If you ever thought there must be a better and easier way to train your horse, this training series by Kate Fenner is designed for you! Each article walks you through specific lessons and how to teach them. From stress-free trailer loading, to handling head-shy horses, to safe mounting. Kate’s gentle and no-fuss approach will provide you with the tools and confidence you need to educate your own horse.  

In this two-part series, she suggests…

Use long-reining as an alternative to lungeing your horse.

If you missed Part One, you can read it here.

Last month, we looked at how to prepare your horse for long-reining. These steps are vital, even if you think your horse ‘will be fine’ with it so, don’t be afraid to recap on that lesson.

Long-reining is one of the most useful exercises you can have in your toolbox. It is an educational tool, where the horse is learning about relaxation, softness in the bridle and self-carriage, and is building those important topline muscles that your horse needs to carry you. After teaching ‘Give to the Bit’, I use long-reining on almost all horses.

One of the main advantages, for educationally-young horses, is the horse can learn the movements, self-carriage, shoulder elevation, transitions and so on, without the added difficulty, distraction or perhaps confusion of carrying a rider, and the leg and seat cues involved.

In fact, long-reining enables us to break things down and teach the horse one thing at a time – just as is recommended by the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) in their First Principles of Horses Training.

Another time long-reining will come in useful is when your horse is changing discipline. Let’s say you have a dressage horse that has only ever been ridden in an arena and you want to start trail riding. You can use long-reining to habituate your horse to the bigger – and potentially scarier – environment outside the arena by long-reining the trail.

Start long-reining your horse in the arena, with the gate open, and drive him in and out the gate – gradually working your way further from the safety of the confines of the arena. This is also a brilliant exercise for the ‘barn sour’ horse. You don’t want to be riding a confused, frustrated or conflicted horse, and this exercise will make learning to work on his own a much easier lesson for your horse.

Again, it’s about breaking it down.

Personally, as a trainer, I have to ride a large number of different horses – some of whose educational level is unknown even to their owners. If I teach ‘Give to the Bit’ and then long-reining, I can quickly assess the horse.

I stand safely in the middle, cue walk, trot and canter, check for relaxation, soundness and obedience and then ask myself “Can I and do I want to ride this horse?” If the answer is no, then I know where the work is needed. Either way, I have kept myself safe by checking this before mounting.

If your horse has been out of work for a while, teach long-reining before you get back on board. I honestly don’t think it makes any difference to the horse whether you are riding or not as far as learning habits is concerned. The habits we want to instill are relaxation, travelling in a soft frame and responsiveness to cues. By far, it’s best to do that safely from the ground.

So, let’s get started!

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a round pen, I advise you to use that to teach long-reining. By almost eliminating the need for directional control to begin the lesson, the round pen makes it easier for the horse. If you don’t have a round pen, just remember the larger the area, the more directional control you will need and the more choices you are giving your horse.

I’m going to use the example of long-reining in a saddle, with the stirrups tied together (see Part One) as I find it the safest option when teaching the horse this lesson, especially to those horses that have been lunged, and have learned to turn and face you.

Step 1: 

Tack your horse up, with stirrups snuggly tied together under the girth, a snaffle bridle, lunge lines attached through the stirrups to each side of the bit and bring your lunge whip.

I know, it’s a lot of stuff!

Slide the outside rein over the rump so you are standing about two metres away from your horse’s flank – outside the kicking range and ready to cue forward movement to begin the session.

Step 2: 

To make it easier for the horse, you are going to stay close and make your circles small to start with. Having you in a driving position, slightly behind the horse, may be new and take some getting used to. In order to habituate your horse to this and feeling the lines on either side of him, we are going to commence with changes of direction.

This is a good starting point because the horse slows during a change of direction and it helps to keep you behind the movement. It’s important you stay behind the midpoint of the horse’s barrel; otherwise, if you get too far forward, your horse will try to turn and face you.

While you are changing direction, make a conscious effort to watch the horse’s tail – this keeps you behind the horse. Keep watching the tail until the horse is moving in the new direction and then move your focus to mid-barrel.

TIP: Move the whip across first, before asking for the change of direction.

Step 3: 

If you’re anything like most people, you are now feeling like the least coordinated person alive and wanting to ditch the whip! Don’t do that. Without the whip, you only have your legs (as in chasing the horse), your voice (as in shouting at the horse) or the lines (as in swinging the lines at the horse and possibly jabbing him in the mouth), to encourage the desired forward movement.

