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Flex-Ability

To the layman, vertical flexion appears to be only a downward flexion of the neck, but the real horseman knows it is the beginning of one of the most necessary ingredients of pure horsemanship, roundness in the horse's topline. It's totally dependent on two things: the amount of relaxed flexion in the neck and the amount of collection or "reach" from behind.

Les takes readers through the steps to teach the horse to flex on the ground and with a rider in the saddle; to flex at the walk; to flex and collect at the jog and lope, and how the rider can make the process a smooth and enjoyable teaching experience for the horse.

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A horse having a relaxed, flexible neck is just imperative. You'll never have a bad ride if the neck is good, and you're not going to have a good ride if the neck is bad. So how do you get that perfect neck?

Any message from the rider must go through the reins, to the bit and from there to the horse's brain. But even the most perfect signal from the rider can't make it from the horse's brain to his body if he has resistance in his neck. In order to make sure that a clear message gets through to our horse's body we have to teach the horse to be supple in his neck. We have to teach him vertical flexion.

Vertical Flexion

Vertical flexion appears to the layman to be only a downward flexion of the neck; however the real horseman knows that vertical flexion is the beginning of one of the most necessary ingredients of pure performance horsemanship. If the horse is round in his neck, it also allows for his top line to be round.

The degree of roundness we achieve is dependent on two things: the amount of relaxed - and that's the key word - flexion in the neck and the amount of collection or reach from behind. If we don't have collection along with the flexion we've achieved, then the opposite of what we're after occurs; the weight of the horse will tip on to the forehand.

In our present horse society there is so much emphasis on the vertical flexion that it is easy to forget how important it is to engage the hindquarters. And, a horse who is flexed but unengaged looks nearly the same to the untrained eye. It took me a long time, and I watched thousands of horses, to understand what they meant when they said, 'You've got to get him round on top, get him to lift his rib cage, raise his back.' I didn't get it. When someone would say, 'His back is up pretty good.' I'd just say, 'You bet it is!'

The essence of making the horse rounder in his top line is to get him to re-distribute his weight from his natural state of 60% weight on the forehand and 40% of his weight carried behind to 60% of his weight on the hindquarters. In other words we need to shorten his wheelbase. This makes him much more comfortable and fun to ride; it doesn't matter if you're on a reined cow horse, a rope horse or a trail horse.

A horse who is carrying himself correctly will go from a lope to a trot or stop smoothly whereas - and we've all had this experience - a horse who is balanced on his forehand will make this transition very uncomfortable for the rider.

Since the horse doesn't speak English, our job is to send him a message that he can understand. A horse with a soft supple neck has a better chance of interpreting our signal correctly. Whereas a horse who is scared or defiant will have a neck as stiff as a board. The importance of a supple neck is one of the best kept secrets in horsemanship. It is the key. Any horse that has resistance in the neck is going to have performance flaws.

Two Ways to Introduce the Horse to Flexion

Tying Around

Before you can teach a horse to flex vertically, you need to teach him to flex laterally that is side to side. There are two ways to teach the horse about flexion. I have used both ways depending on the horse. Tying the horse around is a method that I used to use a lot but probably not as much now. Many people still do it in the early stages of training. I use a round corral with good footing so that the horse won't have uneven ground if he struggles with his balance.

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Tying the horse around should be done very carefully and I tie the off rein first, making sure there is enough slack to accommodate the bend to the flexing side. It should be tied to the front cinch under the crease of the shoulder where the foreleg starts. It is critical that you tie the off rein to insure that the horse's head stays perpendicular. We want him to learn to flex at the poll, not tilt his head to get away from the pressure. And never tie this rein so tightly that the horse feels trapped and panics; it is meant to stabilize only.

I tie the direct rein to the back cinch ring of the saddle and make sure that it is snug enough for him to turn his head but not so tight that he is frightened or loses his balance. A good rule of thumb is to picture the hands of a clock; if straight ahead was noon you'd want to tie him around to about 11 o'clock or 1 o'clock (depending on the side) to start off with. As you progress you can gradually increase it to 10 or 2 o'clock. Remember, you should always start off loose and only tighten as the horse gets used to it. No rushing = No wrecks.

Once I have the horse tied around and I can see he's not going to panic or fight the contact, I'll start to move him around by clucking to him. I want him to understand that he can flex and move at the same time. Some people will tie a horse around and just go off and leave it but usually they will come back to find him just standing there leaning on the bridle - that's definitely something you don't want him to learn! At the most I will do 20 minutes a side.

Tying a horse around can be a good way to let the horse figure out the correct response to pressure from the bit without him being able to blame you for his discomfort. I used to use this method more than I do now. To be right honest I'm not really sure how much benefit you get out of it. I think my horses are as good or better than they've ever been and I'm not tying them around. So what am I doing to get my horses soft in the neck?

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Achieving Flexion on the Horse

On most horses I'll just start right off asking for a direct vertical flexion. I'll back the horse up against a wall or fence and then ask him to flex vertically by moving my hands back and forth and bumping him with both legs. I can move the bit from side to side, warming the corners of the mouth without the rings getting in the way. We never pull when we meet a resistance; instead we just move the hands a little faster.

