Sure, anyone can chase a horse around a ring or a round pen and call it free-longeing. But if the horse isn?t wearing any training equipment and is doing whatever he wants ? or, worse yet, just fleeing from someone swinging a whip at him ? it isn?t really free-longeing. it’s just a horse running around.
Free-longeing is an exercise in which the horse actually works without direct human contact, without receiving direction from a longe line or from your leg, seat, weight or rein aids. He is directed only by your voice and a longe whip, contained only by the fence of a ring or a round pen. It can be a difficult exercise to teach, but it can be beautiful exercise in communication. Done poorly, though, it can be a senseless, or even deleterious, waste of time.
Free-longeing is an extension of longeing with a longe line (see January issue), and it has similar physical conditioning benefits and similar communication benefits. Its primary physical purpose is to help build the muscles and the topline any horse competing under saddle needs (German dressage trainers call this ?pushing power?), while it develops the horse-human relationship needed in any discipline.
Free-longeing is also about building communication (and confidence) beyond the longe line. When you’re holding the longe line, you can use it to control your horse’s speed and direction. But when you’re free-longeing, you have no rope ?connection? to him; you have only your voice, your whip and your body language ? and a fence to contain him. He can either gallop around like a scared fool, or you can direct him to listen to you for direction. Fortunately, most horses (admittedly not all) like to have direction. If your horse has learned to ignore your riding aids, longeing and free-longeing are challenging exercises to induce him to listen to you in a new way.
let’s be clear about one point before we go on, though. Just as in our January article on longeing, we’re not talking about free-longeing as a lazy man?s exercise or as a way to ?just get the bucks out.? While longeing certainly is a good method to warm up a young, nervous or high-strung horse, free-longeing is an exercise in itself. it’s meant to be training that is supplemental and complimentary to riding, training that helps to build strength, stride and communication ? attributes necessary to the sport horse.
Ring vs. Round Pen.
Free-longeing is a more challenging exercise for us than regular longeing for two reasons. First, it absolutely requires a fenced area ? either a ring or a round pen ? for safety and efficacy. Second, if you’re using a ring and not a round pen, you either have to be reasonably fast and fit or you must have one or two people to help you, at least initially.
So let’s talk about the pros and cons of an arena vs. a round pen. They?re each suited to different purposes of free-longeing.
The round pen is the easiest place to free-longe. The shape and size describe a circle that’s familiar to the horse and that safely keeps him close enough to you to easily influence him. it’s easy to just unsnap the lead rope and ? voila! ? you’re free-longeing. The horse just has to respect you and your whip enough to remain on the circle.
it’s a wonderful communication builder to be able to direct your horse at all three gaits without any physical connection. You see how quiet and soft you can be with your aids, if your horse is tuned in to you, as you direct him to change gaits, tempo or direction. It can be a magical feeling.
But you can’t really do anything with him you can’t do on a longe line, except change direction without halting to change where your longe line is attached. Going around on a 20- or 25-meter circle can be as physically taxing off a longe line as on a longe line.
But in a round pen you can free-longe all by yourself, right from the start. If your ring is larger than a small dressage arena (40 meters by 20 meters), You’ll almost certainly not be able to free-longe your horse alone initially, because he can easily remove himself from your influence. And if you sprint after him, You’ll just scare him. You’ll need another person (two people if your ring is particularly large) stationed around the ring to quietly but forcefully keep the horse moving.
The other consideration to free-longeing in a ring is that it must be surrounded by a substantial fence and have a gate that closes securely to keep the horse from jumping out or crashing through. Rings are often enclosed by a low fence or a flimsy fence, and it’s certainly a potential safety hazard to set a horse loose in such an area. Plus, you absolutely must have the arena to yourself to free-longe, which may not be possible unless you have your own farm or you work your horse at a time when other riders or trainers aren?t present.
But you can do things with the horse that you cannot in a round pen. The larger size allows you to encourage the horse to trot and canter more energetically and with larger strides, which develops strength and fitness to a greater extent than on a circle. You can use the long sides to develop the medium or extended trot or canter, after the horse has learned not to just gallop off.
Dress For Success.
Remember, we’re talking here about free-longeing to develop the horse as an athlete, not to just ?exercise? him without riding him. So the horse should be dressed for longeing ? wearing a bridle, a longeing surcingle or saddle, and have side reins attached to the bit. He should be wearing equipment that requires him to carry a rounded frame and to use his hindquarters and back.
We recommend side reins instead of a chambon or similar device because the latter are attached between the front legs and could easily become entangled with those legs if the horse plays or strikes out. As we wrote in the January regular longeing article, horse boots are optional, depending on the horse and your preferences.
Because the horse may buck, play or otherwise overextend himself, warm him up before free-longeing, for 10 to 15 minutes. Longeing is often easiest, because He’s already wearing the surcingle, but you can ride him first if you prefer.
To start to teach your horse to free longe, have an assistant stand at the opposite end of the ring from you, with each of you holding longe whips. Lead your horse to the center of the ring or to the end farthest from the gate and quietly let him loose. he’ll likely either bolt back to the gate or to the spot nearest other horses or walk around the ring, checking things out.
If he bolts off, give him a few minutes to settle. Then walk slowly but confidently toward him, giving the command ?trot!? and raising your whip. he’ll likely canter off again, probably heading for the gate. You should continue to command, ?t-rot,? and use your whip to direct him around the ring, trying to discourage him from just galloping toward the center, spinning and galloping back to the gate. Keep him moving, commanding him to trot. (Only one person should give verbal commands, so as not to confuse the horse.)
If there are two or three of you to calmly but assertively keep him moving around the ring, in five minutes or so (depending on fitness) almost all horses will stop cantering and trot. When he does, reward him with your voice and allow him to trot around for a couple of minutes. Command him to walk with your voice and body language (stop urging him forward), and then command him to ?whoa? or urge him into a corner or against the rail to halt. Reward him and call it a day.
Don?t give up, just because he didn’t seem to understand or didn’t respond to your every command. That doesn&r
squo;t happen the first time, with any horse. If you want to use free-longeing as a regular exercise, you have to train the horse, just like you trained him to longe or ride. You have to do it regularly, just like anything else.
If you do, your horse will probably learn the routine in just a few sessions. And then, without an assistant and using just your voice and body language (including the longe whip) you can urge him to open his stride, to extend, down the long side at the trot or canter, developing that strength you’re looking for.
Work the horse in free-longeing like you would while riding or longeing. Give him walk breaks and then put him back to work.
Words of Caution.
Just as in longeing, do not encourage or allow your horse to turn and come to you, even when you want him to halt. He must stay out on the circle (in a round pen) or away from you (in a ring), and when you command him to halt, he should stand to allow you to go to him.
Encouraging or allowing the horse to come to you ? as cuddly and cute as it may be ? is an invitation to a potentially dangerous situation, as He’s three to six times your size, with hooves.
Remember that free-longeing can be physically challenging, especially if your horse isn?t used to demanding work. We limit regular longeing to about 20 minutes, but free-longeing will require more time, especially as you should begin with 10 to 15 minutes of warm-up longeing. Still, 30 to 35 minutes of total work is a good barometer.