Remember, we are building a relaxed and responsive horse. Raising the whip should be enough to create forward movement and, if your horse has not yet learned that cue, use more whip movement until the pattern is learned.

Step 4: 

Your horse is watching you, probably very closely. You’ll know if you move too far forward because your horse will try to turn and face you.

Use that vigilance to your advantage by setting up really good patterns.

By moving the whip from one hand to the other before changing direction, you prepare your horse to change direction.

Pass the whip over the top of the lines and hold it in what will be the new outside hand – only then asking for the change in direction with the reins (and, of course, watching the tail).

Doing this not only gives the horse a warning the change of direction is coming, it also sets you up by getting the whip in the correct hand and it reminds you to take a step to the side to position yourself to watch the tail (and remain behind the movement).

Step 5: 

Once both you and your horse are comfortable with changing direction in walk, set up a good side circle, 18 to 20 metres in diameter, to begin trot work.

Many horses have been lunged or round penned for extended periods of time, and we want to make sure that long-reining remains educational and engaging, and doesn’t become tiring or tedious.

By focusing on transitions, we make this exercise completely different from mindless circling.

Begin by asking for a few strides of trot and then back to walk, change direction and do the same thing on the other side.

Long-reining is about engaging your horse’s brain and getting him inside your ‘bubble of communication’ so the more changes of speed, gait and direction you do, the better.

Of course, the less you do in terms of circling around, the better too. A tired horse isn’t learning anything.

TIP: Long-reining is a great place to work on perfecting your transitions.

Step 6: 

Once your horse is working well in walk and trot, and remaining relaxed, soft in the bridle and in an elevated frame, it’s time to ask for canter.

If your horse is tense, rushing or has a high head, then stay with walk and trot, and practice ‘Give to the Bit’ while you are doing so.

If, at this stage, you feel your horse really hasn’t got the foundation of relaxation and softness, then go back to give to the bit without the long-reins and establish that before continuing.

TIP: Decide on the verbal cue you would like to use under saddle and teach that on the lines.

To establish a good canter transition, you will want to give your horse a series of cues. I use a verbal ‘kiss’ sound (as I’ve used a single cluck for walk and a double cluck for trot) for canter and would like my horse to respond to that without having to use any pressure cues.

Of course, until the pattern is established, the pressure cues (lunge-whip) will be required. Once we are riding the horse, we can use the leg, but obviously we can’t do that here.

For long-reining, I want three cues:

  • Verbal ‘kiss’ sound,
  • Raise the whip, and
  • Increasing whip movement.

Once on board, these might change to:

  • Verbal ‘kiss’ sound,
  • Touch with leg, and
  • Squeeze with leg (or touch the horse’s hip with the whip).

I understand a lot of people don’t like to use verbal cues because they “can’t talk in a dressage test”. However, we need to keep a few things in mind.

Firstly, the dressage judge is most unlikely to be able to hear a quiet cluck or kiss. Secondly, you need to consider the time your horse spends, in its lifetime, actually doing a test. Even for the madly keen dressage enthusiast, it’s not a long time. Finally, we are always aiming to work off less pressure so, if we can train the horse to respond to a verbal cue, we negate the need for physical pressure.

Step 7: 

Often with these things, the hardest part is getting started and stopping. It’s important your horse is relaxed and will stand quietly at the end of the lesson while you untack them.

Always stop your horse out on the circle and go up to the horse, rather than getting the horse to come to you, or allowing it to turn and face you. Then, approach your horse. The first thing to do is unfasten both of the lines. This way, if your horse does get a fright and attempts to leave, you can simply pull the lines away (not as easy when using a surcingle and you must take the lines out carefully in that case).

Step 8: 

You now have all of the elements in place to make great changes in your horse’s way of going using long-reining.

Until you feel proficient and you are sure your horse is relaxed, always go back to walk to change direction. Later, when you are superstars at this, it’s a great place to teach flying changes, but that can be a bit ugly without a strong foundation!

Try to make it interesting, and fun for the horse by adding transitions and changes of speed within gait, along with lots of verbal praise for their efforts. But, remember, it is hard work, especially for those horses not used to travelling in frame or don’t have a lot of topline development, so don’t overdo it.

For a full training course on long-reining, visit the Kandoo Equine Online Training – https://www.kandooequine.com/

Check out Dr Kate Fenner’s podcast for more step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.