A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lets talk about Lunging

Lunging, longing, Long Line work, round penning.... what ever you call it, it is pretty much the same thing.  You work your horse from the ground in order to train your horse in some manner.  At least, that SHOULD be the idea.  Some people lunge their horse to just get the fresh off.  I have a problem with that though, but we'll get to that later.

What we need to think about is WHY we make our horses sweat with out riding them.  See, many times we are told to do something, and it sounds like a good idea, so we try it, but we never stop to think about the why of it.  But if you don't know the why of it, how can you do it better?  How do you know when you're doing it right?  Lunging is one of my pet peeves, because so often it's what I have to retrain the most.

Now,  for me, I lunge to train the horse.  I can do so much training on the ground - and save myself some dirt lunches - that I don't know why people wouldn't do it.  I start lunging my horses lightly around 2.5 years of age.  Later for the heavier horses.  I rarely lunge for physical reasons.  I don't do it to muscle them up, I don't do it to run the fresh off.  I lunge to teach them commands and a work ethic.

So often, I get horses in training that have been taught to go in a round pen, and rush around the rail until they are tired, then to go the other way for a bit.  This annoys the crap out of me.  The horse totally tunes me out.  What good is that?  How can you train a horse if it doesn't even care that you exist?

Lunging should be used to teach the horse verbal commands.  I always start off with the walk.  Oh sure, the horse wants to trot or canter when we start, but my goal is to teach the horse that when I say "walk" it goes into first gear.  I don't care what it was doing before, walk means WALK.  Once I have a good solid walk, then I work on Woah and Reverse.  For me, "woah" simply means stop moving forward.  If they stop and fidget, that's good enough.  "Stand" means to keep their feet still, and is a different command.  As the horse ages, they usually stop the fidgeting, but young silly babies need to have a chance to "win" and get praise, so I made this distinction.  Reverse is simply the verbal command to turn to the inside, and maintain pace in the opposite direction.  I'm not that picky about it, and yeah, many of my youngsters tend to break gait when reversing.  Again, that's something that they will improve with time.

From there, I work on the other gaits.  Trot, canter, gallop.  Now I have a 110 foot round pen, so we really CAN gallop in it.  In most of the 60 foot round pens I see, I wouldn't dare ask for a gallop.  I suppose it depends upon the horse, but my big draft crosses would slip, fall, and catch a leg.  Galloping on command isn't worth the vet bill.

My horses also learn their names VERY well at this point of their training.  I use their name before I give a command.  It's like saying "a command is coming soon, listen to me now".  Like the pretty little mare there, she knows her name is Arden.  And when I say "Ardennnnn......" she will turn her inside ear at me.  That's the type of work ethic I love seeing.  She maintains what she was doing, and prepares for a change. 

I'm a big fan of not pushing babies too hard.  In fact, I LOVE backing my horses at 4, just because they are mentally ready for the work, and all the new things coming at them.  So I rarely ask for a horse to be perfect as a 2 or 3 year old.  I mean, when I learned to write, I didn't have a perfect script.  I never would have been considered an artist at how well I made my letters.  As my muscles got experience, and my mind advanced with age, I learned to write nicer, cleaner, and more legibly.  The same is true of horses.  They don't have the fine tune muscles when they first learn something.  The nuances of perfection come with time and experience.  What we're looking for is the effort.

All of my training in these verbal commands has a couple of results though.  First, it helps so much when I do back them.  I say "walk" and the baby knows to step off.  I pair that verbal command with a touch, and the touch makes sense, even if it is light.  I say "woah" and stopping is what the horse wants to do.  Add the sit in the saddle, or the touch on the bit, and the horse "gets" it.  They don't panic at something grabbing their mouth, they just say "Ohhhhhhhh, so that's another way of saying the same thing.  Gotcha!".

The other reason I lunge is for focus.  In most of the horses I retrain, they have learned to bulldoze people.  This is NOT the horse's fault.  It's the human who didn't stop to think about the why of what they were asking their horse.  I wouldn't say it's the human's fault either.  Rather simple ignorance.  And sadly, simple ignorance makes more "bad" horses then anything else.

But when I am sitting on the back of a thousand pound (or more) animal, I sure don't want to have to see who is stronger.  The horse is!  Rather, it's easier to have a work ethic in the horse, that assures the horse that it will be rewarded for its efforts.  I say walk, he walks, I pet him.  I say trot, he trots, and I tell him he's a good boy.  And at the end, he KNOWS that he will get something really good for all the sweat he's pumping out, so he gives more of an effort, and works harder for me.  That makes for happy horses.  It's really no different then we humans.

How many of you have had a job where you were yelled at, told what to do, and then grumbled at for doing it when asked?  How much did you want to go to work?  I'm betting not much!  Horses are the same.  They want to please, they like to work, but they do want to have their effort appreciated.  If we make their work fun for them, then you will have a horse that meets you at the gate when you pull out a bridle, and not one that runs for the hills every time it sees a halter in your hand.

But if all you ever do is ask your horse to run around the rail, like a crazy beast, then they quickly decide that speed means to shut off their brains.  Most of us are not the next best rider, and we sure don't want a horse running off madly with no controls!  Teaching the horse to listen to verbals has saved my butt so many times.  Horse spooks, I yell WOAH, and horsey stops.  Horse catches a glimpse of another horse running to the barn, I say WALK, and horsey walks with a purpose.  It might be a bit jiggy, but it is still a walk.

