Longeing is exercising the horse in a circle on a long (“longe”) line held by a person on the ground. When a horse is very quick or spooky on the way to the arena, most riders will try riding it rather than longeing it first, simply because it is annoying to have to go back to the barn, dismount, search for equipment, attach it to the horse, and trudge back to the arena on foot. In my experience, however, a horse that is very tense going to the ring rarely calms down within a reasonable time.
I much prefer longeing to struggling while mounted in order to control a nervous horse. When a horse pulls while longeing, it will meet with the restriction of side reins, which are composed of leather and elastic connected between the horse’s bit and girth. The elastic provides a little give when the horse pulls, but there is only so far that the animal can stretch its neck before it meets the fixed restriction of the leather part of the reins. In contrast, when a horse fights your hands while you are riding, it is difficult to offer as much flexibility, for most riders feel threatened by an increase in pace when they ease off the reins on a quick horse. Only a very talented and experienced rider can provide both the flexibility and restriction necessary when a horse wants to charge forward.
Longeing also offers the psychological advantage of focusing the horse’s attention on the equipment as the source of its restriction; whereas, if you have been pulling on the horse’s mouth for an hour on the flat, the animal associates discomfort directly with you. The situation also holds true in reverse. If your horse has been pulling against you for a long time, your arms will begin to hurt, and, if you are like most people, you will become angry with the animal in direct proportion to your degree of pain. But if you longe the horse before you try to work it, you will have a more pleasant ride afterward and not develop such ill will toward it.
Even a very good rider benefits from first longeing a tense horse, for it spares him from expending unnecessary energy on horseback. Side reins not only simulate good hands by offering some flexibility while keeping the horse in a frame, but will also help prevent the excited horse from drifting sideways and stepping on itself. They should be equal in length on both sides, since lengthening the outside rein does not create proper bending, as some people believe, but rather allows the horse to drift to the outside of the circle. If the horse is correctly fitted in side reins, the elastic ín the outside rein will both accommodate the horse’s bend and offer enough support to prevent the animal from becoming overly bent.
Side reins should be adjusted so that the horse can keep its head slightly in front of the vertical (figs. 2.1 A & B). Never tighten them to the point that they force the horse to bring its head behind the vertical, for this overflexed position makes it difficult for the horse to see where it is going and pulls apart the vertebrae just behind the horse’s ears, inflicting pain at that point (fig. 2.2).
Boots are another important consideration when longeing. Galloping boots and ankle boots will protect the horse’s legs if the animal interferes, striking one leg with the foot on the opposite side; and bell boots will protect the horse’s heels in case the animal overreaches, striking the heel of a forefoot with the toe of a hind foot (fig. 2.3 A & B). (If an excited horse is allowed to run on the longe line, it will tend to bow out on the circle and interfere or overreach. For this reason, it is very important to keep the horse at a pace suitable for the size of the circle.)
I prefer a 30-foot longe line to the shorter ones. It gives the horse enough room to canter comfortably and allows you to have at least one extra loop left in your hand at all times, so that if the horse bolts, you will not be instantly pulled to the ground and dragged. Although some people slide the small loop at the end of the longe line over their hand and let it rest on their wrist, I prefer to hold the end of the line in my hand, so that I can quickly let go of it if necessary. I decided to do this after witnessing a young girl getting snared in her longe line and dragged facedown for about 150 feet through the mud before her horse stopped. It was fortunate she was longeing inside an arena. If the horse had not been corralled by the railing, there is no telling how far it would have run before stopping.
Try to hold on to the horse if it starts to bolt, for in most cases you will be able to get it under control. But if the extra loop you have hanging from your hand is sliding rapidly through your fingers and you can see that the horse has no intention of stopping, then at the instant the line runs out, open your hand and drop the end of the line. The longe line should be held at the level of the horse’s mouth, with a steady feel all the time, just as on a normal rein. The longe line, then, represents communication with your primary restricting aid—your hands. When the horse is traveling counterclockwise, the line is held in your left hand; and when the horse is traveling clockwise, the line is held in your right hand.
A longe whip measuring 11 feet or more, including both stock and thong, should also be used. Pointed at the horse’s hocks and trailing them as the animal moves around the circle, the whip is used to drive the horse forward. The whip, then, represents your primary driving aid—your legs (fig. 2.4). Hold the longe whip in the opposite hand from the one holding the longe line.
To begin longeing, choose a place that does not have slippery or deep footing, since slickness often leads to interference between the limbs, and deep footing can injure soft tissue in the legs. The longe line should be wrapped into loops, each measuring about 4 feet in circumference, with the first loop being the one on the bottom. This allows you to drop one loop at a time from the top, preventing the line from getting tangled (fig. 2.5).
