We had the pleasure to talk to Lasse Kristensen from Denmark, an international and well-known lunger. He told us how he started with vaulting and how he became the great coach and lunger he is today. In this first part, we discussed with Lasse topics for beginners to intermediate lungers. You will also find some interesting information and advice if you are starting a vaulting club or training a new horse!

Lasse Kristensen 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. 

“I wanted to become a good vaulter. So I went down to Mühlacker. And at that time I got really interested in lunging! A few times earlier I had been to lunging clinics in Germany.”

Lasse Kristensen vaulting on Dona, and Carsten Skov as a lunger.

After this year in Germany, Lasse Kristensen came back home to Denmark with a clear idea in his mind: he wanted to become a coach, a lunger. Thanks to his close relationships with the vaulting community in Germany, he entered the vaulting/coaching school in Hohenhameln in Germany (closeby Hannover) a bit later on. To be able to take the test, Lasse learned how to speak German, of course. 

“I think I was the only foreigner at the time, the only – not German – so I was really happy at that time to get in that school. That really got me interested in lunging, coaching and I somehow felt it was something I really enjoyed, that I had the feeling for it.”

Lasse Kristensen, in addition of being a lunger, has also been a rider for many years. We can say he is a kind of all-in-one vaulting person: 

“So that was how I got started, really, lunging. I had a background in riding too. So it kind of made sense – vaulting, gymnastics, coaching, lunging.”

What do you like about being a lunger and competing?

“It’s funny to me when non vaulting people ask me what is my job: you know they always say you’re just holding a line with the horse from the middle of the circle, but honestly I don’t tell them what I do because they don’t understand. Actually, for me it is really exciting to run into the arena and to be able to balance the horse under the vaulter! I mean, I’ve prepared the horse at home for what is coming so he is able to carry the vaulter and do a proper job. Sometimes when I am a little bit behind the horse, that means I need to do some corrections about balance, tact, or rythm, so I’m not happy with myself. Whereas when you are lunging during a competition with a perfectly balanced horse, it’s a great feeling! A person I know once said

The lunger has to be the rock in the middle for the vaulter

I am really trying to be like that. In fact, I’ve always believed that if you’re doing tricks on the horse, you have to trust the lunger, who is supposed to do the right thing at the right second: not driving the horse forward in the wrong second, in a jump for instance.”

Photo: Daniel Ellwanger / Lasse Kristensen & Sheena Bendixen at CHIO Aachen 2019

What are the most important qualities/attributes a good lunger needs?

The feeling for it

“Sometimes when I come up to a lunging clinic and I have a feeling that the person has the feeling for it, I mean when you can see that this person is able to look at the close future and is almost reading the horse mindset. Or when the person can notice a bit of lack of muscles here and there, so the person is supporting the horse and acting early enough. Sometimes, I can see that even before a correction is needed: you are slightly putting the horse back so you are a little bit in front of the horse. Some people never really get and learn that. It seems they are always a little bit too late. They don’t really see what I’m describing. So if you have the feeling, the intuition, that is something you can actually see from outside!”

The technique

“The other thing, I would say half of it, is the lunging ‘hand’. The feeling of coordination of your hand. And some people really have the ability to feel the horse, and at the same time, they can also correct the horse properly. Let’s say that there is the technique and the feeling for it. Some people have a hard time learning that and for some others it just comes naturally and goes really fast.”

The mentality

“I think the mentality of the lunger is also really important because if you have a lunger that gets stressed and nervous too much it’s really difficult for the vaulter to go up there and do a freestyle. So I think the mentality is a big key to be successful as a lunger.”

Do you ever feel stressed during a competitions or during lunging?

“Yes, I do get stressed and I do get nervous but in a good way, so it’s also exciting in a way.  I enjoy it honestly. I enjoy the challenge, the excitement going on there and of course when you are running in there with a horse that you have control of! Nevertheless, when things go wrong, when you don’t feel you control your horse, when he’s not there with you, when he’s nervous it’s not fun at all: you wonder what to do, how to act, if you should stop everything and when to pull the plug…

Usually I am not very nervous about individuals because there are so fast. If they feel there is something already coming up with the horse they can save themselves really well. But in squad freestyle, if the horse reacts, it’s much longer before the vaulters finish. And I’m always more cautious, nervous and careful somehow in a squad freestyle. It is a very big responsibility I think we have as a lunger.”

As a lunger, what are you looking for when choosing a vaulting horse?

