Longeing: Practical Tips for a Lost Art
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2007 All Rights Reserved
Previously published in Topline Ink Magazine ©2007
Almost everybody I talk to tells me with great confidence: "Yea, yeah. I know how to longe." And these people will probably skip this article, because it's boring to them. Yet, I almost never see anybody who longes correctly, that is effectively and productively. Instead, I see all kinds of perversions of longeing: longe lines attached to a halter, side reins that are set too low, too short, or too long, or no side reins at all, no whip, bizarre contraptions around the nose instead of a cavesson, longe lines that drag on the ground, horses not staying on a round circle, trainers wandering around the arena aimlessly, or chasing the poor horse around, "centrifuging" the horse as it were. All of these abnormities are absolutely useless, even harmful, because unbalanced, rushy gaits will eventually make the horse lame. This widespread incompetence is the reason why so many people think longeing is unhealthy for the horse.
Many riders (including many professionals who should really know better) are too lazy to longe. They want to skip ahead to "the fun part", riding. What they don't realize is that they miss out on an invaluable teaching tool that can establish tempo, balance, focus, rein contact, and relaxation before the rider even gets on the horse. By the time the rider mounts the horse that has been prepared through correct longeing, the horse is warmed up and ready to begin the work.
The proper preparation at the longe line is the tried and true method of starting the green horse under saddle. The actual "breaking" process will unfold very uneventfully, if this is done by a knowledgeable trainer. The horse will never go through a "bucking phase", but progresses quietly and steadily.
Longeing can serve as an effective warmup technique even with a "broke" horse for a long time. Longeing can be a safe and effective way of assessing the horse's mood, gaits, his daily form, and of warming up his musculature and preparing his back for the weight of the rider.
When the horse maintains a steady, round circle, in a steady tempo, without the rider, then he is ready to be ridden, regardless of the horse's age and training level. I personally would never sit on a horse who can't do these things at the longe line, because if he can't keep a steady line of travel and a steady tempo without the weight of the rider, he will certainly not be able to do so when you add lbs 100-200 of rider and tack.
Longeing also forms the foundation of work in hand and long reining. Retraining correction horses and rehabilitating horses that are recovering from injuries are almost impossible to do safely and effectively without correct longeing work.
Round penning, which has become so popular in some circles, is no substitute for longeing, since it usually just leads to the horse running around like a headless chicken, while the rider is unable to influence tempo, balance, posture, and the size of the circle nearly as precisely as at the longe line.
The purpose of longeing
As briefly mentioned in the previous paragraph, the goal of longeing is to help the horse to find his balance by teaching him to walk, trot, and canter on a round circle, in a steady tempo, and with a steady contact on the longe line. This develops the top line, back and croup musculature and can help to form the correct postural habits in the horse, so that it is easier for horse and rider to find their balance (steady line of travel in a steady tempo) in the correct posture together under saddle. NB: Only a balanced horse will be on the bit. An unbalanced horse may have his head down, but he is not really on the bit.
Every job requires the proper equipment in order to perform it successfully. Unsuitable equipment sets even highly skilled practitioners up for failure. That is why the educated practical horseman will always insist on using the proper equipment. You can always immediately recognize the rider's expertise or lack thereof by the choice of equipment and the handling of these tools. I cannot understand where so many riders take the confidence to be able to succeed with the wrong equipment. They don't realize that their longeing session has already failed before they have even arrived in the arena.
A suitable cavesson is a must for correct (i.e. effective, successful) longeing. Unfortunately, most cavessons that are available through catalogs and in tack stores are too large to fit most horses, and they are much too heavily padded to let the rider's aids reach the horse's nose. The best ones are the cavesson that is available through the SRS Kollektion and the Portuguese cavessons that can be obtained through the importers of Iberian tack.
Since the cavesson acts upon the nose and upper jaw, it is a much more effective bending tool than the bit. And unlike the bit, the cavesson aid will never lead to a braced jaw or an open mouth.
