We had the pleasure to talk to Lasse Kristensen from Denmark, an internationally well-known lunger. He told us how he started with vaulting and how he became the great coach and advanced lunger he is today. In this second part, we discussed with Lasse topics for advanced horse lunging.

Lasse is an ex-vaulter: He was an athlete at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Stockholm in 1990, and used to study sports in Denmark when he was a teenager.

He actually moved to Germany at the age of 17 years old to improve his vaulting skills for a year. Today Lasse Kristensen is a renowned lunger and coach, and he gave us his best tips for an advanced lunger level!

lasse kristensen
Photo: Daniel Ellwanger

No worries if you missed our first article about lunging basic: it is right here: Lasse Kristensen, the path of a top lunger – Part I .

What is your best advice for an advanced lunger? What are the most common mistakes you see at training and competitions?

Clear and understandable signals are the key for a good communication

“It is important to focus on what lungers miss or lack when giving their commands, their signals to the horse. I try to help by telling them that it is like a boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife – they cannot guess what you want from them. I often see a confused horse: he doesn’t know if he should trot faster or slower, or if he is sended out or if he needs to change his gait. You must have clear signals so the horse knows exactly what to do. This reflects how your horse is going to behave during a competition. if he trusts you and your signals, you have better chances to perform well.”

Don’t forget the horse on the way when competing

“I often hear people say “he is so good in the warm-up and training and then at competitions he is bad”. It is true that there are a lot of things going on at a competition. But if you forget him on the way, you will lose the connection. I usually say on the way you send your horse out on the circle, it is where you can communicate with the horse and keep good contact. The difference between a good lunger and a not so good lunger is, obviously,  the technique but also the personality. I mean if the lunger has the feeling for the horse. This makes a big difference if the horse can trust the person who is lunging because then he will think “I just have to listen to the person and it will be fine”.”

Why do many vaulting horses carry their head behind the vertical line? What can an advanced lunger do to correct this, getting collection at the same time? 

Support the horse in the canter

“It’s a really long journey, even for an advanced lunger. It is difficult to get the horse up and to get him carrying himself, with the nose a little bit in front of the vertical. Most of the work to get that result is about riding, working on the neck muscles. That means the horse has to be relaxed through the whole body, carry himself and hold the canter at the same time. This is easier to get as a rider than as a lunger because you can soften your hands and correct the horse easier. You can push a little from the back for instance. It is a little bit harder during lunging. I would say it’s easier to support the horse and hold the canter if they are a little bit under, it is not always bad actually.”

“I also look a lot above the muscle’s tendency: how the muscles are working and if they are hanging in the side reins. If it’s an unsymmetrical work, for instance if the lunger just holds the lunging line while the horse is just hanging there, it’s not good. So if I can see the horse’s muscles tightening, relaxing, shaking, then I am happy even if they are a little bit under.”

Play more with the reins

Sometimes it’s necessary to support the horse to carry himself, in a freestyle for example. Even advanced lungers could focus more on playing with the reins, instead of just putting the horse into hold or whatever you always do. I use draw reins during the warm-up and then change them to side reins. I personally change the side reins maybe four or five times before running into the arena at a competition. As an advanced lunger, I want to build up my horse, I do it by starting low, to get the engine going because the back is going well.

If I have the back going well and if I see a good energy from the horse, I then lift my side reins. I need a few basic things to be in order before running in. At first the energy, and the fact that the horse is working through his back. When that is accomplished, I can lift my side reins up, not before. When you get the horse up to carry himself in a higher collection, you are able to see the nose in a vertical line. This process goes hand in hand. I never know which holes I have my side reins on. I just force myself not to look, because that keeps me sharp looking and analyzing how the horse is working. The lunger wants the horse to show how much energy he has, so he can use this energy as an engine.”

Do you lunge differently during compulsories and freestyle? If yes, how? 

How an advanced lunger can adjust the horse to the vaulter and the situation

For compulsories the vaulters are able to accept more energy from the horse which together with a more collected canter gives a higher horse score. That means during compulsories we can have a slightly better canter. It also means that you can have the horse a little bit forward for compulsories. That applies especially to the more advanced vaulters since we can lift up the horse more.

There also is a difference between compulsories for individuals and squad. I know the horse can carry a higher canter if it is just one or two vaulters. If it is for a squad, I know the horse can’t hold that collected gait for such a long time. For most of the horses it’s simply too much to carry the neck higher and more collected. That means I have to lower the side reins a little bit to support the horse. I also have to make the horse a tiny bit longer because then he doesn’t drop down. That also depends on the vaulter of course. So I do sometimes change my ways depending on who the vaulter is up there.”

How can an advanced lunger correct a horse that is running to the outside? 

It’s a balance issue that takes time to get right

In theory, we use the outside rein to collect the horses so sometimes we have to have the horses bended on the circle, but at the same we try to keep them as straight as possible. That means we use the outside rein in order to shorten the horse’s body because it collects him. This way, you will get an inside leg a little bit forward. The canter also goes a little bit more uphill. 

If the horse isn’t leaning on it, it means he is pushing his shoulders to the inside, towards the lunger and in that way it means he is not turned, not in a good orientation. That can come from different reasons: it can be because of how the horse is physically built or that he voluntarily turned his shoulders. Your horse can also have a hard time because of the left hoof/legs are turned to the inside. If this hoof/leg is turned to the right, that can give him problems to get the shoulders in place.

