Longe Your Horse with Confidence

Longeing is more than sending your horse around in circles. The exercise is also a way to communicate with your horse and help him develop balance.

There are lots of good reasons to longe your horse, as long as you do it well. One objective in longeing is to create a pattern of control. But that doesn’t mean you have to be heavy-handed. We know that horses learn patterns and feel safe when they’re working with familiar exercises, so we’re going to use that knowledge in teaching our horse to longe safely.

Last month, we stressed that instead of letting the horse “blow off steam” on the longe line, potentially injuring himself or getting out of control, we used longeing at the walk to settle the horse physically and mentally. When your horse learns that he doesn’t have to blow up, and that you’ll give him an opportunity to move-which is what excited horses want-he’ll relax, even though he has plenty of energy.

This month, we want to build on those lessons, so we can feel confident enough to ask our horses to trot or canter on the longe line as well.

Always Forward
One of the most important patterns that you can establish is that the horse should go forward. That sounds obvious, but watch someone trying to longe a horse if they don’t have that objective clearly in mind-they’re all over the arena. Horses aren’t born knowing they should go around you in a circle; they have to be taught. We have to teach them that when they get confused, the answer is to move forward. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a horse who repeatedly tries to pull away, or one who goes forward in fits and starts. But if the horse has clearly in his mind that he’s safe stepping forward on the longe (not racing forward), you can direct his movement.

Though you know that horses do best when signals are specific, we often get away with being sloppy when we’re on our horse’s back or right beside him on the lead rope. But when we’re 20 feet away, it’s important to be clear and to tell the horse one thing at a time.

For instance, if you focus on the horse’s hip each time you tell him to go forward, he’ll learn to recognize that look, even if you happen to be in front of him. But waving the whip may give him a wrong signal when he has pulled out of the longe circle and is looking at you with that “I’m thinking of leaving” attitude.

The key to success in longeing is to teach the main cues that you need while your horse is on a lead line. You’ll lengthen the distance between you and the horse only when the horse performs well at a shorter distance. (To review last month’s lesson, see the sidebar titled “Begin With the Walk” on page 18).

Voice, Whip and Body Languages
Horses have an amazing ability to recognize patterns of sound and movement, so we can use that in developing a language of voice cues. Usually people say the word that represents the action they want-walk, trot, canter or whoa. But how they say it communicates a lot to the horse. A somewhat commanding voice (not yelling) might be helpful for pokey horses, while a soothing voice works better for excited horses.

Since the whip is an extension of your arm, think of it as directing the horse, rather than intimidating him. Watch that you use the whip at hock height or below. The whip should follow the horse, so that it’s available when you need it, but not hounding his every step. Allow the whip end to point to the ground unless you’re signaling with it.

Contain the Excitement

  • Establish a consistent pattern that builds from a walk.
  • Think of the trot and canter as separate gears, not faster gaits.
  • Never ask for a higher gear unless the horse is calm and under control at the walk.
  • Follow the horse’s motion with the longe whip held at or below hock level, but don’t “chase” every step.
  • Use vocal tones and syllables to teach your horse to recognize and respond to voice cues for walk, trot and canter.
  • Go back to leading lessons if your circles start to lose their roundness.

When asking the horse to walk, many people use a drawn-out sound, to communicate you want the steps to be relaxed. At the same time, they move the whip slightly back and forth along the ground, to encourage forward movement.

For the trot, many people break the word into two syllables, “Tr-ot!” At the same time, they wiggle the whip at about hock level. For the canter or lope, they use two syllables, “Can-ter!” and they use the whip more vigorously, or sometimes in an overhand movement.

Knowing where to stand is an art form. In a perfect world, you can stand in one spot and have the horse make a perfect circle around you. But even perfect horses don’t always do that, so you have to learn how to make adjustments that will help the horse. Try to stand so you are facing the horse, with a line from your belly button to the horse’s girth. That positions you as if you were riding the horse.

Generally speaking, if you want the horse to speed up, you may need to be across from his hip. Think of it as though you were putting your leg on your horse to ask him to speed up. If you need him to slow down, stay across from the girth, or move slightly ahead of that, across from his shoulders or even his nose. You’ll need to play with what your horse needs, as it’s easy to chase the horse away from you, rather than slowing him down.

If you have the possibility of beginning to longe a horse within a round pen, that’s a big advantage, both in teaching the horse what you want him to do, and in refining your cues. Try to avoid longeing where there is grass. Horses learn to grab a bite quickly, and that becomes the focus of their attention. Whatever your signals, just be yourself and you’ll be consistent, and that’s what the horse will adjust to.

Ready to Trot
In the trot, everything will happen much faster than at the walk, and there’s the potential for the horse to get excited. Stick to your good technique. Think of the trot as a separate gear, not just something faster than the walk. After making several changes of speed at the walk, and when you feel that the horse is paying attention to you, ask him to trot on a 10-foot line. Try to get a smooth change. You don’t want him zooming off. When he begins the trot, say something soothing, like “good boy,” and allow him to move forward.

After a few steps, ask him to come back to the walk again. You’re not going to longe your horse at the trot on a circle that small for any length of time, but it’s helpful for a few strides to explain the cues to him. As your horse relaxes, and as you’re sure that you have good control, you can lengthen the line.

Just as you don’t want your horse to pull on the reins when you ride him, you don’t want him to lean on the longe line. When you find that he’s taken all the slack out of the line, ask him to change something. It could be that you slow him down or make the circle smaller. The moment that he gives to the line, though, release him, so that you’re not pulling on him.