Most horses need the support of side reins or Viennese side reins in order to be able to find their balance and in order for the trainer to be able to complete the circle of aids and for the longe line aids to go through and reach the hind legs. Plain leather side reins with no elastic and no rubber donuts are the best ones. Rubber donuts sometimes start bouncing and disturb the contact on the bit. Elastic side reins teach the horse to lean and root against the bit.
Side reins need to be attached so that they form a horizontal line when the horse is balanced. Side reins that are attached too low pull the head down and put the horse onto the forehand.
Y - shaped Viennese reins that attach between the front legs pull the head down and put the horse onto the forehand. They are counter productive and not to be recommended.
If the horse carries his head and neck too low, raising the side reins can help to elevate the neck more.
Side reins need to be short enough to allow a connection of the rein aids to the hind legs, but long enough that the horse's nose can be slightly in front of the vertical in motion.
When the horse is moving in balance, the side reins should be slightly slack, the nose slightly in front of the vertical, and the longe line should have contact.
The trainer has to observe and evaluate the horse's gaits and posture every step of the way. The adjustment of the side reins has to be changed based on these observations until it helps the horse find his balance and the rider's aids go through.
A surcingle is not absolutely indispensable, but it is useful, as it offers more options of varying the height of the attachment of the side rein than the saddle does. Fitting the surcingle over the saddle helps to keep the surcingle from sliding around. The more rings the surcingle has, the better it is. The rings should be large enough to be able to slide the snap of the longe line through them.
I prefer longe lines that are made of cotton, since they allow for a good feel, and in case of an accident, they are less likely to cause rope burn than nylon longe lines. The longe line should be long enough to allow the horse to draw a 20m circle around the trainer.
A good longeing whip is another indispensable tool. It has to have enough length to be able to reach the horse on a medium sized circle, and it must be lightweight enough not to bother the trainer's hand and wrist. If the whip is too long, it becomes too heavy and the lash becomes too slow to be able to touch the hind leg in a precise and timely fashion when it is moving forward.
I will not discuss the initial longeing of the green horse here, since that would make this article too lengthy.
The rider has to regulate with precision the size of the circle, the tempo of the gait, and the balance of the horse, until they are optimal and the horse is using the right muscle groups, because only then will the work further the training and improve the horse.
In order to help the horse design a precise, round circle, the rider has to stand in one place and avoid wandering around. Otherwise, the point of contact with the rider's hand is too elusive for the horse, and the longe line can consequently provide no useful guidance for the horse. Going straight down the long side of the arena and returning to a circle, on the other hand, can be a very useful exercise.
The longe line is held in the inside hand, the whip in the outside hand. In other words, when longeing to the right, the right hand is the inside one, the left hand is the outside one.
The end of the longe line is coiled neatly in the inside hand.
The longe line is attached to the center ring of the cavesson. There are several other possibilities, involving either one or two longe lines, but they are special cases that I won't cover here.
The rein aids need to be supported by the rider's body weight and core muscles. It is therefore essential to stand up straight, with engaged core muscles, and to connect the elbow to the hip, so that the rein aids can be channeled through the rider's body into the ground. It is this connection to the rider's weight and the ground that enables the aids of the longe line to go through. When the connection is lost, the aid no longer makes sense to the horse, and the horse will block it or even become defensive.
The elbow must be flexed, the wrist and fingers must be relaxed, and the hand slightly closed to ensure a sensitive light hand. The back of the wrist should form a straight line with the forearm, so that the wrist does not stiffen and block the energy.
The rider's hand should remain relatively quiet - large hand movements should be avoided. If a larger aid involving a movement of the entire arm was necessary, the hand needs to return to the correct position immediately afterwards.
The rider can feel the horse's entire body through the longe line. I.e. he can feel where the horse is holding tension and where he is bracing. This sensitivity is an essential prerequisite for being able to recognize which muscle groups need to be suppled.
The longe line can be used to bend the neck and poll laterally. It can also be used to regulate the tempo, as well as to ask for down transitions.
The bending aids can be applied when the inside front leg is down or when the inside hind leg is down.
