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Going in Circles

Longing a horse – teaching him to work on a long line in a large circle around the handler – is a great way to exercise the horse when you don’t have time to ride, or to work a young horse that is not saddle-broke. Its also useful for exercising a fresh horse when you can not turn him loose, such as at a new arena or trail area, before mounting up. Properly used, longing can also be an excellent training aid for both young and older horses – a chance to reinforce training concepts, sharpen attention to cues, and promote good self-carriage and balance. Unfortunately, many people use longing as simply a way to “get the kinks” out of a fresh horse and so the chance to polish up the training goes unused …. Or worse.

Longing is like using a round pen, without the pen. In both cases, the handler’s body position cues the horse. When working in a round pen, the fence or wall takes the place of the longeline connected to the halter, and so the handler’s hands are important only as body–language cues. When longing with a line, there is a very similar feel as to riding with a snaffle bit. The horse should give his head to the pressure on the line. Most horses need something more than the longeline snapped to the halter ring to get this level of control. I use a stud chain under the chin, but there are also longing cavassons which will give this extra bit of control.

When teaching a horse to longe on a line, keep in mind that longing is like driving the horse – the handler needs to be positioned off the horse’s hip, and is sending the horse forward with body language, whip or rope. As the horse’s head gives to the pressure of the line, he travels in a circle around the handler. I start youngsters off this way at a walk on a very short line. As the baby both gives his head, and moves forward, we have a mini-version of longing. To stop the forward motion of the horse, I step ahead of his line of travel, toward his head. I say “whoa” as I do this, to begin the association of stopping with “Whoa.” Whether in the round pen, or on a line, horses who are calm and aware will stop when the handler blocks their way. Practice this in both directions at slow speeds, and then start adding the cues for trotting and loping.

Be careful about longeing young horses who’s bones are still growing. Hard work on tight circles can stress undeveloped bones. I longe just enough that the colt knows how, but keep the sessions very short. Five minutes in each direction is more than enough to teach the colt to obey longe commands. As a precaution, use a full set of good quality boots when longeing.

Most handlers with trained horses use longing as a way to blow off some steam before mounting, but there are some situations here that could either advance the horse’s training and athletic ability, or undermine them. I always watch for leads when cantering a horse on the longeline. Often, if the horse is traveling fast, he will throw his hindquarters to the outside of the circle, and end up cross-firing – being on the correct lead in front and the wrong lead behind. While this seldom happens under saddle, it is common on the longeline. I think it is due to the horse’s head being pulled to the center and no rider’s leg balancing him from the other side. If I am longing a horse who switches out behind, I cue him to a trot and start again. It is very important that the horse works united at all times – there is no reason to let the horse practice bad habits!

Another common mistake is allowing the horse to choose his own gaits. When I turn a horse loose to play, he may go at whatever speed he chooses, change direction at will, and buck, kick, and play. BUT on the longeline, where I am in control, I want him to go in the gait that I choose. This means that if the colt is particularly fresh, I may tell him to go fast, and even allow some play, but once settled down we trot until I say lope, change direction when I cue it, and practice walking, slow jogging and standing on the line too.

This may sound strict, but it reinforces the idea that when we are working together, I will call the shots. Along with giving me the opportunity to exercise my horse when I don’t have time to ride, and to warm him up safely, longeing is a training session just like any other. By keeping control of the longeing sessions, I can enhance the training rather than waste time “just blowing off steam.”

Doris Eraldi of Eraldi Training in Potter Valley specializes in Pleasure and Equitation horses. She can be contacted at 707-743-1337, or by e-mail

Read Doris' previous article

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