Here are a couple of things I have heard people say or I have read on horse blogs:
“I never longe, it just gets them more fit for no reason.”
“If I don’t longe him first, he’s completely wild!”
“I’ll throw him on the longe line first for a while and let him take the edge off.”
“Longeing is boring, I’d rather be in the saddle!”
“Longeing is just an excuse to throw a bunch of gadgets on a horse, and all gadgets are evil.”
All of these statements have one thing in common: a fundamental misunderstanding of the powerful tool that longeing can be.
There are tons and tons of articles and passages in books that can give you specific exercises, but here’s my takeaway for the day:
Never longe your horse without a plan.
What do I mean by that?
First, ask the question: why am I longeing my horse?
Possible answers: he’s too lazy, he’s too energetic, he’s cold-backed, I don’t want to ride, I want to see him go, I want to work on something specific.
The difference among the answers there is that some of them are actual specific reasons and some of them are general. If he’s too energetic, why? Is it because he’s generally an “up” horse? Is it because he’s been in for a week? Is it because there are distractions around, like at a show? Is it because longeing makes him nervous? Is it because you’ve taught him that being longed means he can fly around like a kite for twenty minutes?
Dig deeper, and look at what you are actually addressing. Brain? Fitness? Focus?
Then, have a goal in mind. Know what your horse will look like at the end of a longeing session, and what you can do to get him there. Know what the intermediate steps will look like. Know how you’ll handle yourself, what you’ll ask of him, and how to shape his behavior and his movement to get to that end goal.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because longeing, when done well, is basically the exact same thing as riding. You’re using aids to shape a horse’s behavior and movement.
Example 1: When I first backed Tristan, we did a lot of longeing. Anytime I introduced anything new to him, for months and months, I did it on the longe line. Saddle? Bridle? Boots? Different saddle? Different girth? Different bit? You name it, if it was going to be strange to him, I put it on, then put him on the longe line. For these sessions, I was looking for him to start off a little startled, but to get him focused back on me and doing productive work. I didn’t just let him tear around until he got over it; I asked for transitions, spiraled him in and out, and basically did things that would test his focus on me.
Example 2: The more high strung horse. Your horse won’t focus on you at a show? He comes out of his stall in mid-air? Ok, sure, put him on the longe line. But have a plan. For a horse like that, I would do transitions, starting low and going up as he proved to me he was going to keep his brain. Lots of transitions within gaits, primarily looking for a response to “easy” as a calming and slowing method. I’m ok with energy, as long as it’s controlled and directed. Are the transitions sharp and clean? Can you shorten the time between them? For this type, I’m going to keep a close eye on body language: where are his ears? What does his overall musculature look like – tense and bunched, or loose and relaxed? Is he tipping like a motorcycle, ready to take off again at any second? Is he hauling on the longe line or maintaining a steady tension? By the end I want a horse that will transition off of voice command the second I finish saying the word, who has an overall “loose” look even if he’s moving forward, whose inside ear is kept on me, who is not testing the longe line.
Example 3: The specific goal session. I do this one a lot with Tristan still, as a regular part of his conditioning program. I’ll think about what is lacking in his under saddle work, because I’m not a great rider or because something about the under saddle work is impeding him. Most often, this is quality of gait or a specific type of strengthening (back, hind end, etc.).
Last night, it was about strengthening his hind end. So I warmed him up, looking for him to release tension and focus on me. Say that took 10 minutes total, walk and trot both ways. He started off a bit lazy, and sharpened up and loosened up, dropping his head, stepping under more in his walk, and on a relatively steady circle. Then I went back to the mounting block and added my butt bungee thing because I wanted the resistance for his hind end.
I knew that a successful session for this would look like him moving normally or even a bit better than he does without the resistance band: tracking up underneath, using his back (one reason I like to longe with just a surcingle or without tack is that I can really see his back muscles work), keeping his head low and relaxed, and keeping his own rhythm without me remind him with the whip constantly. That took about 15 minutes, and each thing I did was with that end goal in mind. Sometimes that meant asking for a few strides of canter, to loosen his back. Sometimes that meant nagging him a bit with the whip to really use his hind end. Sometimes that meant an “eeeeeeeeasy” to get him to go from short quick frustrated strides to longer and looser strides.
After I got what I wanted, I took off the resistance band and handwalked him around the edge of the arena for another 10 minutes to cool him down and get him off the tight circle. Total elapsed time 35 minutes, with a tired but focused pony at the end.
So, really, all I’m trying to say is: have a plan. Have an end goal in mind, take steps to get there, and don’t just flail and say that you hate longeing and it’s useless. It’s a tool, like so many of the other things we do with horses. Giving it up is your loss.