March 28, 2017
Retraining a Racehorse: Problems when single line lunging
In the sixth part of ‘Ground Training’, Fred and Rowena Cook (of Equine Management and Training) address the issues most people face when single line lunging a racehorse out of training.
More often than not, racehorse horses are lunged in a pen or small enclosure, so when presented with the open space of an arena they can be rather lively or seemingly naughty.
Lunging difficulties are usually due to unclear communication, poor positioning or the process not being started in the best manner. In the main, most of the common single lunge issues resolve once double lunge work commences as the second line affords much greater control and corrections to be carried out as under saddle. However, not everyone is comfortable or confident working with two lines so here are a few tips when things are not going right. Try and anticipate your horse’s moves so that you can remain one step ahead of him.
Remember that working on a circle is hard for any horse, let alone one who has not really encountered it before, so allow time for muscles to build up – do not expect too much too soon.
HELP – My horse races off when I start to lunge him
These two suggestions are unconventional, but work:
- Lead the horse in a very small circle.
- Turn to face his shoulder, adopting the lunge position but you are stepping sideways. Do not increase the size of the circle until the horse has accepted your position.
- Gradually step away, taking care to maintain the correct position in relation to his body as you do so so that he does not react adversely.
- Hold the horse close to its head and virtually push the hindquarters where you want them to go – a bit like a turn on the forehand.
- Once the horse will step round you, you can very gradually let the line out. This works really well and especially so if you have practised some ground training exercises.
Note Fred’s stance – an easy hold of the lunge line and positioned mid-way along the horse’s length so that he can keep forward momentum and readily move towards to the shoulder to steady the horse or stop him turning in, or further towards to quarters if the horse tries to drop back. Even with a loose lunge line control can still be maintained by your body positioning and language. Do not worry at this stage how the horse is positioning his body, it is control you are after – refinement can come later on.
HELP – My horse rushes off when the line is let out
Some horses will readily tear off, snatching the line out of your hand the moment the lunge rein is let out. This is a habit developed as a consequence of poor handling when lunging was initially taught and/or a fright of some sort.
- For the horse that generally rushes, just reduce the size of the circle.
- Do not be tempted to pull the horse too sharply, instead gradually shorten up the lunge line; as the size of the circles decreases the horse will have to slow up in order to maintain his balance.
HELP – My horse cuts in on the circle
Often horses will not stay out on the length of lunge line given to them, preferring to cut in and then invariably rushing about – often in trot, but more usually in canter:
- Make sure that you are not adopting the ‘driving’ position by being too far behind the shoulder.
- ‘Shake’ the lunge line in a wave-like action as the vibration is often enough to encourage the horse back out on to the circle..
- Point the lunge whip towards to shoulder to stop the horse cutting in.
- Re-establish the walk before proceeding to trot/canter.
- Lay a few poles on the ground like the spokes of a wheel, positioning yourself in the centre.
HELP – My horse turns in on me
This habit often occurs when the trainer is a little lazy on rein changes, etc. and tends to “reel” the horse in. Follow the same steps as above, but also:
- Make sure you are not inadvertently creating a pressure/tension down the lunge line, which is signalling to the horse to stop, or that you are not actually pulling him in.
- Check your position: if you are ahead of the shoulder this blocks forward movement so the horse stops and turns in; or if you are too near the quarters then the horse can more easily turn in.
HELP – My horse turns away and kicks out
This usually occurs when the trainer is not in control, the horse is not paying any attention and is going too fast, or rather obviously, when the horse is feeling happy and full of himself.
- Slow everything right down, come back to walk if necessary.
- Bring him back on to a much smaller circle. As you let him back out again, give a jiggle on the line every time the horse is distracted by outward influences. If a jiggle doe not maintain his attention, then a quick tug should do the trick.
- Be sure you are positioned more by the shoulder.
- Check your feeding and increase turn out if possible should this basic over-exuberance continue for any length of time.
HELP – My horse turns his head to the outside
Unbalanced or young horses will usually trot around with their heads inclined to the outside. With correct control from the trainer, the horse can be gradually asked to straighten and then finally incline slightly to the inside as his balance and suppleness improves.
- If a few wiggles of the lunge line does not invoke the desired response, then give a couple of short, sharp tugs to focus his attention where it should be.
- Rule out physical issues.
- Do not work too long on one rein; turning out can be your horse’s way of relieving tension and discomfort from over-worked muscles.
HELP – My horse keeps cantering instead of staying in trot
This is the typical reaction of a horse that is not balanced; it is easier to canter than stay in trot as trotting is harder work. It is a case of repetition – keeping correcting him and bringing him back to trot.
When you get some good trot work reward your horse by bringing back to walk; then trot on again. Working on a circle is hard work for a horse so by cantering he is easing himself.
- Cantering instead of trotting can be an indication of a physical problem.
HELP – My horse is tossing his head
A little head-tossing in the early days is acceptable as it is usually a sign of anxiety whilst the horse is working out what is required of him (remember, this form of training is new to him).