A bending rein aid can be used to unlock the poll and neck, and it can also help to unlock tension in the inside shoulder or hip, if it is connected to the respective leg, i.e. if the aid is applied when the respective leg is on the ground.
These unlocking bending aids can be given in sequences. I have found it especially effective to end the sequence when the inside hind leg is on the ground. Good sequences are: inside front > inside hind > inside hind, or inside hind > inside front > inside hind, or inside front > inside front > inside hind > inside hind.
The amount of pressure can be the same for all these aids, or it can vary. It is often effective to increase the pressure with each aid from light to firm, so that the last pressure is the firmest one, and it addresses the inside hind leg. This will flex the inside hind leg against the ground and lead to an improved balance. These sequential aids can also be used to slow the tempo down.
Sometimes, slow, drawn out flexing aids can be more effective.
The whip should be held so that the tip rests on the ground. Keeping it raised and pointing it at the hock permanently, as some people suggest, is a permanent driving aid, an comparable to a gripping leg: the horse will first get rushy, and finally learn to ignore it as meaningless. The rider has squandered an opportunity for tuning his horse to finer aids.
If the whip is kept down as long as the horse is moving with good impulsion, then merely raising the whip behind the horse will often be sufficient as a driving aid.
If the horse ignores the raising of the whip, the next bigger aid is to swing the lash in a large, slow motion from back to front with a forward-upward motion.
The rider has to learn to use the entire whip including the lash as an extension of his arm.
Short, quick wiggles with the stick part of the whip accomplish nothing, except tying knots in the lash.
The next stronger aid is a swooshing sound produced by a faster, long movement of the lash.
When other horses are in the arena, whip noises should be avoided in order not to scare them.
The next bigger aid is the touch of a hind leg with the lash as the leg is lifting off the ground.
If the horse comes into the circle, the rider can send the horse out by raising the whip towards the horse's head or shoulders. In order to bring the whip into the right position, the rider needs to keep it close to the ground and slowly bring it forward, then raise it so that the horse sees only the movement of the lash towards the head, but not the back to front movement. Otherwise, he might misinterpret the movement of the whip as a forward driving aid.
The horse will learn very quickly that raising the whip behind the haunches or swinging the lash back to front means "go forward", whereas raising the whip towards the shoulder and perhaps swinging the lash in that direction means "go out". If the horse needs to slow down as well as go out, the rider can reach underneath the longe line with the whip and raise it in front of the horse's face.
When the whip is not in use, the rider should tuck it underneath his arm, facing backward. Uncoordinated, erratic, large movements of the whip need to be avoided at all costs, since they can scare the horse.
The voice can be invaluable, especially with younger horses, as well as with unfocused or insecure horses.
A rising intonation contour is a driving aid.
A falling intonation contour is a calming aid.
Most horses listen and respond very quickly to the voice. The voice can be used to explain and support the whip and rein aids.
The rider's composure must be that of quiet, parental calmness and confidence. Horses respond to this calm, quiet leadership.
Just as under saddle, the horse has to be framed between driving and restraining aids.
The whip brings the horse to the longe line, if necessary. The longe line receives the contact, unlocks the inside poll, neck, shoulder, and hip, and recycles the energy back to the haunches.
Starting the horse out on the circle is almost the most difficult part of the entire session, because many horses want to follow the rider to the center of the circle. The rider has to push the horse's shoulders gently out on the circle line while backing away towards the center of the circle. The longe whip may have to drive either forward or outward, and the rider has to feed the longe line smoothly and quickly, so that it does not inadvertently pull the horse away from the circle line.
There are two basic ways to change direction in the classical tradition. The SRS changes direction by bringing the horse to the center of the circle. There the trainer makes whatever adjustments to the tack that might be necessary and lets the horse go out again on the large circle in the other direction. At Egon von Neindorff's institute it was customary to stop the horse on the circle line. Then the trainer goes out to the horse and changes direction with a turn on the forehand. This has the advantage that the horse is less likely to come in on his own. Besides, the turn on the forehand supples the horse's hips and teaches him to yield with his hips to lateral pressure. When young horses learn this exercise at the longe line, then they already know it when the mounted rider asks for it for the first time.