When you are facing this situation, you need to get back to working on collection, in riding. You could do some side exercises where we bring the shoulder in, because it comes from there. I also have to mention that this is a natural way to move for young horses. It is a balance issue, it’s about balance and strength. So they need to become stronger and better to bend themselves on the circle. When you see them canter in that way you actually have to place the head a little bit to the upside. It takes time to get that shoulder in and get them in balance, especially for young horses.

Pushing out the shoulders

“I usually use the whip a little bit more to the shoulder when I face this problem. I also make smaller and bigger circles to train the horse to come in and put that shoulder right at the same time. On the left hand on a circle, your left hand should be out bending the shoulders by pulling slightly your horse. While holding your left hand this way, your right hand with the whip should be pushing the shoulder to turn. The important thing here is that the whip should not make the horse running forward. It just shows the way, like if your leg would show the way in riding, while your hands hold back. That is the trick.

Always question yourself, even as an advanced lunger

You work your horses and you think, “Why is he doing this and is it coming from this?” And yes, sometimes I think “I tried and I used all of it!” But, I believe you always have to try something new, and suddenly this new thing worked! Then the horse leaves me wondering “Why did that work? What was different with that horse? What happened here?”. This is to say, horses are not always the same, maybe you have in stock four or five tricks to try. If it’s not working, you need to think twice, and question yourself: “Why is that shoulder not in place? Why is he doing that?”. Then you start somewhere.

What are the most common injuries you see in vaulting horses?

One of the common problems I see is tension in the neck and in the back. But that isn’t actually a big issue because you can work your way out of it by getting a massage or taking a look at the saddle that is used. That can result from hanging in the side reins and on the lunger. And that means it is caused by muscle work. This also can get better if the horse can get lighter on the hand or react less to the lunger signals. When I work the horse through lunging I like to have 300 or 400 gr. of weight in my hand. 

The second most common injury we do see is that the right hind leg is slower in a way and we can see injuries on the left front leg. What is really important for the horses is that we have them working through their whole body. It is also important that they are not hanging on the lunge line. At last, we have to focus on the fact that they aren’t hanging on the side reins and have them cantering as much forward as possible. So a clean, good canter is to prefere.

Then you could move the weight a little bit backwards, but only as much as the horse’s body is able to work with. That means that the horse’s back is able to move. If we collect a horse too much or too fast, because it looks good, it leads to a back problem. Here you can create a back problem, or pain. As a consequence, you can also create a neck problem because of the tightening.

What do you do not to let the horse pull your lunging line?

Using a wall

The key is to work with that from the moment we start warming up the horses. I’m actually sometimes using the wall: I go down forward along the long sides of the arena for back exercises. Using the wall and keeping the horse from leaning on me from the beginning. So I show my horse that I want him to listen to my hand, but I don’t want him to balance on my hand.

Keeping a soft hand

“Once I get the right weight in my hand, I just have to remember to stay soft with my hand. Two things if you have a hard hand can happen: either the horse will come to the inside, not leaning on it or he will start hanging on it. Horses like soft hands. I really have to tell my horse: “This is the amount of weight I like to have in my hand”. The problem is in riding I can have more weight in my hands because being behind the horse, that’ll be ok. But because we are at a 90 degrees’ angle during lunging, if you have too much weight in the hand, the horse’ shoulders have an easy time to fall to the outside. As a consequence, the hind and the back are falling to the outside. Then the horse is not straight on the circle.

Searching for balance

As an advanced lunger I want my horse to balance himself, so I can find the signal to remind them to canter and prepare them for whatever comes from the vaulter. That is the reason why I want to have the lunging line on one finger. So I am able to communicate with the horse, to prepare him for what exercise is coming. As an example, I can give this message: “be careful, come a little bit more” with the whip hand.  At the same time, that means we are not bringing tension in the neck muscles. It is about a lot of warm up exercises and working with your left hand or even both hands. The horses really have to get off and learn not to lean on you or the reins.

What do you think about bitless bridle versus bridle with bit?

Sometimes it is just necessary. Some horses react to the bit sometimes, and it can be because of the weight, the tongue, the mouth. They are just not comfortable with it. I try to come back to the bit sometimes because I am losing some of my tools for instance. I can do some corrections of small signals with just a finger, but sometimes you need the bit, even as an advanced lunger. When horses don’t like the bit it is often linked to problems somewhere else. They are hanging on the hand, or the lunger’s hand is too hard, too rough. 

So if we get that right first, it will probably be ok with the bit, as we know half of the issues are lunging issues, or training issues of the horse. In case I lose a little bit of contact, I might try to come back to the bit. Somehow, sometimes you need to do it until the horse is comfortable again. Or on the contrary, after being better trained, you might come back to it. You can also combine it with a bit from the side reins and then you have the cavesson for the lungeline. So there are a lot of combinations here.

How, when and where do you teach lunging?

For 5 years now, I am actually going a lot to Switzerland, Austria, Holland and even to the USA. I am going to many clinics, but I can also work from home with people visiting. But I must say that time has always been a problem here: between work, competitions and clinics sometimes it’s complicated. Nevertheless, I love to help people with lunging. It is a big passion for me, especially if the lungers come with the will to learn. It is also interesting for me to see how we can solve these horses’ issues. Why is the horse doing what he does? How can we make them better horses?

At home, people can take lessons with my horses. It is easier to do it with my own horses, as they react well, right away. If it is a person willing to work on the lunging technique or hands, it is also easy to learn this way.

Madeleine Wickström