. If the horse is balky and won’t step forward the assistant can hold a regular whip and turn and tap the horse’s rear to encourage him to move forward. Gradually the assistant can step toward the trainer and move behind the trainer with both parties always being careful to keep the line in front of the assistant with a keen eye on the horse. This should be performed on each rein a few minutes a day.
In general if you want the horse to move forward look to his hocks, if you want him to slow down, look him in the eye.
By now you should be able to dispense with the help of the assistant and the trainer take up the driving aid with the whip and keep the horse forward.
Be very aware of your tone of voice during vocal commands. A low tone of voice will calm the horse. Should the horse misbehave it can be helpful to almost shout at the horse for the disobedience to try and bring him to his senses. For most of the time the use of a calm voice with a lower tone for a downward transition and a higher brighter tone for an upward transition is the most useful. Once the horse is doing what you want him to do in a given gait do not constantly be saying ‘good boy’ or talking all the time as this is a distraction.
There are options in regard to the timing of adding the side reins to the equation. Some trainers attach them from the very start, others wait until the horse understands walk/trot/canter without them attached at all. Personally I believe it is safest to not attach them at all in the early lessons. Let the horse move freely forward and learn basic voice commands. However some horses may be too rambunctious and it may be beneficial to add the side reins earlier.
The side reins should be carefully attached and preferably loosely at first so the horse can become accustomed to their weight. I attach them directly to the bit as I want to train the horse to accept the connection from the beginning. Always attach the outside rein first, and then the inside rein. The side reins should be attached above the longe line, if the longe line is attached to the bit.
The side reins should be of the same length and the horse will feel more pressure on the outside rein because he is on a circle. The outside rein is the ‘speed control’ rein and it is important that the horse learns to take a contact with this rein so this is the correct way to begin. However, the inside rein may be shorter in certain advanced work to resolve certain issues. The side reins may also be attached to the side rings on the cavesson. Always keep the horse’s head centered when attaching the side reins and do not allow him to turn his head as he might feel the rein tighten and panic.
The height and length of the side reins will depend on the nature and conformation of the horse. A horse with a low head carriage may require the reins to be higher on the surcingle while a horse with a high head carriage may benefit from the side reins being lower on the surcingle or even at the girth. A horse that has a tendency to run off may need to be started with a shorter rein than ideal and it gradually lengthened as the horse becomes more trained.
Sessions should be frequent but very short as longing is very tiring on the horse both mentally and physically. Begin with just a few minutes and work up to a maximum of fifteen minutes on each rein. The horse should be turned and worked on both reins evenly.
I mentioned above that you can attach the longe line to directly to the bit. In some circles it is thought that this adds too much pressure to the horse’s sensitive mouth and should be avoided at all costs. It is inevitable that the horse will at some time or other ‘hit the bit’ and panic. This may happen when side reins are added, it may happen when out riding. While a good rider will not go to hanging on the rein and will bring the horse out of his panic or bolt by a give and take rein action, other riders may not have this confidence and may hang on to the reins for dear life. A horse that has experienced the pressure of the line on the bit will learn for himself that he can drop his head and release that pressure, slow down his gait and come to his senses. On the other hand, it can worry a horse so depends very much on temperament and nature of the horse.
There are many types of reins e.g. Chambon, Phillips, that can be used to longe instead of the traditional elastic side reins. These alternate systems have the advantage of allowing the horse to move his head up and down with the same contact on the rein and are less rigid. I believe these can be beneficial for the development of the back of the horse and do encourage the horse to bascule. These styles may be particularly useful for horses headed to the show-jumping arena or cross-country course. As a dressage rider I prefer to stay with the classical method. While there are a huge variety of longe ‘set ups’ including reins that travel behind the horse, pushing his back end up to the bridle and bringing his front end back to contact, I am not a big believer in forcing the horse to come together before his own physique and mental acuity and focus is ready.
Problems That May Arise
If your horse walks inwards toward you on the circle point the longe line at his nose and use a vocal command such as ‘out’. The horse should not come in to the center of the circle or turn and face you at any time as this is a sign of his dominance and is a challenge. If he exhibits this behavior step smartly toward the back of the horse and send him forward with the whip.
When the horse halts during a lesson or at the end of a session on one rein he must stand still on the line of the circle. The trainer must gather the longe line expeditiously and walk to the horse’s head. Sugar cube treats work perfectly between sets as a treat for the horse. The sugar cube does not become stuck in the bit and the horse can swallow it easily, the sugar cube also causes the horse to salivate. This in turn softens the action on the bit as the mouth is not dry.
When you switch to work on the other side of the horse, keep the horse’s head center of his body. Switch the longe line and whip to your other hand and then step to the outside of the horse and turn him around on the right rein. Lead him a few steps on the new rein and then step behind him and let the line out using the whip in your triangle to send him forward.
Think of the whip as a substitute for your leg aids and the side reins and longe line as a substitute for your rein aids. The horse should seek the contact with the side reins with an elastic, light contact. If the side reins are too short the horse will hollow his back and the longe work be of no gymnastic benefit.
If the horse pulls the trainer on the line and does not wish to stay on the circle the trainer should not just pull back. Instead use soft, repeated short actions on the rein to bring the horse’s head back to the inside.
If your horse offers a canter then let him go some strides before asking him back to trot. When you have worked your horse in walk and trot transitions you can add the canter by bringing the horse in toward the trainer on a slightly smaller circle and then letting the line out and sending the horse forward with a canter command giving with the rein in a following hand movement and pointing the end of the whip at his girth.
Your horse may strike off in the wrong lead. This is possibly because you have not brought him in on a slight inward spiral and sent him out correctly to encourage him to take the correct lead. The longe line must give at the correct moment to free the inside shoulder of the horse and allow that inside hind to step through. If this happens bring him calmly back to a rhythmic calm trot and try again.
More Advanced Use of the Longe Line
After a few months of longe work your horse will be ready to learn more aids on the longe line. The trainer can vibrate the line. This will indicate to the horse to reduce his tempo. Thus if a horse attempts to run off the line can be vibrated to calm the horse down. If the horse still rushes the line can be used in a small circular motion anti-clockwise along with the voice command to ‘steady’ or ‘slow’ to bring the horse down. If a horse is balky and won’t move forward brightly into the side rein contact the longe line can be rotated in a forward circular movement clockwise to encourage the horse to move forward.
In the beginning the horse may have his head in the center of his body, to the outside or inside, his haunches in or out on the circle. As he finds his balance and develops strength in his topline and confidence to the bit, the trainer can begin to ask the horse to have his head slightly to the inside of the circle. This will not be achieved by pulling the horse in toward the trainer but by soft give and take actions on the longe line and a mild use of the whip behind the horse to send his hindquarters forward. If this is begun too early the horse will just throw his hindquarters out to avoid the bend which is to be avoided.
The canter can be improved using the longe line in a timely manner by giving a short action on the longe line just as the forelegs leave the ground in the canter.
Training of your horse to longe can be very useful at all stages of his life. As with all things horses if you can experience longing with a horse well trained to longe you will find teaching your own horse that much easier.