DESERT HORSE EQUESTRIAN SERVICES
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Teach Your Horse to Longe
From the Ground Up
Longeing in Balance Part 1

 

The longe line and roundpen are marvelous tools horsemen can employ to help horses learn all kinds of skills – balance, impulsion, lengthening and shortening of gaits, and so much more. But too many horses are sent out on the circle without having developed the basic skills they need to succeed in those exercises, to learn and develop strength, flexibility and self-carriage. They lack rhythm, correct bend and the ability to stretch and engage the topline; therefore, they are seldom able even to maintain straightness on a circle.

Experienced horse owners have all seen the results of this lack of preparation too many times – an off-balance horse racing around on the forehand with head up and back hollowed, while the handler either urges him forward or tries in vain to create some kind of control. And, just as often we’ve seen the other classic but undesirable longe posture, the horse counterbent at the neck, falling in on the inside shoulder and disengaged in the hindquarters. Self-carriage is impossible in those postures, which create unnecessary stress on the horse’s body and fail to prepare him to correctly carry a rider. (See the photos in the longeing introduction for posture examples.)

No matter what the background of the horses I work with – young or old, sound or recovering from injury, experienced or green – before they longe, they all get the benefit of some basic ground exercises that help prepare them to carry themselves in a circle. The principles behind these exercises are quite simple and rooted in common sense, and yet can make a profound difference in the quality of a horse’s balance, movement and even attitude. They are undertaken methodically, organized as a progression that starts with general flexibility and ends with a horse learning very specifically how to achieve self-carriage.

What is self-carriage? It’s the horse choosing to lighten his forehand, engage his abdominal muscles to lift an elastic back and then push off his hind legs in strides that step well underneath his barrel. At liberty, sound horses do this all the time. Under saddle, we too often see a topline that is anything but elastic. I believe much of the bracing and tightness that plague horses and their riders is created before the horse is mounted.

As I work with horses, I am always conscious of the potential to create or reinforce that topline brace. And that potential exists from the time I put a halter on my horse and begin to ask him to move with me. The most basic movement – just hooking a leadrope onto the ring or loop under the horse’s chin and pulling on it, however gently – triggers a reflexive tightening of the topline that raises the head and hollows the back. In a well-behaved horse taught to yield to the line, this tiny whiplash motion may only last seconds and be noticeable only when we look for it. But it’s always there. Multiply that tiny brace by the number of times the horse is asked to move forward in hand, and the cumulative effect is obvious.


The Waggle and the Whiplash
To experience this, tighten the muscles in the back of your neck slightly a few times in a row, then imagine doing that every time you initiate movement in your body. How would you feel after an hour, a day, a week, a lifetime of doing that. Ouch! Now, shake your head gently side to side, as if to move your right ear minutely toward your right shoulder, then your left ear to your left shoulder. Imagine that instead of tightening your neck as you initiate movement, you perform this gentle waggle. Doesn’t that feel better?

So anytime I’m leading a horse, I’m conscious of the difference between these approaches. If I’m handling a haltered horse, I eliminate any chance of creating brace by simply moving the leadrope to the side ring of the halter. When I’m working a horse in-hand, I use that arrangement of the rope or I connect with the horse by gently hooking two or three fingers down through the noseband just in front of the “T” formed by the cheekpiece. That way, I can initiate movement with the waggle instead of the whiplash.

Release tension and bracing at the horse's throatlatch  (49800 bytes)
Release tension and bracing at the horse's shoulder to help elevate and lighten the forehand (45120 bytes)
Release tension and holding in the neck to increase suppleness in the horse's spine (35039 bytes)

Most horses learn very easily to move forward from that side-to-side movement, which allows me to access the energy of the hindquarters by creating a release through the entire spine. (You can see this for yourself. Just waggle the horse’s nose from left to right and watch what happens with the top of the croup. In a sound horse whose spine is in good shape, you’ll see an undulating movement all the way from nose to tail.) Once I have soft forward movement, I begin to apply a series of massage-like maneuvers designed to help the horse release tightness from poll to withers.

This starts at the throatlatch, as I trace the line of the jawbone from below the ear downward with the side of my hand, applying just enough pressure to rock the horse gently to the foreleg opposite the side I’m working on. At the same time, I’m very softly asking, with my hand lightly on the halter noseband, for the horse’s nose to turn toward me. I want a very slight bend here, just moving the cervical vertebrae a bit closer together on the side where I’m working. Most horses can manage this very small release with just a few tries; those who can’t may need the attention of a chiropractor or an equine dentist.

