Safe Longeing for Horse Health
Longeing can be useful both for rehabilitation and as part of a horse's regular training.
Photo: Mallory Haigh/The Horse
This common exercise modality can be surprisingly risky; learn how to keep your horse—and yourself—safe
Asked by a nonhorsey friend to explain what longeing is, you’d probably say something like, “It’s when you put a horse on the end of a long line and let him go around you in circles.”
Simple enough. But longeing is not a simple activity.
For starters, it involves managing that long line and usually a long whip as well. (Tangles, anyone?) And at the end of that long line is … well, let’s just say that a lot of people longe when they don’t feel safe enough to put a foot in the stirrup. Combine one horse that “needs to get the bucks out” with lots of revolutions on a smallish circle on perhaps questionable footing and at perhaps questionable velocity, and you have a recipe for injury—to handler as well as horse.
In this article we’ll explain why experts urge you not to consider longeing a mindless activity and, instead, to treat it like a serious training tool. And we’ll share their suggestions on best practices for horse health and handler safety.
Basic Longeing No-Nos
Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVSMR, ISELP, a sport horse practitioner and co-owner and founder of East-West Equine Sports Medicine, recommends longeing as an exercise and training modality, “as long as the horse is kept under control. The worst thing is when the horse is at the end of the line, basically left to his own devices. We see more horses get hurt (while longeing) than with controlled exercise.” he says.
“Some of the worst longeing I’ve seen is by grooms who are told to get the horse tired,” Peters says. “I have videos of some of these—the horse’s head is up; he’s bucking, slipping, and sliding.”
Ever see a horse lose his footing and go down on the longe? It’s scary. The training surface is always important in terms of soundness and performance, but it’s paramount in longeing because 1) the horse is more apt to lose his balance while turning, and 2) certain kinds of footing exacerbate longeing’s stresses on the horse’s soft tissues. That’s why Peters strongly cautions against longeing on slick surfaces, very firm footing, packed-dirt roads, very deep footing, wet or dewy grass or fields, or mud.
Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, is a world-renowned expert on equine biomechanics. During her time at Michigan State University’s McPhail Equine Performance Center, in East Lansing, she studied the locomotion of longeing.
Among her findings: Longed without side reins or other means of asking the horse to balance and carry himself as we might wish him to in sport, horses naturally lean inward (“fall in” with the inside shoulder) to turn as they circle (the leaning is what gives the rider that “motorcycle” feeling in turns). Horses lean inward an average of 10 degrees; Clayton found that if the degree of lean varied, it was generally greater to the left than to the right. The amount of lean increases at faster speeds and on smaller circles.
Significantly, Clayton also found that, when the horse leans inward on a turn, his inside hind leg has to lift higher than his outside hind leg so that his inside hind hoof can clear the ground. The result can be the appearance of lameness in the inside hind leg—on a horse that’s actually sound.
Jennifer O. Bryant
Stresses of Longeing
We can get lulled into thinking of longeing as “easy exercise” because we sometimes use it when we want an easy day—that is, we’re short on time or otherwise want to skip riding. But that easy day for you can be a tough day at the office for your horse, especially on the soft tissues of his legs and feet. Here’s why.
Horses “normally don’t run in tight circles like that,” Peters says. The uneven medial and lateral forces, the torque, the centrifugal force—all can be damaging to tendons and ligaments, he says. Not surprisingly, “I’m not a huge fan of chasing them around, letting them cross-canter or counter-canter,” he adds.
As Peters explains, circling weights the horse unevenly, with more stress being placed on the limbs on the outside of the circle. As a result, longeing “can put abnormal stress on a subclinical (inapparent) problem.” And then there’s the torquing and twisting of the leg joints. “The tighter the circle and the greater the speed, the greater the stress,” he says.
And let’s not forget the potential for what Peters calls “the boredom factor”—going around and around on a circle. Not exactly a horse’s idea of interesting work.
Despite the potential drawbacks, longeing can have a useful place in your repertoire, both for rehabilitation and as part of your regular training.
“I use longeing as a training device or as controlled exercise,” says Peters. In training, longeing is a time-honored way of getting a young horse accustomed to starting, stopping, and changing gaits and tempos without having to balance under a rider’s weight. The youngster learns to accept the saddle and bridle and (in equestrian disciplines in which the horse takes contact with the bit) to go forward into an elastic contact with the reins.
With just longe line, whip, and voice, a skilled handler has as much control over the horse as a rider. Many trainers introduce such exercises as cavaletti (ground-level or slightly raised poles) and even jumping on the longe. Longeing can serve as a precursor to ground-driving for horses that will eventually be put to a vehicle. And in highly sophisticated forms, such as long-lining or work in hand (think the Lipizzan stallions of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School), the horse can be taught to execute the most advanced dressage movements, from piaffe to airs above the ground.
As part of a rehabilitation process, many veterinarians recommend controlled exercise, which might include longeing. And certain ongoing conditions might benefit from longeing, as well. Peters says horses with arthritis of the articular facet joints (“kissing spines”), muscle spasms, and other back problems can benefit from the riderless exercise.
Longeing isn’t just potentially risky for the horse. Years ago, a colleague of mine sustained a kick in the face—the steel-shod hind hoof barely missed her eye—while longeing her rambunctious 5-year-old. A horseshoe-shaped scar over her eyebrow serves as a reminder of the incident.
