It's no secret I use Natural Horsemanship with all my horses, to which I often get the question - well, isn't the Circle Game (Parelli) the same as longeing? Short answer: not necessarily. Long answer: snuggle up in a blanket and grab a bag of popcorn. Warning: this may be long.
The Circle Game has many uses, but it is always kept to a min 2, max 4 laps. >4 laps and it becomes just mindless circling, unless the circling has a specific purpose to it (ie, spiraling in and out, as one example). <2 laps and you are ineffective. The Circle Game is actually an extension of the three "foundation" games in the 7 Games: the Friendly Game, the Porcupine Game, and the Driving Game. The Friendly Game is designed to earn a horse's trust, teach said horse to follow your leadership, and desensitize them to various situations and objects. The Porcupine Game is designed to teach the horse to move away from pressure and to become lighter, more responsive. Finally, the Driving Game is meant to enable a person to earn a horse's respect. Horses "drive" one another out in pasture all the time - he who moves his feet the least commands the highest level of respect. So the Circle Game incorporates a bit of Driving Game (horse is "driven" around a circle) as well as Friendly Game (do as I say please, but trust I will not hurt you). It teaches a horse "responsibility" (do whatever task I've assigned to you until I say otherwise - in this case, circle until I ask otherwise), respect (move out when I ask), and of course the obvious: it teaches a horse balance and to move more efficiently, to think rather than react, and it helps a horse warm and loosen up prior to a ride. Eventually, as you progress a horse through the levels, the Circle Game is extended upon in various forms, including having him circle at liberty. In such a way though, the Circle Game becomes just that - a game. A game that allows you to connect with a horse, to get a horse thinking, and to create a well-rounded partner overall (when used in conjunction with all the other work you do, as a piece of the giant puzzle).
Now, back to mindless circling, *ahem* I mean, *cough* longeing. Longeing certainly can be equated to the Circle Game, when it is used correctly. When it is used to get a horse thinking as well as for its physical benefits. I have watched people (yes, even professionals) longe their horses for an hour straight (also talking on the phone!), their horse digging a rut in the arena, and I have seen people desperately longe their horse for 30 minutes just so they could tire the horse out enough, take that edge off, to be able to ride said horse. Guess what that's doing guys? You're making your horse fitter! So next time, you are going to have to longe longer. And longer. And longer. Until you're longeing for an hour just so you can get on and ride your horse for 30 minutes. As someone with two extremely high energy horses myself (including a OTTB who absolutely loves to run), I have to say: there's another way. Figure out a way to channel all that energy. Establish the type of partnership (whether it be through classical methods, John Lyons, Clinton Anderson, Pat Parelli - whatever it may be) where your horse follows your leadership and uses his energy efficiently rather than using it to fight you. Mindless circling really is doing nothing for your horse. Except perhaps predispose him to leg injury and unsoundness.
Now, longeing can be used correctly. If it causes your horse to learn and to think. If it is used as an additional gymnastic exercise for your horse, for him to learn how to carry himself efficiently and for him to warm up his muscles, it's beneficial to your horse. As a side note: longeing your horse with side reins to "force" him into a frame is not beneficial longeing; this is not to say however that side reins may not be used correctly. I feel in the right hands, with the right horse and with the right intention and purpose, they can be - just not as a means of forcing the horse into a frame (which I see a lot). Collection, relaxation, suppleness - all this can and should come naturally, with some help on the rider's part to encourage it then further refine it. To get back on track though, mindless circling is just that - mindless. Your horse doesn't learn, and he doesn't have to think - he's simply running the flight pattern of a prey animal. What are some ways to cause your horse to think while longeing? Transitions - between gaits and within gaits. Changes in direction (this is a huge respect-earning task as well) - at the w/t/c (including flying leads eventually). Having him spiral in and out while holding a particular gait. Having him negotiate obstacles or patterns, including cavelleti and groundpoles. Have him disengage his hindquarters. Using the line as a safety net rather than to hold your horse to you. Keep the circling minimal and as a physical and mind exercise rather than to burn off that excess edge.
One last point: for those of you who do not allow your horse to play on the longe line. First off, if your horse is in a stall or even if he is kept outside but he cannot run or play (ie. too icy, not sufficient space, too muddy, too hot, etc) - where else is he supposed to play? Secondly, your horse is working for you and this is supposed to be a partnership, right? So why is it always about you - why can't your horse play a little? Make it about him and you, and allow him some freedom of expression (liberty work is especially great for this). Better yet, if you can, turn him loose in the arena. During one of our recent-ish sessions, I did this with Link, our Thoroughbred. For whatever reason *roll eyes* (lol) he saved his Horses Gone Wild episode for the arena rather than his pasture of several acres. He just couldn't seem to settle down and concentrate in the arena, so I turned him loose. He tore around for a solid 10 minutes before returning to me, ready for work (and he was!). Sometimes they need an outlet too! If this is a partnership, we have to consider our horses' wants and needs as well. If you sufficiently earn their trust and respect in a session and you act like an appropriate leader, they start tuning in to you anyway, and focus on the task at hand rather than playing (besides, working with a horse should be 'play' anyway!). In my experience, there is no negative impact in turning a horse loose in the arena or allowing them to play on the longe. If you develop a solid partnership with that horse where you have a high level of respect, trust, and willingness, they will work their butts off for you regardless. It is not about nitpicking the little things - it is about the bigger picture (though certainly the little things count, but you have to learn what counts and what does not).
