I got this title from a close friend. Thanks Bill for the inspiration.
Lunging horses, at least in the natural horse training communities, has become a bad idea. How do I know? Because I'm from the natural horse training community. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say you shouldn't lunge your horse because it's bad for them. Often, when you ask the person who thinks lunging is bad, why they think lunging is bad, they don't have a definitive answer. The most common answer is some version of "because it's what my teacher taught me, so I listen to my teacher."
So... naturally, I feel like we need a little clarification on the subject.
Lunging isn't bad! Circles aren't bad. But... circles, without a distinct goal and meaning for the horse, are bad. In other words, mindless lunging is bad for the horse. Doing it because you were taught to do it without understanding the value, can be detrimental to your horse for a few important reasons.
First, when a horse travels in a circle around a center point (you), they tend to weight their feet in an imbalanced fashion, often causing repetitive stress injuries on the tendons and joints. Imagine a horse traveling a circle to the right, if his head is tilted out and his shoulder tilted in, he'll put undue stress on the right front foot, leading to eventual injury. If you don't know about that balance and keep lunging or circling for other reasons, you will damage your horse and force an early retirement. How do I know? Because I've done exactly that. I didn't know I was doing that, but it happened and I learned.
Second, if you ask your horse to circle or "lunge in a circle" as it's often called, for the wrong reasons, which I'll attempt to describe below, you may inadvertently destroy the mental connection between you and the horse. You're not guaranteed to destroy that special connection but chances are pretty high. If you don't understand more about how horses connect and enjoy a relationship with humans, you may be teaching your horse to not like you, and always leave you when the pressure's on.
So what do I mean by "wrong reasons" for lunging? Notice how I often replace the word "lunging" for "circling," and vice versa? It's because they are virtually the same thing. I don't want people to get caught up thinking that because they're circling their horse, they aren't lunging. They are virtually the same thing. The key word we want to avoid is "mindless." We don't want to mindlessly circle or lunge the horse in circles. Which leads us to those "wrong reasons" for lunging.
Lunging because your instructor says so is one of those wrong reasons, or at least, insufficient reasons. Lunging or circling because it's fun for you, and you don't really know what else to do for exercise, is another wrong reason. Many people circle their horse around and around because they like watching the horse go around. That's not a great reason for lunging and it can lead to the above stated problems. As stated before, lunging without clear outlined value for you and your horse, isn't healthy in general.
So what are some "good reasons" for lunging? First. If you're aware of the imbalances in a horses gaits, you can use circles to influence the balance and change it for the better. Starting slow is always a good idea. If you know what you're doing, you can teach a horse to carry themselves in a balanced fashion which can lead to better riding experiences and long lasting healthy horse.
Second. Lunging a horse can help get out the "zoomies." Zoomies is a fun word to describe a horse that doesn't contain their own energy well. They zip, zoom, buck, fly, leap, and generally act un-rideable. Lunging can help take out the zoomies. You have to be careful not to cause injury, but it's useful to see how a horse moves before you decide to get on. You can also use lunging for testing confidence with a saddle, or even asking a horse to jump or cross obstacles like water or a tarp. The simple act of sending a horse out and over, or through a space is extremely useful, even in trailer loading so you don't have to go inside the trailer. You can literally lunge your horse right into a horse trailer if you get the concept down right.
Third in line for good reasons to circle, is you can train responsiveness to your up and down signals, which can lead to better riding experiences too. Transition work is very valuable for horses. Finally, lunging or circling, if done well can be a life enriching experience that leads to performing arts with horses. Have you ever seen a trainer circle their horse without anything on his head, in a wide open field, and the horse is balanced, calm, responsive, and beautiful? We call that liberty training and it can be beautiful. It's one of the magical things we work toward in higher level horsemanship. I can teach you how to get there. Just comment below if you want more info.
Coming full circle back to the title of this article... Lunging, in the natural horse community has gotten a bad rap. However, I use the word all the time. I'm not interested in separating communities and looking for differences. I'm looking for similarities. I'm not your stereotypical horse trainer who says I know what I'm doing and no one else knows what they're doing. I believe in creating bridges between ideas and peoples and communities. I feel that if we can see differences, we're acting quite human, but if we can see similarities, we are acting super human. So if you're a natural trainer who refuses to use the word "lunging," perhaps you'll soften a little and start using it playfully instead of discriminately. If you're someone who uses the word lunging all the time, perhaps by reading this, you'll become aware of a whole other community of people that use different words but they're trying to get to the same place you are. All just food for thought anyway. I hope it helps.
Comment below if you have any extra thoughts. Also, if you want some tips on lunging, or circling in a way that helps the horse balance and become more engaged with you mentally, which leads to higher levels of performing arts, comment below and the more comments I get the sooner I get those video tips out.
Thanks for reading
PS. Lunging or circling to teach a horse to maintain gait is a mixed bag of good and bad. There is a way to train maintaining gait without consequences for breaking gait. If you can figure that out, you'll be on the path to mastery.