The benefits of long reining - enhancing a horse's physical and emotional well-being

By Bolette Petersen

Lunging and long reining may seem like old fashioned, basic disciplines for working horses. However by the end of this article, I hope to remind you that these disciplines, when incorporated into your horse’s work routine, can really enhance their physical and emotional state. 

After twenty years of working on the ground with yearlings and racehorses, I have seen how these simple methods have produced many successful racehorses.
 


Used on a regular basis, these disciplines will strengthen your horse’s body so that he will go from being a front wheel drive machine to a four wheel drive machine with extra power behind. As well as becoming stronger, he will be more confident and willing in his work. You will notice how he will respond better to his handler, due to them spending more time together as a team whilst being lunged and long reined.


 
I find that it is safer and easier to lunge a horse in a closed round pen. When lunged correctly, your horse will become more balanced in his work, his muscles will become stronger and have a more rounded feel to his body shape. Always put on over reach boots and brushing boots to protect the front legs. Some horses will need brushing boots behind too. I find the key bit a wonderful device for horses of all ages because it teaches them to accept the bit, as well as helping to soften their mouth, which eventually gives them a suppleness through their neck, resulting in an overall improved movement throughout their body. Even when they are older and still in training. 
 


Many horses will initially rush into the round pen and immediately start cantering until they settle. It is very important to teach horses to walk around the pen first, allowing them to relax and warm up their muscles. Horses are more prone to injuries at a canter, so it is imperative that you teach your horse to trot at a collected pace, making sure his hind feet fall into the foot prints of his front feet. You will see that this is the natural rhythm for your horse, allowing his muscles to work properly, and keeping injuries to a minimum. At this pace he will put less pressure on his fetlocks, tendons and knees, as well as less concussion going through his shoulders and withers. Trotting a horse at this pace can also strengthen weaknesses through the legs. I have noticed on many occasions, improvements in horses that are back at the knee because the shoulder and chest area strengthen, tightening everything up. 
 


Your horse should trot the same amount of time each side, and for most horses, trotting each way five to ten minutes every other day will produce significant results in his overall fitness. The day in between can be used for relaxation, long reining, walking or riding out, depending on what routine you are in. 
 


Incorporating side reins after a week or two will help the horse learn to use his hind quarters and hamstrings to a greater degree, they will also strengthen his back muscles, in particular his longissimus dorsi, and neck muscles: the rhomboid muscle along the top of his neck, the complexus muscle, the longissimus, capitus and atlantis muscles. These muscles will take on a much more pronounced, rounder shape to them.  Your horse‘s body will work almost like a concertina effect, this creates deeper strength throughout his body, strengthening his buttocks, and hamstrings which really power him forward towards his shoulders and neck. He will then start to drop his head into the bit, rounding his neck, working deeper. His muscles along his backbone (longissimuss dorsi) will start becoming even stronger, providing a better platform for the saddle and rider, thus helping to protect the back bone.


 
Some horses will never have had side reins on before, so it is important to start with the reins quite long and then gradually shorten them over time. The ideal length allows the horse unforced give in his mouth and neck so that he attains a natural curve to his head (as seen in photo). Again after a couple of weeks you will notice his muscles changing shape, becoming more curved, in particular the rhomboid, longissimus capitis and atlantis muscles. Over time you can shorten the side reins to build the muscles up even more. Never have them too tight though as this may cause your horse to have a sore mouth and he may start to go against the lunging. 



Incorporating long reining into your horse’s weekly routine is also beneficial for general fitness and well being. It is a difficult discipline, and should only be attempted by the more experienced horseman. I really enjoy taking my horses up the road, out of the farm and into the woods, but I always make sure that I do this route a few times in advance, leading in hand first, so that they are familiar with their surroundings. By leading them in the roller and side reins, they learn to abide by your voice and get to see different objects like rubbish bins, cars, tractors and barking dogs. It is good for them to come into contact with these different objects, because they will be so much calmer when in training. The side reins make it easier to control them too, so you don’t have to use a chiffney all the time. 



It is easier to get the horse used to the long reins whilst lunging in the round pen. Lunge your horse in two lunge reins, attached to each side of the bit, through the middle holes of the roller, on each side for a couple of days until he gets used to them against his sides and flapping around his legs. Then, at the walk bring yourself around behind your horse, making sure you are not too close because he may kick out. Be prepared for your horse to take off which can happen sometimes if he is a little nervous. Help to avoid this by keeping your hands down by your knees so that your horse drops his head, rounding his back, and get him to walk on around using a calm reassuring voice to keep him calm and controlled. The side reining will have prepared him for this contact to his mouth, so he should be more receptive. If you can get someone to walk at your horse’s head for the first week, it will make it easier and safer.


 
After a few days of practicing circles with the long reins, in the round pen, you can then try walking your horse out onto the road. The aim of this discipline is to get your horse out into the woods walking around the trees. This is particularly good for breaking in yearlings because not only will they become braver and more independent, you will notice how their mouths and neck will be much more pliable and their body more balanced. Keeping your hands down by your sides will help coax your horse to bring his head down, making him work forward with more strength from his hindquarters. Please make sure you wear leather gloves at all times, to give your hands greater protection in case your horse pulls hard. 
 


Long reining is also extremely beneficial for horses in training and resting racehorses. The older horses really enjoy learning new things. You may find that they sometimes lose interest in their work because they have become bored with the same routine. Therefore, I find that by incorporating lunging in side reins and long reining you will notice that they immediately change their attitude to their normal work, becoming more positive towards everything they do.
 


I have worked with many horses that just need a change to freshen them up and just turning them out doesn’t seem enough. That’s why horses come here, to my farm for ‘working holidays’, not only to relax, but to do different things, and learn new disciplines.


 
One such horse is Zorn, and he really is my inspiration for all the work that I now do with horses that come here for a rest during their training career. We bred him so he had been through all the basic education with me before he went into training. Unfortunately after four unsuccessful years in training and a few injuries, we took him home. I began schooling him with a view to having him as a dressage horse. Lunging in side reins came easy to him because he remembered what he had been taught as a youngster, as was long reining, and it didn’t take him long to become more balanced, rounded and stronger behind.


 
He did this work for eight months with quite a lot of dressage thrown in. He became so fit, that we decided to send him back into training. A couple of month’s later he won his first race! He had become a stronger horse for all the work he had done at home and it had paid off.  Seeing him win on several occasions after that has been extremely rewarding for everyone involved. 
 


He has been home every summer for his ‘working holidays’, and always returns to a winter all weather campaign, winning a few races every year.


It is not just Zorn who has been successful after his ’back to basics’ schooling. Horses like Captain Rio, Torrid Kentavr, Distant Prospect and Shatin Venture, amongst others, have all been educated here in the same way, they have all been through these basic disciplines as youngsters and have since done extremely well on the racecourse

 Lunging and long reining may seem like old fashioned, basic disciplines for working horses. However by the end of this article, I hope to remind you that these disciplines, when incorporated into your horse’s work routine, can really enhance their physical and emotional state.