LATERAL FLEXION
One Of The Secret Keys In Developing Good Communication With Your Horse

 

Regardless of whether I am teaching a clinic, giving a demonstration, working with private students, or gentling a colt, the one thing you will always hear me preach about is lateral flexion.

 

Now I can already hear some of you saying, “Oh yeah, the one rein stop thing. We already know how to do that.” Well, the one-rein stop isn’t just lateral flexion, but lateral flexion is an important step in the one-rein stop.

 

Saying that a one-rein stop is just lateral flexion is like saying vertical flexion is true collection…nope, it’s just vertical flexion.

 

Lateral flexion is important early on in a horse and rider’s training. A horse can never get too good at lateral flexion. Nor can the horse be too old to learn and work at achieving good flexion…honestly, no horseman is too good to learn and perfect lateral flexion. It is a good tool to have in your natural horsemanship toolbox.

 

Everyone wants their horse to be soft and collected from their mind, through their body and all the way down to their feet. Some riders erroneously believe that all they need to do is buy the right bit, or longe a horse in a bit with a tie down and surcingle to get the horse to carry his head and be soft. While this may be true to some extent, they are still only working (through mechanical means) the outer manifestation and not focusing on the proper preparation needed to achieve their goal. Others want their horse to stop light and collected so they get a shanked bit to increase leverage, which in all reality creates more of a brace in the horse by increasing the amount of pressure/pain in the horse’s mouth. A few riders would like to take their horses on trail rides but they are afraid that their horse will run off with them. I have even seen a few riders give their horse a quick slap between the ears with the end of the reins to get the horse’s attention. They complain that the horse’s mind wanders and this will bring their attention back on to the rider.

In each of these examples each person lacked one basic element in their own training. The common denominator, which they all shared in lacking, is good lateral flexion.

10 year old Morgan stallion
6 year old Morgan mare

 

What is lateral flexion and why is it so important to so many other aspects of horsemanship?

Lateral flexion is more than just pulling on a rein and getting your horse to turn its head. Good flexion should be taught early on and encouraged throughout a horse’s life. It is like Pilates Yoga for your horse. It helps to create a supple and soft body and a willing mind in your horse.

“Horses have hard bodies, not hard mouths! … The mouth is nothing more than a sending station. If every body part (poll, neck, shoulder, ribcage and hips) is unwilling to yield and soften, the mouth will feel hard and unwilling to soften to your pressure on the reins. When you have your horse’s boy soft and supple, the mouth will feel very light, soft and willing to give to the pressure you apply with the reins. Basically, in a nutshell, the more we bend our horse laterally, the easier he will be to control.”
Clinton Anderson
Courtesy of Natural Horse Magazine


The other main advantage of lateral flexion is that is a great way to get your horse to mentally check in with you while you are on their back. It only takes a quick few seconds to quietly, and gently, grab your horse’s attention when they begin to wander mentally, get frustrated, or turn emotional.

Let’s say that you are on trail and your horse spooks, or begins to get very busy with his feet changing gaits sporadically, instead of yelling at him or smacking him with the reins (which we NEVER recommend), quietly and politely begin to ask him for hindquarter disengagement and lateral flexion. Once you regain control of the feet, then just sit quietly and ask for lateral flexion two or three times on each side. You will notice his eye start to soften a bit and your horse will relax somewhat. By the time you are on your last flexion, the horse will almost anticipate it and begin the flexion with almost no cue from you. At this point, you can let him have his head straight and then just sit and rub his neck in a reassuring way.

So, whether you are working on suppleness, collection, an emergency brake or a way to get your horse’s attention, lateral flexion is your key.

Let’s face it, the bottom line is we all want a better all around control of our horses and lateral flexion offers us a way to achieve that control physically, and mentally, without the use of mechanical means. So once again, lateral flexion is your master key.


“The first thing I’ll go to once I’m up riding him is asking him to get some flexion left and right. That’s my doorway in to everything I want to do: getting him to bend his nose left and right.”

Mel Hyland
“Flexion: The Doorway In”
The Trail Less Traveled March 2003

Young Quarterhorse Gelding Flexing In A Rope Halter

Lateral flexion begins ON THE GROUND during the early stages of groundwork. Again, a horse can never get too good at lateral flexion. When beginning lateral flexion on the ground, remember you are not looking for the complete flexion but rather the slightest try and the smallest change. (training principle # 3) You want to find that ‘try’ where the horse yields his head and is not heavy in your hand. In the beginning, it doesn’t’ matter how little he flexes as long as he does flex and is willing to try.

