Horsemanship, Other Riding Advice

Lunging vs. Riding: Which is Best?

Ask ten riders about their thoughts on lunging, and you’ll get ten different answers. Some lunge regularly, some never at all, and some whenever the need arises. The reality is though, that both riding and lunging have their uses in different circumstances or as part of a holistic approach to your horse’s work and fitness. 

Let’s break down when and why you’d lunge or ride, so that you can decide what works best for you and your horse.

The Pros and Cons of Lunging

For many of us, limited time with our horses is a reality that we have to navigate at one point or another. Lunging is one of the best options if you need to work your horse and then head out in record time. To minimize strain on joints, you wouldn’t normally lunge for longer than twenty minutes even if you had all the time in the world, so you can be done and dusted in half an hour provided you’re efficient and focused. 

Even if you’re not pressed for time, lunging is a good addition to a regular training program with your horse. Why? Firstly, horses should learn to lunge well enough that a lameness evaluation by a vet or rider is easy enough to perform. While trot ups can help, your horse may need to canter (for instance, sacroiliac issues are often more obvious in canter) or work for a longer period than you’re willing to trot up and down in hand for! 

More than that though, lunging gives your horse the opportunity to work without a rider on his back. This is not only helpful for muscular development especially over the back, but also allows the horse to find his own balance without a rider to help (or hinder, depending on the experience level!) him. Regular lunging can improve cardiovascular fitness, be a helpful tool in backing a young horse, or be used to bring a horse back into work following a long period off. 

lunging horse in a field with snaffle bridle

You can use lunging to gymnasticize your horse, help improve balance and suppleness, and to work on keeping an even, relaxed rhythm. Some good exercises to employ while lunging include

  • Trot and canter poles
  • Spiraling in and out of different sized circles
  • Transitions both between and within the pace – i.e. from one gait to another, as well as between lengthened and working trot or canter

There are, of course, some drawbacks to lunging over riding though. 

One of these is that you have less refinement of the aids. While you can work on transitions, different size circles, and good rhythm and engagement, you cannot apply leg, seat, or even independent rein aids. You also can’t feel the horse as well, so might struggle to pick up a horse who is bulging out on one shoulder or who is stiff in the jaw. You’re also more limited in terms of the work you can do from the ground versus in the saddle. And, of course, repetitive and prolonged lunging can cause joint problems due to working for extended periods of time on small circles.

Alternatives to Lunging

It’s also pretty common to lunge a fresh horse before you get on and though the jury is out on whether this should be encouraged, sometimes it’s the best option to keep you safe! 

If you’re concerned about strain on the joints associated with lunging and want to incorporate straight lines, serpentines, and even lateral work then you also have the option of longlining. This does require significantly more experience but can be a closer emulation of the riding aids than you’d normally get via lunging. It’s always recommended to have someone experienced teach you how to longline, but if you have a sensible horse and a good understanding of lunging and groundwork, you can become proficient at it yourself. 

Loose schooling or free jumping is another option to keep the mind (and the feet) busy, if you have a double ring or an area of good footing that you can make a lane or chute with. Loose schooling over fences can help your horse to improve his technique and let him grow in confidence, but unless you have a purpose-built double ring for loose jumping, you do generally need two people to make it really work.

The Benefits of Riding

There are some obvious benefits to riding rather than staying on the ground when you’re heading down to the barn to see your horse. You have tons of options: trail rides, jumping, schooling, or whatever takes your fancy. It’s excellent for horses to have a varied workout schedule and combining different arena schooling sessions with trails or a good gallop is one of the best things you can do for a horse’s mental and physical wellbeing. While lunging can form a part of this, five days of lunging wouldn’t offer you the same variety as five days of riding is able to. 

rider cantering in indoor arena

In the same breath, you can give a horse a really good workout under saddle without worrying about hammering your horse’s joints. Because you’re not limited to circles, you can spend time walking and trotting up and down hills, lengthening and collecting the paces in straight lines, and doing lateral work to really get your horse supple, engaged and working through the topline. All of this is tiring work but with less wear and tear than you’d get from twenty minutes of work on a fifteen meter circle. 

Skilled riders can influence a horse’s way of going more from on top than they can from the ground through the use of small aids, including barely visible adjustments through the hand, seat, and leg. For instance, while your horse might be slightly crooked on the lunge, you might not notice. Even if you do notice, you have limited tools to fix it with. Under saddle if you feel your horse isn’t quite straight, you can ride a little shoulder in, flex the horse to the outside, or shift your weight slightly to make sure you’re sitting evenly in the saddle until you feel that he’s travelling totally straight. 

Finally, if you want to work on yourself and your riding so that you can improve any horse, you’ll definitely have to get on and ride. While lunging helps you develop overall horsemanship skills, there’s no substitute for time in the saddle when it comes to being a more effective rider. At the end of the day, there’s also truth in the statement if you want a great riding horse, you have to ride it.

Plus, we’ve got to admit that there’s no better cure for a rough day or bad mood than a ride! 

When Is Riding Not The Right Choice?

As much as we love hopping into the saddle, riding isn’t always the perfect solution. Not only is it far more time consuming than lunging, there are also some instances in which it just isn’t suitable. If your horse is very reactive and it’s a windy day with a tractor running nearby, riding might not be the best choice, for instance. In a similar vein, if you’re struggling with a canter strike off for example, and your horse is always cantering on the wrong leg, trying it on the lunge without a rider can help you to figure out if something you’re doing is contributing to the problem.  Plus, working without the weight of a rider on a semi-regular basis even if you aren’t having specific problems really is good for your horse.

Finally, although you can often feel how the horse is moving and whether he’s loose and comfortable, being able to assess things from the ground is handy in picking up any stiffness or soreness.

How To Choose! 

So, when should you ride instead of lunge? If you’re short on time, lunging is generally the better option. If time isn’t an issue, riding would usually be our first option. A good solution is lunging once a week and riding on the other days. Done properly, lunging can form part of a holistic approach to your horse’s schooling and fitness. 

Do you lunge as part of your horse’s regular exercise regime, or do you only ride? Let us know why in the comments. 

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