Way too often I hear people refer to lunging when actually talking about circling. It's a common mistake, but an important one not to make, as there is a huge difference between correct lunging and what I'm going to for simplicity sake call "circling".
In effort to clear up some misconceptions I want to clarify the differences between lunging and circling for anyone interested, but I will not be explaining how to teach a horse to do one or the other. This is more or less a "What & Why" article so you, as a horse handler or enthusiast, can be more educated on the differences and how they impact your horse.
There are many methods and theories out there that use words such as "lunging for respect" or the idea that circling/lunging is to be used to tire a horse out physically so it will behave better, but when you really address the science behind horse training you can start looking past the misconceptions and the misuses to find both the faults and the true benefits to lunging and/or circling. Personally I prefer lunging, for a whole slew of reasons that I will address in a moment, but whether you're using a training rope or a lunge line it all boils down to what you train and how you approach it.
First, let's start off explaining some of the similarities between the two. Both circling and lunging are trained using either, the most common form, negative reinforcement or, in some cases, positive reinforcement. This means that both circling and lunging require the use of operant conditioning to train the horse to move around you in a circular way, and with the use of trained verbal or physical cues (that also require operant conditioning) different "levels" of the behavior can be taught.
Whether you are lunging or circling you can train and require criteria as simple as just "run around me" or something far more advanced such as collection, lateral work, and so on. This is also true for roundpen work, which is another form of the same idea and can either fit into a "circling" category or "lunging" type category, but I will address round penning in another article.
Both lunging and circling require communication between handler and horse, they require sensitivity to cues and coordination from both handler and horse. Also, they can both be used to successfully warm up a horse before a ride both mentally and physically.. or... tire a horse out. They can both be used in a harmful way and a helpful way, but one is far more likely to be helpful and the other more likely to be harmful in my opinion.
When lunging a horse correctly the horse should be on a circular path that is large enough for the horse to maintain balance, you can gradually increase difficulty by asking the horse to "circle in" or "circle out" (shrinking or growing the circle) while maintaining balance. The focus is on the quality of gaits, helping the horse improve the length and power in the stride while maintaining this balance and not rushing the horse. The goal is to build correct muscle and/or warm up the horse for the upcoming workout by not just running them around in circles but mentally engaging them and helping stretch their muscles before adding weight to their backs. Lunging can also be used as a workout all on its own, over ground poles and cavellits is a great way to change up the daily routine while benefiting the horse physically and mentally.
The most common issue I see with lunging is handlers just running their horses around in a large circle to tire them out. This to me isn't lunging, this is actually what I would consider "circling" but perhaps on a much larger circle than would be commonly seen in a format such as a natural horsemanship program. Correct lunging should never be about tiring the horse out or having the horse run around rushed and panicked but rather recreating the same actions you would want to ride. When you utilize lunging in a beneficial way you can do almost anything you can do in the saddle, but on the ground.
Circling on the other hand has a strong tendency to be something very different from lunging. Circling is often taught under the impression that it develops a sense of "respect" for the handler, when in reality respect has nothing to do with the size of the circle or the equipment or the way it's trained. I have in fact seen "well done" circling, but it's very rare and even then doesn't offer the same benefits that correct lunging does in my opinion. Due to the smaller size of the circle and the focus on the horse's immediate and "respectful" attentiveness to cues, circling often creates a highly stressed and very unbalanced horse. Developing a type of movement and behavior you wouldn't actually want to ride.
There is no focus on the quality of the gait, relaxation, or balance, and often I see horses running around with their head far to the inside while their body is falling out or the opposite as they try and keep their balance at a rushed pace, heads in the air usually.
Often with circling the form of training used is heavily negative and usually develops responsiveness out of fear of correction. But, like I said before, I have in fact seen it done well and I've even seen it taught with positive reinforcement. In both cases though there still remains a sense of stress which I believe may be caused by the constant state of unbalance. So, while I personally prefer positive reinforcement to negative reinforcement, the stress during this type of behavior (circling) has less to do with the form of operant conditioning or the application of it, but rather the physical and mental requirement itself.
