The Risks and Ben­e­fits of Longe­ing

Dressage Today - - Dressage Health - By Joseph F. Davis, Jr., DVM

Longe­ing has long been a method of train­ing the dres­sage horse that al­lows him to learn new skills with­out the dis­trac­tion of a rider. Con­versely, it’s also a way to train or ex­er­cise an ex­u­ber­ant or phys­i­cally ex­pres­sive horse with­out put­ting a rider at risk, of­ten with the idea that after a short pe­riod of leap­ing on the longe line, the horse will then be safe to ride. Although there are cer­tain ad­van­tages and pur­poses of longe­ing, there are a few con­sid­er­a­tions to keep in mind.

In the in­stance of longe­ing a horse to al­low him to re­lease ex­cite­ment be­fore be­ing safely rid­den, there is a po­ten­tial risk to the horse. Leap­ing on the longe line pro­vides op­por­tu­nity for in­jury, ei­ther by a mis­placed step, fall­ing down or, oc­ca­sion­ally, by get­ting away from the han­dler. While these things hap­pen, I think they are rare. Another pos­si­ble side-ef­fect of longe­ing is that in cer­tain cases, it in­duces ex­cite­ment rather than cre­at­ing a calm­ing ef­fect.

Longe­ing car­ries another po­ten­tial path to lame­ness if done ex­ces­sively, as small cir­cles place in­creased stress on the lower joints in the limb. While it more com­monly is a prob­lem in the show-hunter world, I have seen longe­ing cause syn­ovi­tis in fet­locks and dig­i­tal ten­don sheaths in young dres­sage prospects when it was used as the pri­mary source of ex­er­cise for a horse.

While the risks of acute in­jury or chronic de­gen­er­a­tive change are real, my ex­pe­ri­ence has been that bad out­comes for dres­sage horses after longe­ing are rare. An in­ter­est­ing ques­tion­naire-based epi­demi­o­log­i­cal study pub­lished in 2010 seems to sup­port that view. Ti­tled “Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Risk Fac­tors for Lame­ness in Dres­sage Horses,” it found that if the re­spon­dent re­ported his or her horse re­ceived “reg­u­lar longe­ing ex­er­cise,” an episode of lame­ness was 20 per­cent less likely to oc­cur than if longe­ing was not a reg­u­lar part of train­ing. I wouldn’t con­clude from that study that longe­ing is a vi­tal part of ev­ery dres­sage horse’s ex­er­cise, but I would con­clude that longe­ing as typ­i­cally used in dres­sage train­ing (i.e., mod­er­ately as a sup­ple­ment to rid­ing, on up to 18-me­ter cir­cles when used to calm an ex­u­ber­ant horse, smaller cir­cles when the horse is bal­anced, but never smaller than 12 me­ters in di­am­e­ter over longer pe­ri­ods of time) does not sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease the oc­cur­rence of lame­ness.

In the course of my work as an equine vet­eri­nar­ian, longe­ing is a tool we use to ob­serve a horse mov­ing freely on a cir­cle in a semi-con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment with­out the weight of a rider. It al­lows us to eval­u­ate back move­ment, flight of the limbs, etc., and in a ma­jor­ity of the cases that in­volve fore­limb lame­ness, it ac­cen­tu­ates the lame­ness, which is help­ful di­ag­nos­ti­cally.

I have also found some use for longe­ing as a ther­a­peu­tic tool. Longe­ing with a spe­cial sys­tem, such as a cham­bon or de­gogue, can be a phys­i­cal-ther­apy ad­junct to med­i­cal ther­apy for horses with back pain. After med­i­cal treat­ment and with­out the weight of a rider, the horse can be helped by longe­ing to at­tain bet­ter back mo­bil­ity and func­tion. How­ever, I ad­vise clients to use longe­ing sys­tems only if you are an ex­pe­ri­enced rider or have su­per­vi­sion from an ex­pe­ri­enced trainer, as you can also cause dam­age to the horse if used in­cor­rectly.

As in all things with horses, judg­ment is key and mod­er­a­tion is usu­ally best. By min­i­miz­ing ex­huber­ant be­hav­ior (by us­ing a calm voice, try­ing to keep the horse at a walk for a while or in­creas­ing the amount of turnout) and keep­ing the du­ra­tion of any one ses­sion rel­a­tively short, longe­ing can be a great tool.

Good judg­ment and mod­er­a­tion are key to min­i­miz­ing the risks of longe­ing.

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