Let me preface this grumpy little opinion piece with two things: 1. I am not unequivocally anti-longe–it has its place in training and when done properly from the outset can be incredibly useful (duh), and 2. I have not stopped doing ground work with Eli.
This is a personal account of my experience with the thoroughbred breed specifically and I have spent a lot of years thinking about this, sharing thoughts with professionals and fellow amateurs, and for me I am finding it to be a true interpretation of what works and what fails. Now that that’s out of the way, on to the business of this post.
I haven’t put Eli on a longe line since last September at a schooling show. I had him out for a longe at the show and he started running, spooking, bucking, and generally being unruly and he slipped and went down. He scraped up his stifle but never took a lame step. It could have been worse and I am glad it wasn’t. Obviously I didn’t continue, and while walking/jogging/backing up a lot and petting the psychotic cat my horse had turned into, something clicked in my head. Trying to get Eli safely back to his stall at the show made me realize something. A bunch of components of a whole thought had been slowly adding up over the years to complete this thought in my head, and now I can articulate it.
Longeing a spooky thoroughbred in an unfamiliar environment is fucking stupid.
Longeing a thoroughbred to let it run and try to wear it out enough to make it “rideable” is really fucking stupid, because you are now setting yourself up for failure. It’s not going to happen. You are trying to tire a horse that has centuries of breeding for speed and stamina and a brain that is shaped by DNA that says the more the horse goes, the more the horse goes. You are increasing the horse’s fitness, and now have created a cycle of having to longe more to work him down enough for you to feel comfortable getting on (which may never happen), without instead figuring out how to ride through an issue such as a spook or buck. Running a horse on a longe line is not training it, it is undoing a lot of training, and in an unfamiliar environment might even send the horse into a panic. I do not want to ride a panicked horse.
The thoroughbreds I have worked with do not stop because they are tired. They do not realize they are tired while they are working. I started figuring this out many years ago, when I had a hot, temperamental but extremely talented and willing thoroughbred who had a lot of energy every day and at the time with the trainer I rode with, longeing a horse into submission was pretty common. Everyone did it. I would longe him and get sick of watching him trot and canter around like little black tornado, so I’d stop him (which took a while) and walk him back into the barn and only then, once standing relatively still in a cross-tie, did it look like it started to dawn on him that he might be kind of tired. He had had a chance to think. So I decided to try something. I’d tack him up, let him throw a buck or two on the longe line for just about one minute, two at the most, then stop him before the wheels in his brain started spinning too fast, walk him back down to the barn to put the longe line away and then walk him back up to the mounting block to get on. And most of the time he wasn’t “wild” or spooky or reactive or too energetic to ride. Huh. He didn’t have a chance to freak out. I no longer had to try to get his brain back after a strenuous longeing session. He never lost his mind in the first place. There are a lot of horses just like this, who need a quick spin on a line to get rid of a buck, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Somewhere along the way, Eli learned going on a longe line meant running, not working. He came this way. The way he ran, I could see he was at loose ends as to what to do, but also he was too panicked to listen to me trying to stop him. I spun on my heels, a helpless fulcrum, watching a large prey animal do what it knows: flight. But on a circle. Well. That can’t be good.
So why give him a chance to feel fear, let panic rule his mind? I couldn’t think of a reason. I mean, really, can you? So I stopped longeing him. I use other training tools to keep his mind focused. If he spooks, I ignore it, ride through it with my leg holding him together, reassure him and pet him and tell him he’s fine. If he bucks, I try to figure out why. Does he feel good, hurt, pissed? What did I just do to cause that? The answer isn’t always obvious, but that’s training horses. It’s a process, not to create a foot-perfect automaton, but to build a sporting relationship on the premise of partnership, not a master/slave dynamic. Eli doesn’t need spoken English to tell me things. He’s not bucking because he hates me. He’s not drifting right because he’s an asshole. He’s not jumping the shit out of a 3’9″ oxer because he loves me and wants to please me. (Horses are NOT altruistic.) He does all of this because we are having a constant conversation in a very complex language that few ever master, and none ever stop improving their fluency, unless they choose to believe their horses are out to get them. You really think your horse isn’t behaving perfectly just to spite you? Look in the mirror and get some anger management therapy. Your horse is just being a horse.
I knew my experiment could easily fail at a horse show. But maybe it wouldn’t, and it certainly could be no worse than Eli wiping out at the end of a longe line. I had to see if giving him a little credit to work out the situation mentally instead of trying to wear him out physically would be successful. At the last show we went to, a one-day show, we would school in the arena in the morning before classes started. I knew getting to that arena as early as possible before it was filled with others schooling their horses would be key. Only one other horse was in there initially while I rode Eli around. He looked at everything outside the arena. He spooked and did his leapy move a few times, but I didn’t draw attention to it by reacting to it, thereby confirming in his mind that something is worth reacting to. No, I ignored it. I walked around a lot and trotted some. I hopped off and hand walked him around some and reassured him all the things he was getting worked up about didn’t matter. I tried to calm him down, not let him lose his mind. I got back on and cantered. He was slowly relaxing, getting less reactive, no longer spooking. I jumped just few jumps (should have taken a whole line, but that mistake was mine, not Eli’s, and had no impact on his mental state later) and he jumped with a little extra exuberance but landed quietly. He had a brain, and I found it, and not by exhausting him. He was perfectly fine for our classes that afternoon, and we got a few ribbons. All it took was about 20 minutes of calmly riding around on an apprehensive horse to convince him there was nothing to be apprehensive about. I made work easy for him and rewarded him. I gave him things to succeed at, like trotting over one low jump, and praised him when he did it without issue. I didn’t drill a damn thing. I did not put him on a longe line. He didn’t need to learn how to show in an arena, he already knew that part. He needed to learn that everything else outside the arena was nothing worth contemplating. Ignore what I ignore and focus on the jumps. No longe line needed.
We have a bigger test of my “no-longe” strategy coming up this weekend at a very spooky venue with tricky, shadowy lighting, one I don’t think Eli’s ever been to (he hasn’t been with me). My plan is a lot of hand walking to introduce him to the environment. A lot of walking around under saddle to see how he handles it. Avoid traffic, don’t ask impossible or unfair questions. Avoid all the white noise. We may get to jump some jumps, or he may be too freaked out by it all, but so what? And if he is freaked out by it all, the last thing I would ever want to do is let him run around on a circle around me while his brain melts. I’ll just keep walking him around and telling him it’s all okay and nothing is going to eat him and know that he’s just being a horse.