However if he persists:
- Rule out any dental issues.
- Rule out the bit being too thick as it may be restricting tongue movement and the horse is showing his distress at this.
- Rule out back/hind suspensory ligament issues.
- He may not like your choice of bit; if you have opted for a lozenge at this stage, the joints may be pulling to one side – especially if he tilts his head, etc.
- Check you are maintaining a soft enough contact.
- Try a noseband such as a grackle to keep the bit a little higher and more stable in the mouth; if it does not have the desired effect, then revert to a cavesson.
- Check saddle fit if you are using one.
The horse has to learn to accept the bit so having eliminated the above:
- Maintain forward impulsion as he is trying to avoid going into the bit.
- If you are attaching the lunge line the centre nose ring of a cavesson this may be the cause. Lunge off the side ring or experiment with a coupling.
HELP – My horse is overflexing/dropping behind the vertical
- Some horses will drop behind the vertical as an evasion tactic so be ready with the driving aid.
- You are using a training aid that is shortened up too much.
- If you are using side reins do not be tempted to raise them to a higher ring as this can have the effect of encouraging the horse to lean further – he needs driving/pushing into a more forward, freer pace.
- The horse is not moving forwards enough. Move him up a gear, although this does not mean having him racing about.
- He may be requiring a different bit; your initial choice may be discouraging him from going forwards into the contact.
- However it could also be that the horse is finding the working surface too deep.
- The horse may be finding the work too strenuous for his stage of physical development.
HELP – My horse carries his head too high/is hollow
The horse that has his head up is a hollow horse which is a tense horse. A hollow outline is an uncomfortable outline and needs correcting quickly and the horse encouraged to work out that actually it is way more comfortable to work with a lowered head/neck.
- Rule out the saddle being too tight and nipping the withers.
- Do not be tempted to force the head down by attaching the side reins to a lower ring as the horse will just pull his head up even more and set himself against them.
- Actually if you raise the side reins very slightly, slow down the pace (almost in a lazy fashion ) and work on a smaller circle, this usually has the desired effect.
- For the horse that really does persist in carrying his head too high, then work in a Chambon for a while to help establish the correct muscles, or use a Harbridge or work the horse twice a week in an Equi-Ami.
HELP – My horse lacks inside bend
This is because the horse is tight or stiff in the outside neck and/or abdominal muscles to they need suppling and stretching
- Attach the lunge line as a draw rein at the girth and pass it through the inside bit ring. This allows you to ask for a bit more bend with your hand – a soft hand – in a “give-and-take” manner.
- If you are using side reins, do not shorten the inner rein more than the outer one as you will strain already tight muscles.
- When you horse has warm muscles, do your carrot stretches.
- Use just an outside side rein; this is often enough to encourage a horse to seek the contact just by the weight (although seemingly slight) it exerts.
HELP – My horse lacks swing through his back
Throughout the entirety of training, we routinely talk here about the ‘swinging back’, a back which is supple as a result of lifted abdominal muscles and hind legs coming under the body. Horses are often seen that have indeed adopted a rounder outline but it can readily be seen that they look stiff and stilted in their action, somewhat rigid. This is because the back is not soft and swinging. Lack of swing is not the preserve of the ex-racehorse.
It is harder for the thoroughbred to achieve ‘swing as by their very breeding, they are designed to run, not perform dressage movements, but that doesn’t mean to say that they can’t develop swing. Also many former racehorses will have incurred a trauma to the back/pelvic region which, although having no knock-on effect on their racing, can do so later on in life when schooling as a riding horse takes over. Thus they need more time and a considerable amount of suppling work.
Getting a horse to step under more is initially achieved by encouraging him to stretch – the nose reaching forward and downward as if he was about to start grazing. A fully stretched neck activates the muscles of the abdomen and back and allows the hind legs to step under, further activating the muscles of the hindquarters and stretching the hamstrings. As the back supples, the horse naturally lifts through the withers arching his neck forwards (reaching into the bit) with is poll the highest point. If the poll is not the highest point a horse can’t step under correctly; the overbent horse (where the nose is brought into the chest) is unable to take weight behind as he doesn’t build the correct muscles.
When training a horse it is the abdominal, dorsal and lumber muscles which need strengthening first as the horse needs a strong central core to support his back. When these muscles start to take shape, the horse will naturally reach forwards, as a result of which he has to bring his hind legs under in order to maintain his balance. The horse that begins to take weight behind lifts his forehand with the neck raised and arched (from the withers). As the horse works more consistently through his back and steps under with increased activity and flexion in the hocks this forms the basis for collection – where a horse lowers his croup as if appearing to “sit” i.e. his centre of gravity has moved back and he is truly taking weight behind.
Fred guides a young student in the art of lunge work. Here he demonstrates encouraging the horse to move forward without the use of a lunge whip by offering his hand and positioning himself behind the horse’s mid-line.
Fred and Rowena Cook
In the next section of this in-depth series, Fred and Rowena will cover double lunge and simple long reining work.
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