After the throatlatch release, I move to the opposite end of the neck and ask for release at the shoulder. To accomplish this, I locate the front of the shoulderblade by running my hand forward over the shoulder until it drops off into a “valley” the front of the scapula bone. This line will run from the front of the withers diagonally forward toward the chest. Again using the side of my hand, I’m going to trace this line from top to bottom, applying just enough pressure to very slightly rock the horse onto the foreleg opposite the side where I’m working. And again, I’m gently holding the halter noseband with my other hand and stretching back with my elbow to incline the head toward me. Most horses love to have their shoulders massaged like this, and you can often work fairly deeply. Start soft and let your horse tell you how much pressure he likes. You’ll generally be rewarded by the base of the neck lifting and telescoping out, the head dropping, and lots of yawning, licking and chewing, and deep breathing.

After the horse has experienced some release at the throatlatch and shoulder, it’s time to connect those areas. Spread your hand with fingers together moving one direction and thumb stretching the other way, and place the hand on your horse’s neck just in front of the shoulder, gently grasping the large muscle there. Your thumb will rest nicely in the groove that marks the location of the jugular vein, with your slightly curved fingers pointing upward. Now squeeze your thumb toward your fingers, trapping the muscle in your whole hand and then release. Move the hand up the neck about three-quarters of a handwidth and repeat all the way to the poll. While your hand is squeezing, the other hand gently moves the nose toward you. As you release the squeeze, release the nose. After a few repetitions, your horse should stretch his neck down and show signs of release and relaxation.

Repeat the same series on the other side of the horse, making note of the similarities and differences in the horse’s responses and ability to release from one side to the other. Most horses have one side that is a bit less flexible, much like most people do. At this point, that’s just information without any judgement or attempt to explain or make a change. I just file it away so that I notice when something changes.


Massage in Motion
Once you’ve got a good feel for creating the releases in a stationary animal, then it’s time to put it in motion. While it’s wonderful to have a horse who is relaxed and soft standing still, what we’re aiming for here is that same response in movement. It takes a bit of practice to coordinate the hand movements while walking, but anyone can master the techniques. One of the critical factors is to pay attention to your own balance. The handler can’t lean on the horse for balance without creating a counterbalance and brace in the horse, and that defeats your purpose. It’s good practice for riders to have to work independently with each hand while walking with torso facing toward the horse and the feet stepping laterally – just think of it as training for those independent aids we all aspire to master.

All my students learn to do this release series for their horses, both at rest and in motion, and find various uses for the technique, including the following:


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A great warm-up for horse and rider before mounted work. I find it serves to focus both bodies and minds and initiate the kind of teamwork that makes for a pleasant and productive ride. It also gives me a quick assessment of the horse’s condition that day, both physically and mentally, so I can plan a work session that is appropriate. If the horse’s attention span seems a bit short in groundwork, I’ll break down my mounted exercises into smaller chunks. If the horse seems sore or stiff in some area of his body, I’ll do mounted exercises to relieve that area and adjust my expectation of the horse’s ability to perform movements that require that area to work hard.
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An essential warm-up for the horse before a longe session or a simple, effective redirect for a horse who loses some element of balance during a longe session. We certainly don’t want the horse to “practice” being unbalanced on a circle, so if things fall apart during the longeing session, just return to the release work to remind the horse how to carry himself in better balance.
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A quick work session when there isn’t time for a ride, the weather doesn’t allow mounted or longe work or the horse isn’t completely sound. Using the release series in groundwork makes the most of the time and space available so the handler can do something productive with the horse that helps him develop and practice the posture and balance we want when we ride or longe. And doing the work requires very little space (even a stall will serve) and no equipment other than a well-fitting halter, and can be done with the horse groomed or not.
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A way to reconnect with the horse both physically and mentally after an absence, injury or fall. Find out from the ground some important information: Is the horse listening to you or unfocused? How do you need to modulate your commands that day – soft and quiet or a bit more assertive? Can the horse perform the simple exercises you ask, or is there a disconnect somewhere in the movement or response?

Once horse and handler master these simple release exercises, we’re ready to move on the the next stage of longeing preparation – bending work. The ability to carry a circle from back to front depends on the horse’s ability to release at the poll and shoulder; if those areas are braced, the front end can’t get out of the way for the hindquarters to push and there’s no impulsion to drive the circle. Stacey Kollman

© 2007 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman

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