Why I Stopped Longeing My Horse

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.

longeline

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.

35 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Longeing My Horse

  1. This is a really interesting post, you make a lot of good points, and what you’re saying about longing Eli certainly makes sense, given your many years of experience with TBs. I definitely agree with your sentiment about longing horses forever and a day: really, all you’re doing by longing a horse for 20+ minutes is making them more fit, not necessarily calming them down.

    With that said, I’m not strongly pro-longe or anti-longe. In my personal experience, Roger is one of those horses that needs a quick spin on the longe in an unfamiliar place to get a buck or two out of his system. I certainly don’t longe him for a long time – literally 5-6 mins in both directions – , but I’ve found that once he gets his sillies out, his brain returns to earth and he’s a much more focused horse underneath me. In fact, after he’s gotten his sillies out, he actually slows himself back down to a walk and eventually a halt, almost to say “ok, I’m done now.” I’ve also tried the no longe/hand-walking approach at new venues with great success, so it really just depends on what Roger walks off the trailer on that particular day. But I can definitely, 100% understand why you don’t longe Eli anymore.

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    • Honestly I do work with Eli periodically in a round pen with no line, no bridle, no halter … trying to get him to a point where longeing isn’t such melodrama for him, but we are a ways away from that yet. Roger seems much more sensible on a line, as many horses are.

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  2. Really interesting post. I’ve never lunged on a line other than with a pony we brought in that had SO much energy to begin with it was crazy and had to run a bit. I do free lunge with my Quarter if I feel like he needs it, and he gives to pick his own speeds. Normally, if he needs to, he knows to get it out of his system before I get on and he’ll run around. I ALWAYS insist on joining up no matter what which I think helps calm them back down a lot, and end with calm groundwork.

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    • Calm groundwork has been really helpful! It really just depends on the horse in my mind whether or not longeing will be productive or detrimental. Sounds productive in your case!

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  3. You know, in my experience at least, this really varies from horse to horse. A lot of thoroughbreds are like this, but others do so well with just 10-15 minutes to chill out on the line. granted, that does not mean running and screaming like a maniac.

    Val, for example, is actually super polite on the line, and at a new place, it really helps to let him just move around on the longe and take a deep breath. I’m by no means trying to work him down, because that will happen on its own with a good flat and schooling over the jumps. But it does help install his brain, and he tells me when he’s done and feeling better.

    With a horse that is racing around though, I will usually stop longeing because I don’t want them to slip and fall or pull a suspensory running so fast on a perpetual turn.

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    • I think what you’re saying makes complete sense. For the horses who understand longeing as work, it isn’t a problem. It’s the horses that, somewhere along the way, started panicking on the line and weren’t stopped that I am concerned about.

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  4. You already know my thoughts on this. I couldn’t have phrased it better. It’s one thing to put a horse on a line briefly to see what you have. My experience with Annie and other thoroughbreds is you can’t “lunge it out”.

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  5. I really like how you explain all of this- my trainer has the same approach. We don’t “prep” our horses at shows; we can take as long to warm up together as we need to and are encouraged to go for walks and take our time, but no one longes and longes and longes.

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  6. I love lunging as a training tool – but not to ‘get the bucks out’ or to run a horse to exhaustion. In that way I agree with you whole-heartedly: especially for a horse that is already anxious, fit, and high-energy, running them in circles is not at ALL helpful. I DO lunge frequently in a chambon, or long line, as a tool to get the horse working correctly over the back and to install voice commands, work on transitions, or get the brain in ‘work mode’ in cases when I don’t want to get on the horse for whatever reason. When the horses I work with are on the lunge, they are working. Lunging is not a time for them to run around like a lunatic. And IMO, if someone feels the need to lunge/run their horse into the ground before getting on or taking them in the show ring, they need a different horse.

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  7. I particularly like the part where you talk about ignoring Eli when he’s being spooky at things. I sometimes struggle to do that in reality but I attempt to with Stampede. The less I acknowledge the drama the sooner it goes away!
    I never really lunged at all until Stampede was diagnosed with back issues and honestly I dreaded lunging him before that – he would buck and then run in the straight line, dragging me about. After his diagnosis though it was recommended that he work on the lunge to help build muscle without the weight of a rider and to stretch out his back (going long and low). This completely changed my view and perspective on lunging. I taught stampede how to work properly on a lunge line and that it wasn’t a place for crazy or fast. I started by using a Pessoa knock off so he was more contained (when he would buck he would hit himself in the mouth) and while I still use it sometimes so he can work on contact he can now lunge in just a halter and knows to stretch out his back and will respond to various cues from me. Now I kind of view lunging as a thing every horse should be able to do properly (calmly and under direction) and as a potential aid for helping various issues in the horse.
    Lunging a horse to work it down or to just run around, especially with a TB, is most certainly pointless. I watched someone at my barn do this – would lunge for 30 minutes at a time even trying to get the crazy out of a horse that really was just that and not appropriate for her. The horse of course only got fitter and fitter!