 

We begin by standing next to the front shoulder. For this exercise, We are on the left side of the horse. We place our right hand on the horse’s withers. This will help keep us in position should the horse feel the need to move his feet. With our left hand we reach over the nose and place our fingertips into the soft area on the opposite side. We begin to pull toward us gently increasing the pressure until we get a response.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTE: At this point horses will typically do 3 things to avoid the pressure –
1) they will ‘dive bomb’ their head to get under your hand and away from the pressure.

2) They will lift up and against your hand to release the pressure.

3) they will naturally move their feet either by backing up, or disengaging their hindquarters and stepping away from you. When the horse does this, keeping my hand on the withers keeps me in place and helps to anchor me.
All these avoidance methods are perfectly natural for the horse to try. The horse is just trying all the available doors that are options. That’s perfectly normal. Regardless of what they try, hang in there and don’t release. Wait for the horse to find that open door and then release immediately. Remember Training Principle #3 – Reward the slightest try and the smallest change.

"Jess" 5 year old Quarterhorse gelding
Be sure to allow your horse an opportunity to straighten it’s neck out completely.

Once the horse has achieved good lateral flexion on both sides, it is time to change the way we ask for it. Basically we want to prepare the horse for flexing from the mount, but we want to do it while we are still on the ground.

 

Take up the same position that you were in before relative to your horse’s position. Take the lead in your left hand. Your right hand should still be on your horse’s withers. Using a direct rein, tip the nose in you direction and begin moving your hand toward the horse’s withers. Remember, we are trying to simulate the flexion that we would be asking for when we are mounted.

 

Things to remember are the same as before. You shouldn’t have too much resistance from your horse by this point in their training. In fact, there should be no resistance from your rein cue for flexion. Should you find some resistance, I would recommend going back to the groundwork and starting over…however…you can still teach a horse to do this from the saddle.
NOTE: This picture above is NOT lateral flexion! This is a way of avoiding the request for flexion. Whenever a horse turns one eye toward the sky and one eye toward the ground, this is a way of avoiding. DO NOT RELEASE! This is not acceptable as a try. Just hang in there. Set it up and wait for him to find the open door. HE will eventually go through the series of avoidances that I mentioned previously. Wait for the slightest try and the smallest change in the right direction and then release immediately and reward.

 

Lateral flexion aids in the mounting process. Instead of checking the reins short as you try to mount (which is one of four mistakes that almost all riders make when mounting their horse), Flex the horse’s head laterally toward you. In this way, you will be checking the horse from moving forward and walking off. If the horse feels the need to move it’s feet, the best that they can do is walk in a tight circle. All you have to do is wait for their feet to stop moving (and they WILL eventually stop moving) and proceed.

Here I am flexing a young horse from the ground using the reins of the halter and simulating the action of the pull as if I were mounted.
Note how I have flexed her head toward me as I work on standing in the stirrup and preparing for mounting. (Yes, we teach our horses to be mounted from both sides.)
After you mount, relax in the saddle and spend about 1 minute just flexing your horse from side to side. This ensures that you have good lateral flexion and a mental yield and connection.

You begin by lifting your reins and sliding your hand down as far as you can reach and tack the slack out as you go. Bring your hand out away from you and your horse and swing it around toward your leg/hip. Be sure to anchor your hand onto your leg. If you do not, and your hand is hanging in the air as you attempt to pull your horse’s head around, when they finally do release you will wind up jerking the slack out instead of offering them a release and reward for offering a try.

NEVER NEVER NEVER take your hand back behind you or past your hip. In fact, in my clinics, we use the rivet on the pocket of our jeans as our target but we never pull back beyond this point. If we do, we are danger of not having control through lateral flexion or hindquarter disengagement. If this is the case, you just need to re-slide your hand down the reins as before and remove more slack. Never cross your body’s centerline crossing your hand fro one side of your body to the other. Again, this is not acceptable and you need to remove more slack when you slide your hand. Always anchor your hand onto your leg regardless if it is near your knee or up by your hip. If you do this, your horse will essentially give itself an immediate release and reward for doing the right thing and you wont accidentally miss the window of opportunity.