A good mentality 

“The mentality is really the key because it doesn’t really matter if you have a beautiful horse with a beautiful gait. When choosing a horse for high level, I always think of the CHIO Aachen. Because the competition in Aachen is so stressful for the horses. So I always think: if I don’t believe the horse can go to Aachen in the future it doesn’t help. It doesn’t matter how good and great and beautiful the horse is.

I have had a few horses here the last past year where I had to give up because the mentality was just not strong enough. The basic mindset of a horse… you can only change it a little bit. So in that way, we can always train the physical skills – you can change the canter, you can change the gait, with good training, with good dressage, good riding, good lunging. But the mental part is where I find it the hardest to change a lot. It has to be there. If it’s not there I walk to the next horse, if I don’t believe in the horse.”

Willingness to work

“Another very important part in a vaulting horses workout is the willingness to work. When I am looking at a horse that is not lazy, has the willingness to go and having interest in working, that’s also a good point. Because if you have a horse that is too lazy, he will always hold back somehow and that makes it really hard for the vaulters to trust their horse and they think: What is going to happen the next stride in a jump, a turn or in a spin?

I remember in the old day’s I had some lazy horses, so you had to use the whip a lot more and right now I like to have horses that really want to listen and react on small signals, such as a finger move or small signals of the whip so they stay in the same beat, in the same speed. This actually takes a horse’s willingness to work! So I would say I’m looking for an active horse, with a strong mentality, and interest in working, because that also makes the fun of it.”

The canter

“I focus a lot on canter because it is our biggest interest for equestrian vaulting. How much elastic energy is the horse using by himself? How easy is it for him? So that is what I am looking for: how good is the canter. I don’t always want a big canter because it takes too much energy for the horse. The risk is that the horse is not lasting long enough in terms of stamina. I could also be hard to be collected in this case. For individuals it’s possible to do something out of a big canter, but for squads you can’t: you need strenght more than amplitude.

In my opinion, with a smaller but stronger canter the horse has an easier time and they can resist the effort better, so it’s easier to train them. To summarize, I don’t want huge gaits, as it’s too hard to work with especially in lower levels and squads. In the meantime, it can be great if you have beginners or vaulters that are having a hard time with cantering, because they can use the canter. It’s quite interesting if you have that, and fun!

You also need to take into account that some moves such as the needle can look pretty thanks to the horse’s gait, or it can look worse, like if the vaulter was in trot.

Regarding the gender a good vaulting horse can be a mare or a gelding, I have both.”

How long does it take for a vaulting horse to become really great? 

A good foundation

”At first you have to get them ready mentally and physically. To educate a vaulting horse from scratch, it means the horse has not been ridden and then it takes a long time. The basics are a minimum of being ridden for two years before we start with lunging, in order to build up muscles and to get the horse used to that kind of work. If we start too quickly, the risk of injuries on the way up is increasing.” 

Give them time

“I learned over the years to be more patient and take my time. I often have seen people buying a riding horse, let’s say 8 or 10 years of age and then you turn them into a vaulting horse and he is amazing! People may think and say:

‘We have had this horse for 1-3 months and we brought him to a competition after a month and a half, and he did great’!

People are impressed, but suddenly the horse goes downhill and that actually happens quite a lot. It also happened to me. The increase of training, if what we ask from the horse goes too fast, can lead to suddenly dropping down. Somehow they lose trust with the lunger and vaulting itself because they don’t know what it is. So it’s like a steep uphill, the horse is doing great, and then the curve goes fast down and it takes at least half a year to bring the horse back up again. Especially if the horse lost that trust: when they usually run a little bit away, they may be bucking, they are reacting, and they can’t cope with vaulting anymore.” 

Some learn fast

“If you have an ideal horse, it means he is really well prepared, that his mentality is strong enough and also that he has experience in competition. You can actually get that result in six months, which I have done. Nevertheless, many other times and when you force it, it really takes a long time. If you go too far too fast it will take longer. I also must say that it is so different from a horse to another one actually. But sometimes it takes years before a horse is ready.” 

How do you think the sport can create interest for lunging to get more lungers?

The role of federations 

“I think vaulting people have to understand that there is so much into it, to get the horse going well. You don’t really see that when looking at a person standing in the middle of a circle with a line and a whip. In addition you don’t see how much you actually can influence the horse. I think we have to create federations to offer lunging clinics in a systematic way, to offer education in lunging. That would help our sport healthwise with horse education and help vaulting people to train young horses because it is a really difficult job. I hope federations will help the sport growing in that way.”