It is a big mistake when riders teach their horses to turn and face them every time they stop, because it teaches the horse to get behind the aids and swing the haunches out - two of the worst habits a horse can have. Once this habit is engrained, it is impossible to practice, e.g., trot - halt - trot transitions, because the horse will face in the wrong direction after each down transition. This habit is difficult to cure.
When changing direction, the longe line and whip have to be switched. The whip is passed around behind the rider's back, so as not to scare the horse.
Most common mistakes the rider makes
Lack of focus
Lack of tact
Trainer moving around erratically
No rein contact
Longe arm waving around
Clumsy use of the whip (ineffective or scaring the horse)
Side reins attached too low, too short, or too long
Tempo too fast or (less often) too slow
Circle too small, not round
Most common mistake the horse makes and their correction
Lack of focus
Rushing, unsteady tempo
Coming in on one side, drifting out on the other
Ignoring the rider
Stopping and turning around
If a horse is very tense and distracted by his environment, he is likely to race around as well, without listening to the trainer. I have found that the most effective way to calm him down and get his attention is to handwalk him on the circle line, work-in-hand-style. A few steps of leg yield can be helpful as well. Most horses tend to calm down and start focusing this way. When a horse is only slightly distracted, bending rein aids and transitions between walk and trot will help.
Rushing, Unsteady Tempo
Rushing often goes hand in hand with falling on the inside shoulder and coming into the circle. What usually happens is that the horse rushes and comes in on one side of the circle and gets carried out by the centrifugal force on the opposite side of the circle, while slowing down at the same time. In extreme cases, the horse will hit the end of the longe line when he goes out, and stop and turn. This is behavior I have seen mostly in horses that have had very poor training at the longe line, and horses that have been round penned.
When the behavior is deeply ingrained enough, one needs to start the training over, as with a young horse: one person stands in the center of the circle, holding the longe line. A second person handwalks the horse on the circle line and carries the longe whip. When the horse relaxes on the circle line, the whip holder moves backwards towards the center of the circle and increases the distance between himself and the horse.
When the deviations of line and tempo are less extreme, a single person can correct them. The trainer has to start asking the horse to go out before he reaches the part of the circle where he comes in. That is done by raising the whip in front of the horse's face. Sometimes shaking the longe line can also have the effect of slowing down and driving the horse out. Bending half halts, especially against the inside hind leg, will help to regulate the tempo. The half halts have to come out of a feeling rein contact. They have to start gently and then increase until the horse responds.
When the horse has dropped the contact, the trainer has to pick up the slack in the longe line with the help of both hands, so that there is contact on the longe line. Then he has to apply a series of half halts that are shaped so that they go through and the horse flexes his haunches and slows down. Then the rider has to feed the longe line to the horse to offer him to go on a larger circle. This release of the longe line can be combined with driving the horse out. A larger circle is easier, less strenuous for the horse than a small one. Most horses will therefore try to enlarge the circle as soon as the slowing down half halt has gone through, and it is important that the trainer does not interfere out of clumsiness.
If the trainer forgets to feed the longe line, the horse will drop the contact again by coming in and the circle becomes progressively smaller.
Whip and longe line have to complement and support and explain each other's aids to the horse, until he has reached the circle line and the tempo in which he can work best. The trainer has to observe the horse very closely and recognize even the smallest changes in balance and tempo and respond to them. He has to know which tempo is optimal for each horse. If the tempo is too fast or too slow, the horse will not be able to find his balance and consequently become stiffer instead of more supple.
If the half halts get stuck in the underneck muscle of an inverted neck, or if the neck overbends to the inside, the side reins have to be shortened temporarily.
Ignoring the Trainer
If the horse ignores an aid, the trainer has to increase its intensity until the horse reacts. The trainer has to engage the horse in a conversation by insisting on a reaction to each aid - even if it is the wrong reaction. Then he has to give the horse feedback on his reaction, so that the work becomes a collaboration between horse and trainer. The trainer must avoid all meaningless chatter. All communications must be relevant and to the point. On the other hand, the rider must not miss opportunities for constructive feedback. This conversation is the best insurance for winning and keeping the horse's attention.