To give you a visual on the difference lunging can offer from circling I have a couple of videos and pictures to share. First, I want to show you an example of circling that is like what a lot of natural horsemanship type training uses. Other "categories" of training use it as well, but I think most people are familiar with the natural horsemanship's use of circling. This video was sent to me by a follower, and personally I find this example to be one of the more balanced and relaxed examples of circling I've seen, but I still notice a strong difference between this kind of work versus lunging.
When watching this horse work I notice a couple things right off the bat. The horse is expressing some stress and anxiety as it's questioning what the handler wants, especially at the end there is a noticeable release of stress through lip licking. Mostly what I notice though is this horse's lack of balance and lack of freedom to stretch or engage it's hind end due to the small circle.
Going to the left when the horse is closer to the camera its head is far to the inside while the shoulder is thrown outwards, and when the horse is away from the camera you can see the shift in movement and the head is out while the shoulders fall in.
Going to the right the balance stays more throughout the circle, but still remains off balance. The horse is not rushing, but it's also not using it's body well as the circle is too small to allow for the horse to maintain sufficient balance while stretching over the topline and engaging its back and hind end. For the horse to be able to stretch and relax it would have to make its body even more crooked, but since the horse is both off balance and expressing some anxiety this is not going to be possible for the horse.
Using this small of a working space with these training tools and this set of criteria for the horse all the circling is accomplishing is attentiveness from the horse (potentially in an undesirable way), less work for the handler (since the handler remains still throughout the circle), encouraging a lack of balance, and incorrect muscle development.
Now, before I go on to "lunging", I want to express that stress and unbalance is also extremely common in lunging, especially when horses are just "set loose" to run rapid large circles around the handler until they are too tired to run anymore. For this reason, like mentioned before, I'm also categorizing that type of lunging as circling too, just on a larger circle. Instead, what I want to show you in this article is correct lunging, or lunging used to its fullest potential and for the horse's benefit.
In this video below the horse is relaxed and the focus is on balance and quality of movement rather than tiring the horse or gaining "respect". You can see the horse is working long and low (stretching), her body is relaxed and engaged, she is showing no signs of stress, and her body is remaining balanced throughout the circle; she's also extremely responsive, responding to body language as well as verbal cues.
From this basic large circle we can begin to work on more advanced transitions, such as walk to canter, we can work on maintaining balance on gradually smaller or larger circles, we could even work on straight lines by moving forward out of the circle on a straightaway, and lateral work can also begin from this circle. Pole work, small jumps, collection, extension, stretching, engagement, relaxation, and even changes of direction are possible with this type of ground work.
Also, if I really wanted to, I could train her to work in this way while I remained stationary in the center of the circle, but I find that restricts my ability to actively engage and work with her or to assist her. It's not a matter of respect or lessening the work for the human, it's all about what is most beneficial to the horse's training and well being. Responsiveness, balance, relaxation, and active engagement are all about patient, consistent, and correct training... it's not about respect and it's not really about the circle size either but you can clearly see how smaller circles, certain equipment, and certain training methods could negatively impact the horse's ability to achieve optimal physical and mental participation.
When I watch a horse working on a lunge line I always ask myself these questions, "Would I want to ride that? Does it have potential to develop correct under-saddle work? Is the horse balanced and relaxed?" If the answer is yes to those questions then we are on the right path, if the answer is no to any one of those questions then I know we are missing a step in our training or working towards an undesirable goal.
At the end of the day I want to see a quiet, relaxed, stress-free, engaged, forward moving, and attentive horse whether it's under-saddle, on the lunge line, in the round pen, or at liberty. The goals shouldn't change depending on what equipment you are using or where you are positioned in relation to the horse. If the equipment or the method I'm using isn't achieving all of those goals, then it's probably time to rethink what I'm doing.
I don't have any information available at this time in regards to how I train a horse to lunge, but I do have this video available to anyone interested in how I teach my horses to lunge in a relaxed, forward and engaged way. If you're interested, click here.