Thread the snap of the line through one ring of the bit and over the horse’s head, attaching it to the top of the bit ring on the other side. This enables your hand to act on both sides of the horse’s mouth. While you are attaching the longe line, hold the stock of the whip under your armpit, on the side away from the horse. This is the method used to carry the whip whenever you are working with a standing horse or are walking from one site to another. The thong should be wrapped around the stock and tied, so that the horse cannot get its feet caught in it (fig. 2.6). Once the longe line has been threaded through the bit and attached on the opposite side, untie the thong of the whip and twist the stock until the thong is completely unwound. Then, drop a couple of loops of the longe line and quietly back away from the horse, moving toward its haunches, with the whip held perpendicular to the longe line. This makes the horse aware of the whip without having it in such close proximity that the animal dashes off. The horse will usually begin to move forward when it sees the whip, at which point you let a few more loops drop by allowing them to slide through your hand. If the horse has not begun to move, slowly bring the whip toward its hocks until it responds by walking forward. Allow the horse to travel on a large circle, with about 18 feet of line at the walk and up to 26 feet of line at the trot and canter. When starting the horse on the circle, move the whip toward the hocks as soon as possible without spooking the animal. The whip should form one leg of a triangular shape made up of the horse’s body, the longe line, and the longe whip (fig. 2.7). If the horse runs wildly from the whip, drop it on the ground until the animal has worked off some of its energy. Then, pick it up again.
On the other hand, if the horse ignores the whip and plods forward, move to a position in line with its rear end and motivate the animal by flicking the whip toward its hocks. By moving toward the rear of the horse, you give the animal an open door through which its forehand can travel (fig. 2.8). If it ignores your movement toward its haunches and the motions of the whip, tighten the circle by slowly taking up a loop or two, until the horse is close enough to the thong to respect it. Once the animal is working in a good rhythm, drop the loop or loops slowly to allow it to move back onto a wider, more comfortable circle. If it begins to ignore the whip again, bring it back onto a smaller circle. You can hit the horse lightly on the hocks with the whip to encourage it forward, but be prepared to get out of the way when you do, since a horse will sometimes kick out at the whip. Be persistent in your encouragement with the whip if necessary, but make sure the animal realizes when you are moving toward its hocks. (Remember that a horse’s natural reaction is to kick anything that surprises it from behind.) By watching the horse’s expression, you can tell if the animal is aware of your movements or is ignoring you.
Correct longeing requires your complete concentration. You must watch the horse’s expression and monitor its rhythm incessantly, so that you will know what adjustments are necessary at each moment. For example, if the horse slides its haunches to the outside of the circle in an attempt to stop and face you, it is important to move to its rear end quickly. If you haven’t been paying attention, you won’t notice the problem developing and will not be able to react in time to keep the horse moving around the circle. You will then have to take up all of the loops in the line and start again.Although you monitor the rhythm of the horse’s haunches when longeing, your body should not be turned toward the haunches, but toward the horse’s shoulder. This position enables your leg toward the rear of the horse to step around your other leg as you turn. For example, when longeing the horse counterclockwise, your right leg steps around your pivotal left leg (fig. 2.9). When longeing a well-trained horse, your pivotal foot will step in approximately the same place each time, for the horse will respond properly to the longe line and whip; but when longeing a horse that is inexperienced, you usually will not be able to remain in the center of the circle at all times. Instead you must move toward the haunches when necessary to motivate the horse, then move toward the shoulder when the horse is going forward properly. (Theoretically, by moving in front of the shoulder, you should be able to slow your horse. But in practice, if you place yourself too far to the front of the horse, it will stop, then turn and move in the other direction, getting the line wrapped around its head.)
The direction of longeing should be changed about every five minutes, so that the animal will not have stress on its body in one direction for too long. To change direction, place the whip under your arm or drop it on the ground, so that it won’t spook the horse as you rewind the loops. Then, say “whoa” until the animal stops and rewind the line, placing each loop over the preceding one. Once you have gathered the loops all the way to the horse, unhook the line from the far side of its head, making sure you keep a hand on the reins once the longe line has been removed. Thread the line again, starting from the far side. After hooking the snap onto the bit ring, pick up the whip and begin to longe the horse in the new direction.
Longeing is not a cure-all, but it can be helpful in releasing some of the excess energy of a tense horse. However, the original use for longeing was not as a means of tiring the animal, but of training it. Traditionally, longeing has been used to accustom young horses to working under tack and to improve the balance and rhythm of horses of all ages. If the longe line is gradually shortened so that the horse is brought onto a smaller circle, the exercise will teach the horse to collect itself. The smaller circle is more stressful on the horse’s body, however, and should only be maintained for one or two revolutions before the animal can return to the original track.
When the horse’s equipment is adjusted properly and the person longeing the animal keeps it going forward in a steady rhythm at each gait, longeing correctly develops the horse’s haunches and topline. Four five-minute sessions, with a change of direction between each, is plenty of work on the longe line for normal training. With a tense horse, it may take another 10 minutes, but if you longe longer than this you are risking lameness. Longeing is confining, and the same physical stress that quiets the tense horse can break it down if used to excess.When you have finished longeing, take up the line by wrapping it in loops, with each new loop being placed on top of the preceding one. Tie off the line by wrapping the end of the last loop around the other loops, then sliding the snap hook through the small hole left at the top. You can then store the longe line by hanging it from the snap hook (figs. 2.10 A–G).
Unsnap both side reins from the bit, then take them off the girth. To prevent the horse from spooking from the dangling side reins, cross the ends with the snaps over the horse’s withers until you are able to remove the other ends from the girth (fig. 2.11). Make all adjustments to side reins outside the barn, both when connecting the reins before work and when taking them off afterward. A horse fidgeting in side reins may rear and fall backward, which is particularly dangerous in a busy, paved barn aisle. Wind the thong around the stock of the whip and tie half a knot to hold it in place (fig. 2.12). The whip can be hung on a wall or stored in a corner of your tackroom.