Some riders, I’ve found, even those interested in using Natural Horsemanship training, enable themselves when it comes to lunging their horses. I’m talking about those who over-lunge. They lunge before they load the horse in a trailer, they lunge before they saddle, lunge before they catch the horse, etc. But knowing when and why to lunge a horse can be a challenge for experienced and novice riders, alike, no matter the discipline or training methods used.
Perhaps those same same riders who over-lunge don’t have great communication with their horse, maybe that concept is an unknown and they over-lunge to compensate for what they don’t understand about the horse. And, although lunging too much, mostly the kind that just makes the horse go around in circles, does build endurance, it can also build resistance if it’s done improperly and repeatedly, and the potential for injury to the horse's legs also increases. And over-lunging can be seen in any training arena, be it traditional or even Natural Horsemanship. In certain circles over-lunging is a huge complaint about the misunderstanding between horse and handler or horse and rider. Some riders or trainers might reason that the horse just has some excess energy to release and just let the horse buck and play on the lunge line, but others will argue that additional ground work can be added to lunging, the kind of ground work that Natural Horsemanship trainers use to build communication with the horse.
Ground work lunging can be done either in hand or at liberty (without a lead or lunge line). With visual pressure (or physical pressure) using hand cues the handler can work on moving the haunches over, the barrel or the forehand, side-passing, and even turn or stop the horse in it’s tracks. The handler can slow (or stop) the horse by letting out a long, slow, somewhat noisy breath. Backing can also be done in hand or free to help establish dominance (not aggression toward the horse) and leadership, or intercept resistance, as well as prepare (warm up) the back muscles for riding that day. Natural Horsemanship and ground work lunging has a toolbox of moves that get the horse thinking about the handler and using its body. The benefit of this type of ground work lunging is pure communication with the horse, which transfers clearly into work under saddle.
Additional notes: Lunging is hard on a horse’s legs, no matter the age of the horse, even ground work lunging. If you must lunge, limit the time on line or in the lunge pen to 20 minutes total, and try to alternate days with free lunging in an arena or ponying. Ponying the horse from another saddle broke horse is more beneficial for conditioning a young horse than lunging especially if most of the work can be done on a straightaway or out in the hills. An added benefit is that the youngster learns valuable lessons about being a saddle horse from the mentor “pony horse”. Ponying is actively used by both Natural Horsemanship and traditional trainers.