The Language of Long Lining, by Chris Irwin

By Chris Irwin

Irwin is long lining a 20-month-old Morgan gelding in preparation for a first ride that will come once the horse is more physically developed.

Irwin is long lining a 20-month-old Morgan gelding in preparation for a first ride that will come once the horse is more physically developed. Note the
lines/reins are neither hanging loose or pulled tight. Irwin has absorbed the gelding's forward movement into soft hands that define the boundaries of where NOT to go, keeping him focused and on track. Also note the baby gelding's soft and relaxed expression.

The fine art of long lining is not just for trainers who start young or problem horses before they mount them for their first ride. Working with the long lines can also be a great rehabilitation exercise for horses recovering from injury that need to be hand walked. Ground driving can also keep our horses in a working frame of mind during the cold winter months because we can wear our warmest boots and Western apparel while driving from the ground, something that is not always feasible from the saddle. Besides that, walking briskly behind a horse is exercise that will keep our blood circulating much better then it does when we're sitting in the saddle. Last, but certainly not least, long lining is a lot of fun!

I teach many of my students long lining because it helps them understand and feel the concept of how to have a horse "in-hand". All too often I find riders who are stuck with the habit of hands that pull (even if only a little) on the reins. We see immediate improvement when these riders climb back in the saddle after 'getting the feel' on the ground with the long lines. Their horses are far more relaxed, moving understand and feel the concept level-headed or well-rounded, and definitely coming through with more engagement from their hindquarters. The horses also have a much more relaxed eye, soft mouth and licking lips, as the hands of the rider discover how to hold a horse with absolutely no backward motion or pull to the reins.

Long lining is the most difficult ground exercise to master with a horse and it is also, by far, the most dangerous. I say this because if a horse is nervous, mischievous, or downright angry and difficult, then it will challenge the contact the driver is creating and look for a gap in the hands on the other end of the lines. This can be dangerous because if your horse finds the slightest opening in the blocking/boundaries that your hands should be proactively creating then, your horse will make an unwanted turn. An unwanted turn when riding is one thing but, when working on long lines this can quickly lead to a horse getting tangled up and/or wrapping his or herself up completely in the lines and this could lead to a very serious wreck with some horses.

How to avoid these gaps? I've used the analogy before that as you face a clock imagine that you and your horse are facing straight up to 12:00 and that is exactly where you want your horse to go. Your right rein should not be used to pull your horse back to 12:00 after it has turned left towards 11:00. Likewise, the left rein is not to pull left to straighten your horse to 12:00 after it veered right to 1:00. Instead, your left rein should proactively block the head and neck of the horse from turning right in the first place.

I say that long lining is the most difficult groundwork exercise with horses to master because it requires that we time the movement of our legs perfectly as we walk along with the stride of our horse. If we walk too quickly the lines go slack and the horse finds the gaps that allow those confusing and potentially dangerous unwanted turns. On the other hand, if we walk too slow, the horse feels too much contact and will not want to move forward into the bit. This results in a horse being either "inverted" (hollow-backed) or "behind the bit". You don't want the horse to feel that you're slamming a door in its face but you also don't want it wandering all over the place and getting itself into trouble. To develop the subtle feel of appropriate contact with the mouth of a horse requires learning how to absorb the forward movement as a horse moves into your hands.

Here's a simple exercise. Push your hands down evenly against the mattress on your bed. No matter how hard or fast you slam your hands into the mattress you'll notice that you don't bang abruptly and painfully into the bed like you would if you tried this against a wall. Instead of a hard resistance there is a give in how the mattress absorbs your push. In this example, your arms and hands are simulating the body of the horse advancing into the hands of the rider/driver which, in this case, is the absorbing restraint of the mattress. Your mattress did not grab or pull you to it in the slightest. Your bed simply absorbed your advance with elasticity and this is what your horse needs from your contact with his or her mouth.

Long lining is an excellent training technique for both horse and rider that requires little financial investment.

Long lining is an excellent training technique for both horse and rider that requires little financial investment. A surcingle, a bridle with a plain snaffle bit and two cotton longe lines are all the equipment that is needed.