Teamwork makes the dream work

“I do say if you have a good lunger, you have a chance to get your horse educated. If you have a good horse you have the chance to become a great vaulter. But if you don’t have a good horse, if you don’t have a good lunger, you don’t have anything. You can be a barrel champ’!”

Education is the key to raise interest in lunging

“First of all, It is very different to lunge a trained horse than starting from scratch with a new one. For the second mentioned, more education is needed. I think if we all offer education in lunging and it’s paying off, then people can take pride in it. Though it is important to understand that people need to try it before they find interest in lunging. The lunger is an important key for the vaulter, because a good horse together with a good lunger have a chance of success. Also this applies to having a good coach, of course. 

Without a doubt, I strongly believe we have to give much more importance to lunging, it is much more than just holding a horse. Invite people to lunging clinics and you will create interest.”

What can the vaulter do to highlight a good vaulting horse?

Harmony is key

“We really have to think about harmony with the horse. Even for my best individual, harmony is still the essence. And we spend a lot of time working on that harmony because it keeps the horses happy and it keeps them well. Harmony is the key from the vaulter. If you have a squad, you can notice when one of your vaulters is jumping up somewhere and suddenly, the horse is going forward by himself. When, the next vaulter is coming up and is sitting a little against, or standing on the toes for instance, and now you have to push the horse to keep going forward. It matters a lot to watch which squad member you see and adapt with the horse’s behaviour. The horse can love a vaulter just depending on the way she or he is vaulting: how hard or soft is the landing, stuff like that.” 

Get balance first, and then you will get harmony

“I think what the vaulters really have to train is balance. As a coach, I ask them to do a lot of trot exercises during the warm-up, such as standing to absorb the motion. The key work is absorbing the motion so the horse can move freely. Vaulters should definitely build their programs in a realistic way around the horse and wonder if the horse is able to manage the exercise, and evaluate when he ready for it. If vaulters don’t do so, the risk is that their horse could start hating it and getting tight, upset. We see that a lot unfortunately, because we sometimes have too much focus on the vaulter and not enough on the horse. Balance and harmony can give us, horse-lunger-vaulter, a much better result.” 

What do you answer to the typical objections from other disciplines?

Damaging the arena

“We lunge a lot at the arena I train at and honestly if you let the horse race around without control, yes, you ruin the footing. Comparing to riders lunging, vaulting people don’t ruin it so I honestly don’t agree with that statement. In vaulting lunging is always in control. What is important to think about is to protect the layers which you can do by moving and not standing at the same place the whole time. You can also move your circles a little bit in and out, half a meter or so and then it is not an issue anymore.”

Lunging is not good for the horse

“I think comparing to riding horses we don’t have more injuries in vaulting. That is my impression. It is important to understand that vaulting horses actually aren’t working hard. A vaulting horse is not doing a tough job compared to a dressage horse in maximum strength and so on. That is true if the horse is in balance and being lunged at 17-18 meters. Of course, it is also important not to pull on the side reins or through the lunging line.

We have had vaulting horses that were old and have been vaulting for 12 years. If you do a good lunging job and train them properly, it’s not harder. It’s actually the opposite since we see a lot of old vaulting horses who have lasted for many, many years. But as it is with riding, we have to do it right. If you do a poor job they don’t last. And I think that’s true for most of them if they don’t have an injury on the field or something similar. I think vaulting is not as hard as people think it is for horses.” 

You don’t need an expensive sport horse

“That depends on the level of vaulting of course. We have everything: simple horses that do kids vaulting, because they are not moving very much. We need this kind of horses or ponies so kids can make mistakes, because they will make them since they are beginners. Those can be plain riding school horses. It’s the same when you learn riding – you need a horse that is not moving too much to learn riding. But when you want to win a dressage competition then you need a horse with huge gaits. And if you have huge gaits a beginner cannot sit on it. We need good, simple horses in vaulting.

Nevertheless, you have to consider it is harder now to go with a low class horse on big competitions then it has been years ago. They have to have a certain gait, they have to move in a certain way to go win the world championships and have to be able to canter and balance themselves. It’s still possible, but you will find it’s getting harder.”

If you want to learn more about Lasse Kristensen and get some advice for advanced lungers, don’t miss the second part of this blog post, we have more to share!

Madeleine Wickström