The rule is that flexion consists of 50% leg and 50% bridle. When I talk about leg in this case it's not spur, it's what I call 'boot tops'. You can bump them pretty hard with 'boot tops' but not with the spur; the spur can make them mad.

So here is the key - the BIG key - to successfully teaching your horse to give to the bridle. While you're moving that bit back and forth in his mouth, look for the slightest little gesture from the horse - any indication that he is thinking about responding to the motion of the bit and the bumping from your leg with the correct response - maybe he just drops his head and neck a fraction of an inch; when it happens, you must release both leg and bit pressure instantly.

Even if he is just getting a fly off his chest, reward him with the release. The other thing I've learned from my fiancée Kay is the importance of "Atta boy"! She makes a big fuss over her horses when they do well and I'll see them respond to that. The horse wants to do the right thing.

We should always ride not the horse but his mind. If you expect the horse to master a movement the same day you introduce it to him, Good Luck! That's asking for a lot. I always say train for tomorrow - plant the seeds for tomorrow. A systematic training program will set things up for tomorrow.

It's important to remember that we train in stair steps; some horses and riders can take big stairs while others take baby stairs. I have to say I'm not a believer in hurrying a horse along. I really, really enjoy the process; the day to day challenge of creating a horse that's a piece of art, that's a part of you.

Flexion At The Walk

Okay, you've gotten that first response from your horse and you've rewarded him instantly; you've been able to repeat this several times and feel that your horse understands what you want. This is a breakthrough and you've set a baseline. This means that you know how you got to a certain point and you can do it again any time you want. You can go back to this point at any time; it's a tool in your toolbox.

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Now it's time to ask the horse to flex while he's moving. We walk out - on the rail or on the trail - using our 'boot tops' and the exact same motion with our hands. You might find that the horse is less responsive now that you're moving which brings up the question of which bit to use.

Of course we always want to use the mildest bit possible but if the horse has a short attention span and is interested in anything but you then you may have to use a snaffle with a stronger mouthpiece at first. Give your horse the benefit of the doubt but you do what you have to do.

We follow the same procedure as at the halt, giving the horse immediate release from the pressure of both hand and leg as soon as he indicates he is trying to do what we want. We set our baseline again and go from there. This is when it starts to get fun; pretty soon you'll feel your horse drop his head and neck as soon as you pick up your reins and nudge him a little with your legs.

Another exercise you can do at this stage is to teach your horse to drop his head even lower. You do this the same way (starting at the halt) but after your release you don't wait for him to come back up but instead ask him to drop lower and lower, releasing a bit each time, until he has his nose nearly on the ground. This exercise just reinforces the horse's obedience to our flexion cues. You'll find that you are starting to get a 'flexy' horse.

Adding Collection

Now that we've got our horse flexing at the halt and walk we need to add collection. Remember the more flexion you have the more collection you have to have. We want to create power not speed, or as I call it, slowing the front motor down and speeding the back motor up.

OK, so how do we do this? We've already got the basics because we've taught our horse that when we move the bit from side to side and bump with our legs he should drop his head and neck. Now, at the walk, we ask him to flex and continue to bump with our 'boot tops' to get him to take more powerful - not faster - steps behind. Remember to release the pressure as soon as he tries to do what you are asking.

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At this point I WILL NOT skip steps. It is crucial to our future training that the horse understands this lesson; I want his response to my cues to be perfect at the walk before I'm ready to move on to the jog. I'm prepared to spend whatever time it takes. This doesn't mean that I won't jog or lope my horse - I'd just do it on a slack rein.

Flexion & Collection At Jog & Lope

By the time you feel ready to give this a try at the trot and lope you should feel that you have your baseline pretty well established. You do want to remember that jogging and loping in a flexed position will mean that your horse will be using muscles that he hasn't been using before. Don't expect him to be able to hold the flexion for long periods of jog and lope; he has to build up his strength. You set your baseline and go from there.

If you have really done your work at the walk, you probably won't find the jog too difficult. The process is the same: get a response or 'gesture', release immediately and establish your baseline. It may take a little more time in the lope just because you and your horse are dealing with more speed but take your time and if you need to take a step back, do it.

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Once we have walk, jog, lope going good we 'downshift'; lope, jog, and walk. This is more difficult because we are bumping with our leg asking the horse to move forward and slow down at the same time. If your horse is as soft in the bridle as he should be by this time he will understand that the pressure on the bit overrides the bumping with the leg.

Trouble Shooting

One way to stay out of trouble is not to keep nagging your horse after he's done what you want. When he looks like he is getting the idea then go on to something else or go out for a trail ride. I usually work my horses about 20 or 30 minutes; that's enough.

And never be afraid to take a step back. That's why we set our baseline, so we have something to go back to, something we know will work. They always used to say, "Never quit when the horse is winning." Well I have won some battles but I've never won any wars. Usually when you get to this point tempers are short on both sides and that's a good time to quit. Come back out tomorrow; go back to your baseline. Ride for 'gestures' and gestures turn into perfection.

Riding a truly collected horse is a thrill. When you have your horse collected he should feel balanced and ready to respond to whatever cue you give. Enjoy it!  

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