Don't say I didn't warn you it would be long! So, back to the original website that earned its spot in this blog: Longeing Do's and Dont's by Barb Crabbe, DVM. Article info in italics, my comments in green.
Do: Maintain control. Teach your horse to stand quietly on the circle, then walk off quietly when you ask. If you can't control him in a halter, use a stud chain, longeing cavesson, or bridle to help keep his feet on the ground. If he flies crazily around the circle, leaping and bucking as he goes, he's likely to strain tendons and ligaments or injure himself some other way. His uncontrolled behavior can be dangerous for you, too. If he kicks as he charges out to the circle, he puts you at risk for serious injury.
I think we've already indirectly dealt with Do #1, particularly in my preceding paragraph. Besides, how do you "maintain control"? I get the feeling this is more about "forcing" control than about "creating" and developing a controlled situation through a calm horse who wants to work with you. I have to point out too that if you have to resort to a stud chain to "control" your horse, you've got a problem - take note. That stud chain is allowing the illusion of control, but ultimately that's a 1,200lb animal - no chain is going to stop it from getting out of hand. It may work temporarily, but a) you are only breeding resentment (just ask Link!), and b) it's a band-aid solution to an underlying problem. Take note that if you are using a stud chain for a specific situation with a specific horse (to keep yourself safe), that it should be a temporary aid as you develop the horse to the point where it is no longer necessary. If he flies crazily around the circle, you've got more work to do hun! So to that extent, the author has a point. Horses should be allowed to express themselves, but we can teach them to think and thus to be calmer, braver, smarter horses who aren't flying crazily around the circle.
Don't: Longe your horse without leg protection. Traveling on a longeing circle increases your horse's risk of interfering (contact between his front and hind legs), which can cause injury. Outfit him in splint boots or wraps before every longeing session.
Don't #1, well that's your choice (refer to Sunday's blog on leg protection). My opinion is that we tend to over-protect and, specifically, over-boot our horses.
Do: Mind the footing. Longe in an area with soft, even footing where your horse won't be at risk for injury. Avoid heavy, deep, or uneven footing. All it takes is one bad step to cause a serious tendon or ligament injury, and on a longeing circle it's hard to avoid holes or other footing hazards.
I certainly agree that one wants to watch the footing, particularly with young, undeveloped horses - footing that is too deep causes excess strain on tendons and ligaments, as does footing that is concrete and jars your horse's legs. On the other hand, uneven footing? Perhaps not as a daily activity, but uneven footing - including trot poles or hills, can teach a horse to really watch his feet. On a longeing circle, if your horse is still thinking (as opposed to reacting), he should have no problem avoiding holes or obstacles (not that you should be working over holes though!). I'm of the school that while we should take our horses' best interests to heart, we don't need to baby them by always ensuring they are on the perfect footing - you want them on the best footing possible, but this does not necessarily always mean plush, even arena footing. Leave it as your horse's responsibility to figure out his feet and negotiate around obstacles (within reason).
Don't: Longe on too small a circle. A small circle makes it hard for your horse to stay balanced, making him much more likely to stress his lower legs or become injured. And never longe on on a circle that's small enough to put you in kicking range.
Don't longe on too small a circle for your specific horse. If your horse has developed sufficient balance, by all means, work him on a small circle - spiral him in and out, even. Just not excessively (ie, endless circles) - that is too much stress on his legs. If you're worried about getting into kicking range of your horse - you've got other things to worry about! Like, y'know, your horse not liking you.
Don't: Longe your youngster too long. Avoid sessions longer than 15 minutes, if your horse is 2 years old or younger. He's still unbalanced and not fully developed, so he's more at risk for damaging joints, tendons, and ligaments than an older, full-grown horse.
Avoid purely longeing more than 15 minutes with any horse! Careful that the time you are spending is a learning experience, as opposed to mindless circles.
Do: Make the most of short longeing sessions. Focus primarily on the process. Spend 10 to 15 minutes teaching your 2-year-old to walk quietly, halt, and perhaps trot a circle or two. This focus on the basics will go a long way toward helping you maintain control as he grows older.
Groundwork will greatly benefit you and your horse (of any age) - it can mean the difference between a successful partnership and an unsuccessful one.