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Lunging Horses for the Rehabilitation of Back Pain

Should we be lunging our horses?




I often hear a lot of bad press about lunging and that it causes more harm than damage to our horse's bodies. The truth about lunging and its effect on our horse's bodies is all dependant on the "lunger". Have you ever heard the saying:

"Any gadget or training can be dangerous to the horse."


I very much agree with this statement and can relate to my own personal experience working with an array of gadgets on horses depending on the outcome. The last word of that sentence is key!


"Outcome"


In order to achieve any outcome with our horse's we need to assess and honestly look at where our horse is at today, at this very moment. I'll give you a few examples below:


Case Study 1:

Young Horse, 5 years old, never been ridden.


Case Study 2:

10 year old low level competition horse diagnosed with kissing spines


Case Study 3:

Sound 9 year old horse, competing at medium dressage


Case Study 4:

Mature horse (15 years old) having previously suffered from a tendon injury


From the examples above, which one would you NOT lunge?


If you said Case study 4 (tendon injury), you were correct, well done! I'll take it one step further, if we reread ALL of the above case studies and watch them being lunged. Are they showing any of the movement patterns and behaviours below:

  • Motor biking around the arena

  • The lunger is chasing them around

  • The horse is constantly turning in to face the handler and changing direction

  • The lunge rope is on the floor

  • The horse is unbalanced, falling in through the inside shoulder, looking to the outside

  • Tail swishing and sporadically going crazy on the lunge

If ANY of the horses described above were displaying any of these signs, I would NOT be lungeing them.


WHY?


Lunging is a form of controlled exercise that should be done by a skilled lunger who knows how to constantly be communicating with the horse on the end of the lunge rope, no matter what their breed, age or level of training is.


Skills of an effective lunger include:

  • Patience

  • Consistant aids

  • Calm- through breathe work

  • Aware of their own body language and that of the horse

  • Safe, wear gloves for protection


Once you know how to safely lunge for the benefit of your horse, we then need to ask ourselves about the outcome. Why do we need to lunge? Below are some of the benefits to lungeing your horse.


Benefits of lungeing:

  • Body and movement assessment

  • Exercise without a rider

  • Differs from treadmill and hand-walking

  • Develop proprioception

  • Introduce balance, strength

  • Develop rhythm and self carriage

Now let's look at the dangers of lungeing.


Dangers of lungeing:

  • Circle size. You don't want your circle any smaller than 18m in diameter

  • Inconsistent circle size due to the lunger being inexperienced and walking too much

  • Uneven time per side. This is such a common problem that many people do. Do you lunge your horse for the same amount of time on the left and right rein?

  • Lunger being unaware of the horse's body on the lunge.

  • Lunger being inconsistent (too heavy with their hands, elbows and shoulders)

  • Loosing your horse on the lunge

  • Failing to keep your horse interested.

  • Being inconsistent and impatience with training commands. How many of you see yourself or others doing this? You are lungeing your horse and asked them to come down from a trot to a walk. You start with a soft, low spoken "walk" command, you wait a few seconds and nothing happens, your horse keeps trotting. So, instead of repeating the same low "walk" command you end up pulling on the lunge rope whilst quickly repeating the word "walk" but this time your voice is louder and louder, your breathe changes and you feel yourself getting more and more frustrated! Until eventually your horse is turning in and facing you, with an elevated heart rate.


Who is in the wrong here?


100% the lunger.


Let's talk about a case study of a horse who is suffering from back pain.




11 year, Irish Sports Horse, diagnosed with radiograph for having Kissing Spines from T13-18. He was treated medically by a Veterinarian and then followed a rehabilitation plan to help him return to work. We started with specific stable exercises for proprioception and activation, followed by baited instability exercises and a walking program for 6 weeks on the lunge. Working on the lunge was introduced slowly and the owner was experienced in identifying movement patterns of the horse's body. This is fundamental in rehabbing a horse correctly. Supportive therapies such as massage and muscle stimulation exercises were used during the lungeing program to help the horse' body adapt. As the horse progressed through the lungeing program, we introduce walking poles, proprioceptive aids and further strength exercises. The introduction of these training exercises is all about timing and understanding when your horse is ready for the next stage of rehabilitation.

One year on from Veterinary intervention, the horse is back competing and jumping, showing no signs of discomfort or pain. The success to the rehabilitation of back pain is constant assessment, adaptive training interventions with supportive therapies.


If you found this interesting and would like to know more information, or you have a question, please contact me on :



The specific exercises used in the rehabilitation plan described above can be found at




With love


Nika

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