Inversion is the result of imbalance and stiffness. The first step the trainer has to take is to regulate the tempo and the circle line, because they form the foundation for balance, and balance is the prerequisite for suppleness. As tempo and circle line begin to become steadier, the trainer can use bending half halts to unlock the poll and hip. By gently taking and giving the rein, the trainer can isolate the exact muscle group that is locked up, and then release the blockage with a pinpointed, precise bending aid. On an inverted horse, the side reins sometimes have to be shortened a little, until the aids go through. When the horse finds his balance and relaxes his underneck, and starts to engage the top line, the side reins can be lengthened again.
When a neck is especially stiff, the longe line can be attached as a "bending rein", i.e. it is attached to a ring on the surcingle and run forward, either through the inside snaffle ring or the inside cavesson ring. This allows the trainer to be more effective with his bending aids.
Stopping and Turning Around
This is something that can happen very easily with a young horse out of a misunderstanding. But if it happens repeatedly - especially in the same spot - then it can quickly become a habit, and almost a game for the horse. As with all mistakes, the real solution is to find out how and why it happens and then to prevent it. This particular problem often occurs when the horse's haunches drift out on the open side of the circle, or if the horse falls out over the outside shoulder and hits the end of the longe line. This tends to stop the horse, and the momentum of the movement spins the hindquarters around. When the trainer feels the horse starting to drift out, he has to allow it to a degree by slowly yielding the rein. But as the trainer feeds the longe line, he also increases the pressure and tries to apply careful turning aids with it, in order to try to guide the horse around the turn and to avoid that the horse hits the end of the longe line abruptly and unexpectedly.
Having a fully enclosed longeing circle will usually completely take care of this issue. Otherwise, it can also help to have an assistant with a longe whip standing on the outside of the circle, in the area where the horse begins to drift out. As the horse approaches, the assistant raises the longe whip horizontally, parallel to the circle track. The motion has to be relaxed, somewhat slow, and nonthreatening, so that the horse does not get spooked.
Handwalking the horse for a couple of circles often helps as well.
In order to heighten the horse's attentiveness and to improve his balance, the trainer can vary the size of the circle and alternate between circles and straight lines, as well as circles and squares. One can also develop lengthenings by running with the horse down the long side. Most horses will initially break to the canter. In this case, I take the horse back on a circle, rebalance him, ask for a down transition to the trot and start over. This way, the horse will learn to stay balanced in the trot for longer and longer periods and to lengthen his stride.
Longeing requires just as much skill, knowledge, care, and feel as riding. I don't recommend longeing for more than twenty to thirty minutes in one session. It is absolutely crucial that the trainer chooses the right tempo and the right size of the circle (not too small for the tempo!), and that the side reins have the right length and height of attachment. If the trainer makes a mistake in any one of these areas, the horse will only get worse, instead of better. The trainer has to observe his horse closely every step of the way and evaluate the horse's reaction to each aid. Was the reaction too big? Then the aid was too big or too abrupt. Was the reaction too small? Then the aid was too small or not clear enough. This is a good way to develop feel, which will translate into better riding skills in the saddle.
Never chase the horse. Never scare the horse. The trainer's energy has to be calm, friendly, and focused. Horses are afraid of humans whose energy is scattered, erratic and unfocused or aggressive or fearful. They relax around a friendly, calm, strong, parental leader. Visualize the gait, tempo, balance, and posture that you want the horse to assume. Feel the horse's entire body through the longe line as well as through the mental/psychic connection.
"Correctly understood, work at the longe line is indispensable for rider and horse from the very beginning through the highest levels", as Egon von Neindorff wrote in an article. The correct work at the longe line helps the trainer to lead his horse into a state of mental collection, physical and psychological balance, and relaxation. It can be used to build stamina and to develop the proper musculature - but only if the general principles of training are observed, and if the trainer uses tact and intelligence. If it is done badly, it will bring more harm than benefits.