I never have a problem with hard to catch horses.  Rather the opposite in fact!  I never have a problem with barn sour, or herd sour horses either.  Now, my lesson horses are gate sour, but I'm working on fixing that (it's my own stupid fault.  Every one gets off at the gate, and I have a HUGE white gate in the middle of a black fence line.  Easy to see, and habit says that the sweating stops at the gate!). 

My goal is to work the lunging out of the training regimen.  Eventually the horse should have no need of a lunge line again.  If the horse is taught that calm and correct behavior results in praise and slow work, they get it.  Rather then running the fresh off, my answer to a dingy high strung horse is to put it on a lunge line and say "WALK!".  When the horse walks, they get rewarded, when they don't, I pretend it isn't happening, and simply ask for the walk again.  It doesn't take long at all either.  A week, maybe 2 for a mature horse.  A month or so for a baby.  They learn to listen for the command, watch YOU and your body language, and react in a calm manner.  If they don't, they just keep on working until it is done.

And the lunge is just a step in the right direction for riding.  We have the same commands, the same tack we have worked up to, but a bit more weight to carry around.  Sweetie here is a wonderful example of the transition.  She is still learning to lunge, but loves the attention of a rider so much that we've broken a few rules with her.  At the end of her lessons, Amy climbs up and praises her while we walk a lap or so.  Her little baby back is strengthening.  Her mind accepts the weight, and good habits are forming.  Sweetie thinks this is the best thing since horse cookies!

Now keep in mind that I train for the average rider.  My horses are not high end performance animals.  I want them to be slow, calm, and easy for a novice rider.  With that said, even if I wanted a hot performance horse (no, not all are hot, but if I did want hot) I would still use similar techniques.  I would simply work more on forward, and less on calm in our lunge work.

I find though, that when I do back the babies, or retrain the older horses, that they quickly learn to understand a soft aid.  I don't have to boot the snot out of my horse to get it to walk.  A little leg pressure is all it takes.  At the same time, if I accidentally whollop them in the side, they know to ignore it.  They ride off my seat like a dream, even on the second ride, and won't lose their minds with a bobble on the reins or an accidental chuck in the mouth.  And the best thing ever?  When I have a novice rider on them, giving them all the wrong commands, they know to "woah" or "walk" or "stand" when the person in the middle of the arena yells that at them.

What I don't understand, is why I would want to spend my time - time that could be used fixing problems and moving forward - standing in the summer sun watching a horse run blindly in a circle to get it tired.


  1. I agree with everything you say here - there's a lot of lunge-until-dead (at high speed with lots of bucking and pulling included) in the h/j show world, and there's a lot of "run the horse in the round pen until it's exhausted and out of options" in many so-called "natural" training circles. I agree with you that much of this isn't due to malice, but just due to doing things the same way everyone else in their circle is doing it.

    For me, lungeing is transitional - it's a way to begin to work with the horse to establish a conversation and shared attention/energy/focus. I don't usually do it anymore once that's established, although I may return to ground-driving/long-lining when I introduce a horse to the trail. And I will occasionally lunge just to give a horse a bit of exercise when I don't have the time to ride or can't for some reason - but even then I try to work on things like verbal commands and transitions.

  2. Couldn't agree more. Today my horse did four circles in the round pen. I could tell he was focused.

    But I am using the round pen (which has a softer footing) as a place to warm up my mare's shoulder joint. We work on subtle control during the warm up to keep her mentally engaged. She came to me as a horse that would just run mindlessly. No more.

  3. Good post. I must have missed this while I was gone over the weekend.
    I used to lunge my previous horse to get the fresh off and "gain respect"...or what I thought was respect. And she was a well behaved round penner, knowing all the cues perfectly. But I quickly learned that good round pen behavior doesn't always match up to good trail and under-saddle behavior. That's why, like you said, it's the training while lunging, not the actually crazy running around, that helps a horse become a good equine citizen.
    My current mare, I rarely ever lunge because she looks at me like, "um, why are we doing this. This is silly. Let's just go" She wasn't ridden for a year and when I got back on last month, I did just give her a spin at a trot and walk a couple times just to see where she was at and if she was listening to me, but then I just got on. And it was like no time had passed at all. She was the same as she was last summer when I rode her last. The worst thing that she was/is is lazy and slow. That's the best kind of horse, don't you agree?
    I know folks who own Arabians that insist on lunging before every ride, just to get the fresh off, and believe it makes their horses calmer. But, I'm sure you know that it's virtually impossible to wear out an Arabian. The more they run around, the more their tail flag and the more excited they become. It's what they were bred for.

    Anyway, good post. I really enjoyed it.


  4. The funny thing is, I own an Arabian gelding, Boo. I would NEVER lunge him before riding.... it'd wear him out. He's so LAZY already. And you know why he's so nice and calm? Yeah, because I trained him using lunging as a step forward. I can leave Boo out to pasture for a year, and get back on like he never missed a day. If he's a bit mushy on a command, I just give him the verbal.

    Ok, and I also have the laziest Arabian in the world, but that's beside the point. =)