DESERT HORSE EQUESTRIAN SERVICES

Two for One: Free-Longe Your Horses in Pairs

 

If you’re a horse owner who finds free-longeing a useful and efficient part of your basic exercise program, consider varying your repertiore by working your horses at liberty in pairs.

Longeing pairs can provide a big time savings during periods when work and family commitments limit your barn time. It’s also a great way to ensure all your horses get some structured exercise on those short winter days.

For liberty work in a roundpen to provide maximum benefit, it’s important to have taught your horses to carry themselves properly on a circle. I find it works best for me to start this work in hand, first on a short line such as a lead rope and progressing out on a longe line.

Even a horse who is just starting to understand how to track “straight” on the circle can benefit from some longeing at liberty. Think of it a quiz to see how well the horse is retaining the balance lessons on the line. If he reverts to an upside-down and backward posture, he probably needs more time on a short line. When he can carry himself correctly on a circle at liberty, he has graduated from longeing school.

Once you have good voice/body language control of your horses free-longeing alone, try putting two horses who are already acquainted together and challenge yourself to work both of them on the circle. It takes some practice to split your focus to keep two horses moving in tandem, but the challenge adds a new dimension to the work for both you and the animals.

I discovered the benefits of the technique back when I was working with a young horse who was afraid of humans. Sport hadn’t had much contact with people during the first four years of his life and when I started working with him he’d spook from a gesture as slight as me removing my sunglasses. On a longe line, he clearly felt trapped and couldn’t concentrate. Even at liberty in a roomy roundpen, he startled at the most quiet voice command. Yet, he was an energetic, athletic horse who certainly needed to move, to burn off some energy in order to have a chance of settling into a reasonable learning space. And it was important to me that he learn to interact with me instead of just reacting to me, which meant I needed to find a way to make him comfortable enough to learn basic voice commands

Fortunately for me, Sport had bonded quite quickly with my older gelding, Ichobod. And I had spent the necessary hours with Ich teaching him to balance and move properly both on a longe line and free-longeing. So, I enlisted the older horse’s assistance in helping to teach his young friend how to respond appropriately to my voice and body commands.

I started by releasing the two horses in a large roundpen and giving Sport a bit of time to explore the boundaries and smell the poop left behind by other horses who had worked in here. He hung out with his buddy Ich for 20-30 minutes, then I entered. Ich came right over to say hello, while Sport hung back. I pretty much ignored Sport at the start, just proceeding to send Ichobod out to the rail at a walk and working halt/walk transitions while Sport alternately stood and watched and startled at the movements of my body and a longe whip.

But, as I hoped, the herd instinct took over and Sport fell in line behind his buddy, stopping and halting along with the older horse. This exercise was completely routine for Ichobod, so his demeanor was quiet, calm and workmanlike. The younger horse picked up on that, of course.

Over the next few days, I repeated the exercise, adding trot and canter transitions and changes of direction to the repertoire. At some point it became clear that Sport, who is a very smart horse, was listening and responding to the voice commands. So, near the end of a session when both horses had worked well and quietly together, I caught Ichobod and held him in the center of the circle with me while I used the now-familiar words and motions to send Sport around at all three gaits in both directions.

At first he was inclined to spurt quickly into the canter and to show some alarm – rolling back more energetically than needed – when asked to change direction. But he had essentially learned to free longe by working alongside his trusted pal. Later I was able to translate the liberty work into longeing on a line, though it took years before he would relax into that work without looking like he felt restricted and on edge.

Meanwhile, having the ability to work both my horses correctly and efficiently together was a great boon during times in my life when my horse time was shortened by work, illness or weather. And it provided some variety for all of us, adding a bit of extra interest into the daily fitness regimen.

It has also been fascinating to watch the communication between the two horses. When we first started this exercise many years ago, Sport was young and exuberant and inclined to mischief. He would start out following his older friend, but inevitably he’d try to pass, usually breaking to a canter while Ichobod trotted. Ich usually wouldn’t allow Sport to pass, though. He’d turn his head to the inside, or just flick his inside ear, and the naughty youngster would drop back into second place. The older horse was clearly in charge, though his ornery young friend would sometimes retaliate by nipping him on the butt.

As Sport got older and more settled, Ich would sometimes allow him to take the lead when the two horses were walking. But as soon as I called for a trot or canter, Ich would cut across the ring to get back in front and he’d use the ear flick to warn Sport back into his place. So interesting. This dynamic continued right up until I decided Ichobod was so stiff and his gaits so much slower that Sport’s that longeing at the younger horse’s pace was pushing the old man a bit too hard.

Now Sport has a new, young longeing buddy and more often than not, he takes the lead. The other horse was well versed in free-longeing before I put them together in the roundpen, but Sport elected himself the dominant one in that exercise and, not surprisingly, he uses the same subtle body language Ichobod had used to remind the newcomer to keep to his place.

Working together has not only helped my two younger horses to become friends, but the exercise also gives me added flexibility. I’ll certainly be longeing the two energetic horses to keep them fit and happy when clients fill the shortened winter days and in the upcoming holiday season. Stacey Kollman

© 2012 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman



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TUCSON, ARIZONA

 

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