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Teaching Your Horse To Lunge

Good clicker trainers (and good trainers in general) will break a behaviour they want to teach down into its component parts, so that there is only “no-error” or “minimal-error” learning occurring. But lunging isn’t a complex behaviour to teach - or, is it?

How many times have you seen someone trying to lunge a horse only to end up being lunged BY the horse. They are running around the horse, not the other way around. How many times have you seen a horse at the end of the lunge line pulling the handler across the arena? Or cutting in on part of the circle? Perhaps this behaviour isn’t so simple, after all. Why did these problems happen? Perhaps the horse does not understand what is being asked of him. Let’s have a look at some of the component behaviours that should be in place BEFORE trying to teach the complex behaviour of lunging:

1. Can you lead your horse with a float in the line? Will he follow you readily?

2. Will he follow a forward feel on the line and readily move forward?

3. If you were to use a whip cue, would he understand the meaning of it?

4. Does he give his head and neck to slight sideways pressure? And does his body follow his head?

5. Will he stop moving when you stop your body? There are other behaviours that can help build towards lunging, but these will get you off to a very good start.

For the best results, these component behaviours need to be in place (i.e. you have taught them and they have been

understood) before trying to teach a horse to lunge. You should not ask for the WHOLE behaviour of lunging before all these individual steps are taught. Remember: you should not ask for a behaviour until you have taught it. Whether you are dealing with a horse that has never lunged before, or one that has developed issues with lunging, the component behaviours that need to be taught will be similar for the most part. With clicker training, these components are taught first and the resulting end behaviour of lunging evolves out of the recombination of them.

The first component behaviour to teach your horse would be “giving to pressure.”

When you slide a hand down his lead rope and pick up a feel, does he brace or give? In clicker training, we do not “up the pressure,” but instead we wait with the same light pressure until we feel the slightest give, relaxation or forward lean, then click! We release the light pressure and treat promptly; we build on this until we have a horse that readily follows our feel.

If the lead rope is a poisoned cue for the horse, we can start the process by using targeting instead, and work at “un-poisoning” the lead rope. The same procedure can be used to teach the sideways give of the jaw. Use the lesson called “Why would you leave me?” to teach this. We then can call upon the mat lesson (see previous Saddle Up articles for a complete how-to) to create a draw and a stop within our lunging circle, and we can use a cone circle to get a perfectly round lunging circle. The end behaviour we want is a horse that travels in perfect balance around a perfect circle. Let’s assume that you have been following the clicker training foundation lessons and have both your mat work and “Why would you leave me?” in place.

For the next steps, you will need your mat and several tall cones.

Set up your circle of cones and mat as shown in picture 1. This is a small circle. You will be standing on the inside of the cone circle. Start your horse on the mat. Ask him to go forward by sliding your hand down the line with a forward feel and releasing as soon as he moves. You can choose to click and treat now, or re-cue by sliding down the rope again before he stops. Keep turning with him as he walks around the cones. Click and treat when he returns to the mat.

By having the mat there and making use of the mat lesson at this point, it gives the horse and handler time to reflect on how things went for that first circle.

Did he knock over cones?

Did he lag?

Did he rush back to the mat?

Did he not know where his body was and knock over any of the cones?

The mat provides a draw to get the horse around the circle of cones because the mat has a history as a place with a high rate of reinforcement - the horse knows it is a good place to be. By starting with a small circle we can keep the rate of reinforcement high for the behaviour of walking around the entire small circle of cones. With these reflections in mind, ask again for the circle and repeat one circle at a time until the behaviour chain is clean. If he knocks over a cone, then he does not get to stop on the mat. You will simply re-cue him to go around the circle again. The behaviour is “clean” when there are no unwanted behaviours in the chain of walking around the cones, like knocking cones or stopping before the mat.

Once the chain is clean, we move on to the next step. Now move the cones a little farther out, into a slightly bigger circle. Repeat the behaviour chain. If he starts to come inside the circle of cones, then you made the circle too big too soon. Shrink the size down a bit and try again. His job is to stay on the outside of the cone circle. Ask for the walk-on with the forward feel to the rope, follow with your body staying in the centre of the circle of cones and click and treat when he lands on the mat. Once this behaviour is clean, continue to move the cones further out and repeat the behaviour chain until you have reached the circle size that you desire.

Will you need to use the cones and mat forever?

Not at all! They simply help to build the behaviour in a way that sets all the participants up to be successful. You will have a horse that looks beautiful as he moves around you in a balanced fashion and comes to a balanced stop; by moving in balance he will remain sound longer.

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