As soon as you sense that the horse is building up steam and is about to go faster than you want him to, ask him to walk. Don’t ask for the trot again until you have a steady, relaxed walk. However, you can change direction. Establish the principle that he doesn’t get to do anything exciting until he’s first relaxed at the walk. That will reduce the chances of the exciting thing getting out of control.

Work with your cues until you can vary speeds at the trot and walk, asking the horse to make changes of speed at various distances from you. Don’t be surprised that the horse holds to a circle easier going in one direction than the other.

Begin with the Walk

As a quick review of what we covered last month, stand facing the horse’s shoulder, with the longe line in your left hand and the whip in your right. Look at his left hip as if you were telling it to move. Your left hand should keep his head from turning to the right, and your focus and raised whip will tell him to step forward, essentially going past you. Be sure you stay out of kicking range in all these exercises. As the horse moves forward, release the line a fold or two, so that he is free to go.

If the horse doesn’t move forward, step a little to your right, and continue to tell the hip to move forward again. By stepping to your right, you open the door, so to speak, for him to go forward. This will be an important technique at a later point, when the horse is a distance from you and you want to encourage his forward movement. Be sure that as soon as the horse steps forward, you relax your signals, letting him know that he did the right thing.

When he is about 10 feet from you, hold the line so it doesn’t get any longer. When the horse feels that contact, he’s likely to either stop or turn and face you, as you probably taught him when you were leading him. When he puts contact or light tension on the line, tell him again to go forward, which should release the pressure on the line. In this way, he’s learning that you are limiting the size of the circle.

Allow the horse to walk about 10 strides. Then you should step to your left, telling him, “Whoa,” and taking the slack out of the line. If the horse doesn’t stop, shorten the line, making him walk in a smaller circle. The moment he pauses, relax the tension on the line. When he stops, walk up to him and pet him, folding the line into your hand as you do. Change sides frequently.

If you are down to a very small circle and the horse is still not stopping, tell him “whoa” firmly and pull the line firmly toward his body until he takes a big step to the side with his hind feet. That will reinforce your voice command, and teach him that “whoa” means stop now. When he stops, pet him and allow him to stand a minute before resuming the exercise.

Work at the walk until your horse will go at a steady, relaxed speed, and will stop when you ask him. When he’s in a good rhythm, ask for a faster walk, then a slower walk, and so forth. When you feel that he’s settled and his steps are regular, then you can consider trotting. Until then, you’re asking for trouble by letting him go any faster.

Use frequent changes of direction and vary the speed of the walk to engage your horse’s brain, as well as giving his body something to do. Allow the longe line to talk with your horse, as your reins would, giving him slack when he takes a nice step, asking him to slow when he gets a little too fast.

If you can’t get him to settle and walk easily, then give him a little break by practicing some leading lessons, perhaps walking him over a few ground poles or just leading him around the arena. After a few minutes, return to longeing at the walk. When you have excellent control on a 10-foot line, then feed a few more loops to the horse, and work on getting that same level of control with him 15, 20 and 25 feet from you.

When you find that the circle isn’t round, go back to your leading lessons, asking the horse to “give” to the line, so that he’s moving forward with his nose slightly to the inside, as if he’s keeping an eye out for your next signal. If the horse seems stiff or looks like he’d rather escape, slow him down. But when you feel that he looks pretty and relaxed, not pulling on the line or cutting into the circle, you can think about the canter.

Now for the Canter
As you probably know, the lope or canter is the gait in which the horse is most likely to injure himself or get out of control. It’s hard for a horse to canter in a balanced way on a small circle, so sometimes they go fast-either in trot or canter-to use their momentum to help them. Instead of resorting to pulling and momentum, you have to work on lots of speed changes to help the horse learn balance.

Rather than demanding that the horse canter, we’re going to finesse him into it, so that he steps forward in a confident, balanced way on the correct lead. Again, think of the canter as a different gear, not a faster one. In fact, it’s helpful if you think of slowing the horse (actually, steadying him) before you ask for a canter. If you chase the horse into a canter, his gait will be out-of-control.

Instead, imagine yourself trotting on the trail. You’ve rounded a corner and your horse sees an opportunity to step into an easy lope. You allow him to do that, and you relax and enjoy a few leisurely “da-da-dump” strides, before bringing him back to a trot. Getting that feel and timing will help you communicate what you want to your horse.

When you’re ready to ask the horse to canter on the line, get him into a good working trot. Make frequent changes of speed, trying to make each speed a really good movement, without him pulling the circle out of shape. At some point, the horse may slip into a canter. When that happens, if he’s moving easily and not getting excited, allow him to lope a few strides (“good boy”), and then ask him to come back to the trot, and then the walk. Don’t allow the horse to go too many strides at the canter or he’ll have to speed up to keep his balance. Get him back into a relaxed walking rhythm before trotting again.

Eventually you’ll want to develop a canter cue. With the horse trotting, steady him, using your voice and talking to him through the longe line. That will become a pre-cue for him, a signal to get himself ready for something else. You’ll feel a moment when he seems to be saying, “What next?” That’s when you’ll give him the okay to canter.

As you work with it, you’ll develop a whip or voice signal that tells the horse to step into the canter. Here’s one to try: Raise your whip just above hock height, and bring it around to slap the tail of the whip on the ground. At the same time, tell him “can-ter!” with the “ter” happening at the same time the whip end slaps the ground. He’ll likely make a tiny jump forward. When he does, tell him “good boy” and give him some line. If he steps into the canter, let him go a few strides, as long as he’s not too excited. If he doesn’t canter, settle him into the trot, feel for the right moment, and repeat the request. It may take a few times, but he’ll get the idea.

After a few strides, bring him back to the trot and then stop him. Pet him and tell him that he did great.

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