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    • This is great! Thank you for sharing your experience with Stampede along these lines … I’m trying to reteach Eli how to longe like this, too. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to use a fauxsoa rig on him, because I think it could really help his hind end!

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  8. Lunging has its place and time, for every horse. People who use it as a Panacea for every horse are probably doing it for the wrong reasons. I like to let mine out, to see how they are moving that day, how they are thinking, how they react. I don’t chase them unless again, I need to see them move and they aren’t moving forward. In regards to hotter TBs (because there are cold and dead ones too) I think the people have a lot of the wrong ideas about lunging them, lunge them to death, and then never put your leg on them is what I hear/see a lot of riders doing and IME with my now gone hot TB putting a leg on him was what he needed to focus.

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  9. Like many things with horses, I agree that lunging horses falls into the counter intuitive category. Lunging for hours when a horse is wound for sound you would think would wear them out, but instead it just winds their sometimes anxious little brains even tighter.

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  10. 100% agree. My horses lunge calmly and know they are to work and get out the sillies. I like to lunge at some shows because it is something they are familiar with and they realize that working in a different place is normal. Maintaining quietness while lunging is 100% important. I feel like so many people install the wrong lunge concept on their horse.

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  11. Lungeing is honestly such a great way to get a horse focused and working without having to get on them (golden words for my lazy ass), but, as is the case with Eli, it doesn’t work if they’re initially taught to run. What irks me beyond belief is lungeing to tire a horse out, and it persists across so many disciplines. There is nothing morally okay with purposefully trying to tire an animal out and then asking it to perform a heavy work load. That being said, long lining seems more fun πŸ˜›

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  12. I lunge Simon at every show, but never at home. He needs the opportunity to “get his sillies out” after tons of time in the stall. For a horse that’s used for 10+ hour turnout a day, this is something I need to provide for him at an owner. Sometimes we lunge 20 minutes. Sometimes it’s 5. He may buck and pull and leap and play, or he may trot around 5 laps licking and chewing at me. Point is, I know my horse and need to give him time to express himself. For most shows there is not a round pen or turnout available for doing that, so lunging it is. Won’t change that practice with him, ever.

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    • You make a great point about lack of turnout or round pens at shows, and for horses used to lengthy turnout time, a longe line might be the only chance they get to throw a buck–I don’t really have a problem with that.

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  13. I lunge at horse shows, for a few reasons. I like my horse to get out and stretch his legs when he doesn’t have access to his usual turnout. I like to see how my horse’s attitude and movement are each day, without interference from a rider. I like to get out any intense antics before hopping aboard.

    I do believe in practicing lunging at home. I want my horse to be able to be calm on the line. He should walk, trot and canter when asked, and this is something that has to be taught and practiced.

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  14. This is a great post. I’m neither pro nor anti lunging. I use to throw my first horse on a lunge almost every ride. She’d get those first few rodeo bucks out of the way on the lunge then I’d get on. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had Tucker on the lunge line. Every horse is different. I fully agree with you that lunging just for the sake of expelling energy is not useful. And I particularly like your point about horses not being assholes just to spite us. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.

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    • Some definitely like to rodeo more than others, but I think it is possible to train past that without longeing on some. I had a feeling Tucker didn’t go on a line very often πŸ™‚

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  15. I couldn’t agree more. I know longeing is good for some things but I’ve always hated it, mainly due to my problems with hand eye coordination and my insane attraction to red-hot flighty horses. It’s insane to think that by putting an amped up horse on one end of the line and a human on the other and simply “running the stupid out” will work. In all my attempts to work Shiloh on the longe, I’ve unequivocally ended up with a wet snorty basket case and a worse ride to follow. Plus, with Shiloh’s clumsiness, putting him on the longe is putting him at risk for a slip and fall with all that torque. It’s counter-intuitive, but now I save the “sillies” for when I’m in the saddle. If he acts up, so what? Get him back and move on.

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