Here, the rider is taking out the slack with her right hand, sliding her hand up her leg along the seam of her jeans and eventually anchoring it waiting on her horse's response. Please note that "Jess" is now flexing with a bosal and mecate rein. Lateral flexion can be acheived regardless of equipment because it is NOT about the tack or physical pressure...it is about mentally yielding !!!
Flexing can also be acheived with a bit in the horse's mouth. Again, this is due to the horse mentally yielding long before the physical manifestation of the actual flexion takes place. Here, the rider is taking out the slack and then once again asking "Jess" for flexion. Note that her hand is securely anchored to her leg as she waits for him to soften to the request and to the bit. When he yields his last millimeter he will receive a reward of an instant release completely done by him alone.
Below are different pictures of either myself or others laterally flexing horses on the ground and in the saddle.
Here I am laterally flexing this unstarted 2 year old during a natural horsemanship demonstration. Even though she is only in a halter, note that she is standing rock solid still while I begin mounting.
Another student flexing his 6 year old QH mare during one of the clinics. She is only in a halter and yielding softly and quietly.
Here I am flexing this horse who became spooked after having a log drug past her. She is wearing a bosal and mecate reins.
The owner is flexing his unstarted 2 year old Hanoverian X Appaloosa cross filly during groundwork. He is preparing her to be started under saddle.
This is the first day that I have ever worked this Appaloosa mare. First thing that we did was get her to flex
Here we are on our first ride...and barbeack at that. Working that lateral flexion and one-rein stops.
This is my 4 y/o Granddaughter bareback and flexing her horse laterally. These pics of her prove that lateral flexion is not a victory in a physical battle but rather is a mental yielding of a specific request.

Here she is again....she is only three and a half years old and flexing her horse...They have quite the partnership. This is the same horse that I am flexing in a previous pic who spooked from the log being dragged

This bareback clinic student is flexing her horse. Note the rear feet stepping under and across providing hindquarter disengagement and an almost textbook perfect one-rein stop.

So...there's your proof.....from Arabians and Hanovarians to Appaloosas, Morgans,Quarterhorses and Paso Fino/Spanish Mustangs all the way up to giant Belgian mules!!!

From 2 years old to 18 years old. Gelding, mare or stallion. Halter, bit or bosal. From the ground or from the saddle. From unstarted and ungentled to green-broke and beyond. From in the round pen to inside the arena to out on the trail.

Lateral flexion is the key to absolute control of your horse....mentally, emotionally a well as physically.

This is where you build communication from rider to horse and horse to rider...this is where you help your horse switch from his reactive right brain to his logical thinking left brain.

Lateral Flexion offers you an opportunity to develop softness and lightness in your hands and while developing suppleness, softness and lightness in your horse.

Student learning to bend and flex her Morgan horse laterally and in the beginning steps of a one-rein stop using only a halter and lead rope

 

'NUFF SAID?

"Buster" 3 year old Belgian cross mule learning to laterally flex. This big boy yielded completely in less than three minutes.

Laterally flexing from the mount soft and quietly.
All these horses (and mules) were taught to laterally flex in-hand. Never once were any of these equines ever tied with thier heads flexed around to their side. While tying certainly is a method that works, it is NOT one that we condone or recommend. We believe that teaching it in-hand offers the equine a faster release and a more stess-free way of learning. Tying a horse's head around may also cause the horse's Self Preservation to kick in and may cause a wreck when the horse finds that there is no relief or release. Tying a horse to teach to laterlly flex (or 'give to the bit') is nothing more than pure laziness on the part of the owner or trainer. It also is purely for the convenience of the trainer adn not for the ease of the horse. It most certainly DOES NOT fit into our 'Less IS More' philosophy. Every single horse can be taught in-hand without exception. We have personally helped hundreds of people to teach their horses and mules.

 

This is "Maverick"....

We are using lateral flexion as a means to "build a wait" in him and also to work on suppling him a bit.

At this point we are just asking that when the rein comes up and back toward the centerline that he yield not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well.

Should he offer a bit of brace or resistance, we might lift the chin a tad higher until we got the desired response, but in this case he is soft and yielding and no further action is needed except for a release.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This student is using lateral flexion to soften and control her horse...please note that she is bareback and using only a rope halter.
Another student from my "Riding With Confidence" clinic...bareback and only in a rope halter teaching her horse to flex laterally