When learning how to long line I suggest you have a friend head your horse with a halter and lead rope over the bridle while you get into position standing behind your horse. Next, take all the slack out of the lines to the point where you can feel the horse and the horse can feel the presence of your hands. If your horse suddenly lifts its head up high, or starts backing up, then this is a sure sign that you went past the point of taking up the slack and the horse has felt you pulling back against its mouth. We want slack out of the lines without crossing that fine line into pulling back. Now, ask your friend to step forward and lead your horse but doing so with a loose lead rope. Now here's the trick: you need to stand still as your horse walks off. This is not as easy as it sounds so I'll repeat do not walk forward with your horse. Instead, simply allow your hands to be relaxed and open so that the horse is pulling the reins/lines through your fingers and out of your hand. Wait until the horse has taken two or three steps and then softly and gradually close your hands on the lines to disallow anymore slipping as you join in with your horse at the walk. Once walking, you will need to find and develop the perfect pace that neither inhibits your horse by walking too slow or allows unwanted turns from gaps as you walk too fast. The idea behind this exercise is to develop a feel for absorbing the forward movement of your horse softly into your hands.

Once your horse is moving, if it is wandering like a drunk and making unwanted turns, then you're most likely walking too fast which creates slack reins and thus, creates gaps in your boundaries from the bit. On the other hand, if your horse is inverted with its head up high, refusing to move forward, or walking sluggishly with its nose behind the vertical or behind the bit, then you are either walking too slowly or you're going fetal and pulling your hands and arms back into your body.

Once we have the movement of the horse absorbed into hands that block unwanted turns then the turns that we do indeed want are easy. To turn a horse right while long lining we simply give or decrease our left rein contact to allow or release a right turn. On the other hand, we decrease a little of our right rein contact to allow a left turn. It's really this simple: A horse in hand turns right by decreasing the block of the left rein and turns left by decreasing the block of the right rein. A word of caution: When people are learning to give or decrease their outside rein of a turn they most often tend to release way too much and cause the horse to overturn and go off track. This then triggers the human reflex to pull and fix or straighten the horse. Remember the physiology of a horse is such that its body and mind are one and the same so once we start pulling on our horses, all kinds of behaviour problems kick in. Simply put, the best behaved horses are most often in the best hands and the most poorly behaved horses are the ones getting pulled on. Hence the old saying "she's in good hands".

You can teach an old horse new tricks!PHOTO CAPTION:
You can teach an old horse new tricks! This 17 year old pony mare had a lifelong history of refusing to cross water. Being only 13 hands, Chris was too tall to ride her, so opted to long line her through her issues. Within minutes, the old gray mare was boldly going where she had never wanted to go before.

Another concern in long lining is the outside rein being held too tight against the outside hip and haunches of the horse. For instance, when giving your right rein to allow a left turn if you do not release enough contact your horse will feel bound and blocked not only in the bridle but also against its right hip. (If you're so inclined to allow the long lines to lay against the hips of the horse.) This is the main reason why horses learning to long line will sometimes refuse to turn. In the higher levels of long lining, you will see masters leave the outside rein against the haunches so that the line itself works like a rider's outside leg to hold the haunches on track, thereby blocking them from falling out of a turn. This is fine for upper-level horses but it can be too jamming for the younger, greener horses, and they will not want to move into the bit if they feel they can't turn because the line on their haunches is in the way. Remember, training before schooling; horses first need to learn how to turn by an outside rein giving before their turns are finished or packaged into the higher levels of more collected gymnastics.

For safety sake, it's a good idea to have a competent friend close by to help in case of an emergency and they should have a sharp, serrated knife with them to cut your horse loose of entangled lines if, God forbid, the worst should happen. Always use cotton or leather lines instead of nylon (to avoid burns to either you or your horse). Always wear gloves, use a D ring or full cheek snaffle instead of leveraged bits, and make sure you are not letting your lines drag behind you on the ground as they can too easily be stepped through/over, and you may find yourself tangled in a dangerous mess.

I would also recommend that you first practice your long lining on your easiest, safest, most reliable and forgiving horses and do so in a small, fully enclosed arena. In fact, as comical as it sounds, the easiest and safest horses to practice on are actually your human friends. Have them play the role of the horse and they can offer you valuable feedback as to whether they feel you pulling, holding too tight, or whether or not, you have gaps in your blocking contact. Once you have learned how to keep your friend and your easier horses between your hands and going exactly where you want, then begin to gradually work your way up to the more challenging horses and more open spaces. Until next month, happy trails and keep your horses in-hand.

Horse Articles Index
Like this article? Share it!  

  • Published:
By Continuing to use our site, you consent to our use of cookies to improve your experience. Learn more