Lungeing a horse is a long-established means of providing training and exercise, proving useful when time and space are limited.
Working on a circle — whether that’s the standard 20 metre or smaller — can be quite hard work for a horse. Although this means lungeing is good for improving or maintaining cardiovascular fitness, and for developing strength and topline muscle, it is not without its risks. Care and attention should be paid to factors such as frequency and duration of sessions, and the surface or footing the horse is working on.
A major concern is that working on a constant circle places excessive strain upon the distal limb structures. While there is limited evidence regarding the effect of lungeing, it is worth considering what we do know before deciding whether or not to incorporate this type of training into a particular horse’s schedule.
Torque and twist
When a horse is working on a circular path, his body is subjected to a “centripetal force”, which is directed towards the centre of the circle and causes him to lean inwards.
He needs to lean in towards the centre of the circle to reduce the force on his limb joints, created as each hoof makes contact with the ground. If he didn’t — and maintained the same posture as if he were travelling in a straight line — this would further increase the force in respect of his joints.
The centripetal force, and therefore the amount of lean, will be greater as a result of a decrease in the circle radius and an increase in his speed. Put simply, the faster the horse goes and the smaller the lungeing circle, the greater the strain.
There has been some work regarding the use of training aids, such as the Pessoa, at working trot. One study group found that using a Pessoa resulted in a reduced stride length, speed, head angle and lumbosacral angle (between the lumbar part of the spine and the sacrum, behind the saddle), but discovered it had no effect on the joint angles of the horse’s limbs.
The authors concluded that the Pessoa was of benefit in the rehabilitation and general training of a horse, as a means of improving his posture and core musculature, without increasing the loading of his forelimb and hindlimb structures. This was, however, used to compare stresses on limb structures between two groups of horses being lunged, rather than between horses moving on a circle and others working largely on the straight.
A further group looked at the local back pressure caused by the use of a training roller during lungeing, both with and without a Pessoa. Researchers found high pressures beneath the roller at thoracic vertebrae 11 and 12, which lie in the saddle region and are a common site for impinging or over-riding dorsal spinous processes (commonly known as kissing spines). This occurred even when the roller was correctly fitted and used with a dressage square and a cushioning wool pad.
Lungeing certainly has a place in the training and breaking of youngsters, or with fresh horses for safety reasons, before the rider mounts. It can be beneficial for variation in a schooling programme and, when used with care, can provide the mainstay of rehabilitation of physiological issues, such as impinging dorsal spinous processes or pain to the rear of the spine in the sacroiliac or caudal articular facet (joint surface) regions.
However, lungeing must be used judiciously, with an eye for when the horse is tiring. This is when distal limb musculoskeletal injuries can occur, due to a “bad step” or stumble.
In terms of the length of time and speed a horse should be lunged — for example, after treatment of impinging dorsal spinous processes — such programmes vary according to level of fitness, the horse’s innate balance and strength, his level of training and the type and quality of the surface he is being lunged upon.
For rehabilitation purposes, there are certain injuries for which I would avoid lungeing — and horse walkers, or any form of exercise in small circles for that matter. These include collateral ligament injuries of any joint, typically the coffin joint, the tarsocrural joint in the hock and the fetlock, and suspensory ligament branch injuries.
Lungeing has its merits, however, for the rehabilitation of many common causes of back pain. And horses that are “cold backed” and dislike the sensation of the saddle, girth or rider may appreciate a few minutes of lungeing before ridden exercise.
When it comes to lungeing an older or more established sport horse with no underlying issues, simply as a form of general training, I’m afraid I see more drawbacks than advantages. My advice would be to tread carefully, limiting sessions and seeking advice from your vet or physio if you are in any doubt.
Ref Horse & Hound; 13 June 2019