Longeing is not the time to talk on the phone, text, or check Facebook. Give the horse your full attention, especially in those critical moments when you first send him out on the line and he’s literally within striking distance of you.
“Don’t let the horse run to the end of the line,” advises Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVSMR, ISELP, a sport horse practitioner and co-owner and founder of East-West Equine Sports Medicine. “Watch your position, and set the horse up properly.” The horse should walk to the end of the line and walk on the circle until you ask him to trot. (Some people attach the line with the horse halted on the circle’s edge before walking to the center to signal the horse to walk forward.)
Wear sturdy shoes or boots with good traction. Some experts recommend donning protective equestrian headgear. Even if you skip the helmet, always wear gloves. Rope burns are excruciatingly painful and can be slow to heal.
Jennifer O. Bryant
Effects of Footing and Shoeing
What’s underfoot can either ease or worsen longeing’s effects on the horse’s legs and feet.
As we’ve discussed, poor footing is even less appropriate for longeing than it is for riding. But even some “good” footing isn’t great for longeing, says Peters. He recommends sticking to natural materials—sand, dirt, bark, and the like—and avoiding synthetic surfaces, which can be grippy enough to cause extra torque.
You’re probably not going to have your horse specially shod for longeing, but know that a beveled shoe produces less torque than a standard flat shoe, Peters says. Beveled shoe examples include the half-round, the Kerckhaert Classic line, and the Natural Balance shoes. Longeing the barefoot horse is just fine, he says.
Safe longeing starts with a safe space. The ideal is a walled round pen or other enclosed area, large enough that the horse can circle safely (at least 15 meters in diameter) but enclosed so he can’t run like crazy should he manage to pull away from the handler.
The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) literally wrote the book on longeing, and the United States Dressage Federation Lungeing Manual (yes, with an alternative spelling) is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to learn to longe safely and effectively. A few of the USDF’s safety tips:
Loop the longe line neatly. Don’t allow the line to drag the ground, where it can be stepped on. Never wrap the line around your hand or wrist. A cotton or jute line is preferable to slippery nylon.
Stand opposite the horse’s shoulder. For optimal control and influence, place him in a V between the longe line in one hand and the whip in the other.
Don’t let the whip trail along the ground or poke the tip of the lash into the ground. Your voice and the whip encourage the horse forward—but avoid dramatic whip-cracking, which could provoke an explosion.
Ideally, use a longeing cavesson, to which the line attaches via a ring on the noseband piece. If you must longe using your horse’s bridle (snaffle only), remove the reins or twist them together and secure beneath the throatlatch. Attach the line to the inside bit ring; some horsemen and women discourage this practice so, alternatively, run the line through the inside ring, wrap around once, then attach to the outside bit ring. Running the line over the top of the poll and attaching to the outside bit ring is severe and has a gaglike effect; this method is not recommended.
If your horse is wearing a saddle, remove or run up and secure the stirrup irons.
- If you’re wearing spurs, remove them; they can be a tripping hazard. Wear sturdy shoes with good traction, protective headgear if possible, and gloves.
Used and adjusted correctly, side reins mimic the steady and elastic contact of the rider’s hands. (If your horse is unaccustomed to side reins, seek professional guidance before using them.) You can attach them to the saddle’s billet straps or to the rings on a longeing surcingle. There are different types of side reins, including plain leather and those with elastic inserts. Many trainers prefer side reins with rubber donut inserts, which offer a bit of give but aren’t so stretchy that the horse is tempted to lean against them. Adjustment is key: too loose and they’ll have no effect, and the horse could risk catching a leg; too tight and the horse might feel restricted, which could cause him to rear up and flip over. A good rule of thumb is to find the length that approximates a correct “on the bit” outline, with the horse’s profile slightly in front of the vertical (if you draw a line perpendicular to the ground, the front of his face and muzzle should be slightly ahead of it).
Shield your horse’s legs and feet from bumps and nicks with leg boots all around and bell boots in front. “Leg boots are cheap protection,” Peters says. “Bell boots are helpful because the horse is more likely to tweak his shoes on the longe line—to catch a front shoe with a hind foot on the inside of the circle.”
- If you (or your horse) are new to longeing, seek an experienced, reputable trainer’s guidance. In dressage, for example, USDF-certified instructors have passed exams demonstrating their skill and knowledge of safe and effective longeing practices.
The Longeing Session
Keep it on the short side, advises Peters—no more than 20 to 30 minutes. If you’re longeing as a warm-up to riding, five to 10 minutes should be sufficient.
Reduce stresses on your horse’s body by varying the gaits frequently, he notes. Doing so offers the added bonus of helping keep your horse focused on you and interested in the work.
Change directions at least once, ensuring that you work your horse both ways for equal amounts of time. The exception: “With some injuries, you might want to go in only one direction,” says Peters. An example would be the horse that’s rehabbing from a collateral-ligament injury, he says. Collateral ligaments, which stabilize a variety of joints, are placed under greater stress when on the outside of the circle; in such cases your veterinarian might advise you to longe only with the injured leg on the inside of the longe circle.
A Valuable Tool
Done properly, longeing is a useful skill to have in your equestrian toolbox. With its potential for causing mishaps and injuries, however, horse and handler alike must be taught to respect longeing as work time, not play time.
“It should not be used as ‘Go free, horse!’ ” says Peters. “It needs to be treated as importantly as riding.”
About the Author
Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site, www.jenniferbryant.net.
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