Teaching your horse to flex.

08/13/14

Home
Anatomy of a Horse
Conformation Charts
Choosing a Horse
Types of Tack
Caring for your Horse
Catching your Pony
How to Acclimate Your New Horse
About Diamond J
Teaching your horse to flex.
Dropping his Head

 

 

 
 

 

This information is provided to educate our visitors.  Special thanks to Clinton Anderson, the author of this information.

LATERAL FLEXION EQUALS SOFTNESS

What we are going to talk about in this month's training article is how to get your horse to give to the halter and lead rope laterally and soften to the lightest pressure. The reason it is important to teach your horse to soften to halter pressure is because it will help with every other lesson you teach - from turning left or right when riding or leading, to just about anything else you can think of. This lateral flexion exercise will greatly increase your ability to get your horse to listen, soften and give to pressure. Remember, the one thing most people do not complain about is that their horse "gives" too much. This is a little exercise that I like to do with my horses every day when I first put the halter on, as a friendly reminder that they have to soften to me, pay attention and listen to me.

When you get your horse really good at this lateral flexion exercise, you will be amazed how much more responsive he will be to the halter and lead rope when you are leading him and working with him during your groundwork exercises. Most horses are stiff and unyielding, so when you pull on the halter and lead rope, they resist and pull against you. What we are doing in this exercise is teaching the horse that when he feels pressure on the halter, he must follow, giving to that pressure and softening to it - not follow his natural instinct, which is to pull and fight against the pressure.

Any time you can get your horse to yield and soften to pressure, it is going to help the overall relationship you have with your horse. Remember, horses have a natural instinct to pull and push against resistance - not give and soften to it. So every opportunity I get, I like to have my horse soften to pressure. If you get in the habit of asking your horse every time you catch him to do five or six repetitions, flexing on each side, pretty quickly, as soon as you put the halter on, he will expect to give and soften to you. You always want your horse thinking how can he give and soften to pressure, rather than having him think how can he resist, stiffen and get out of doing what you want him to do. This exercise helps you build respect. Remember, respect is hard to get and easy to lose.

To do this exercise, you need a halter and a lead rope that is at least 8-9 feet long. You can use any type of halter, however I find that using a rope halter, especially one like mine that has a stiffer cord to the rope, will greatly increase the chances of your horse giving faster and more readily, because he won't be able to lean against it. Typically speaking, I do not like to use the traditional thick webbed halters when doing ground work with my horses. I find that horses will have a tendency to lean against the web halters more and push against them. However, it's not what tool you use - it's how you use it. So you can still teach your horse this exercise with a regular halter, but it may take a little longer and you will find that your horse has more of a tendency to push and lean against it, as opposed to using a rope halter. Remember, there is no magic tool.

The finished result is being able to stand beside my horse and, if I apply any pressure to the halter and lead rope with my hand, the horse will bend his head and neck around to the point of touching his belly, where the girth would be, with his nose. He should follow the pressure and actually give to it. The very best result is to have the horse bend all the way around willingly, at the slightest pressure on the halter and lead. Therefore, he will become lighter and lighter the more that I do this. The whole point of this exercise is to get him to flex when we ask, by instilling a desire in our horse to give when we apply pressure. Remember, no one has a problem with their horses giving too much - but we all have problems with horses that are too stiff and resistant.

This is just one small step in a series of my groundwork exercises in which I will show you how to make your horse as soft and supple on the ground as you want him under saddle.

The Teaching Stage

The mare that we are using in the training article had never been taught to give to pressure and was very resistant and stiff. So, when we first began, she didn't do well. She resisted against the halter and lead rope, she pulled against it, she didn't want to give - and we are going to show you step-by-step how I applied these techniques to get this mare to give and soften to the halter and lead rope.

Step No. 1 - Assuming you are on the left side of the horse, you want to face your horse with your belly-button facing the horse. Stand back towards the horse's flank a little. Your left hand will be on the lead rope, and you will be pulling your left hand just behind his withers, but on the far side of his backbone. Your right arm will be stretched over the top of the horse's hindquarters , as though you are going to "hug" your horse. In this position, you stay in nice and close to the horse and when you apply pressure to the halter and lead rope to ask the horse to yield his head, he will more than likely walk around in a circle or lift his head and neck up to pull against you. If you stay really close to your horse when he does this and walk with him and beside him, it will be very easy and safe because he won't be stepping on you - he will be stepping away from you. The key is to act like you are glued to your horse's side and, no matter what he does, just walk with him until he decides to keep his feet still and give.

In the beginning we are applying pressure to the halter and lead rope. Slide your left hand down the lead rope and pull it up towards the back of the withers. If he moves, try your best not to move your hand. Act like you are gluing your left hand to the horse's back. Don't hold it up in the air - pulling it up higher - because if you do this and the horse gives, you will be pulling your hand so hard that you will take away any slack that he creates by giving to you. By your keeping your hand in a fixed position, it will be like a tug-of-war and when he gives to you, it will be easier for you to recognize his "give" because your hand will not be moving.

As soon as he does "give", you want to immediately drop the rope, create a lot of slack, let his head straighten out and pat him. As he is walking around, eventually - perhaps after 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes (it really depends on the individual) - he will keep his feet still. Just because he keeps his feet still and his head is bent to the side, it does not necessarily mean that he is giving. For example, if I bend his head 10 degrees, I want him to give to me 12 degrees. Just because he stands there and his head is bent 10 degrees but he is pulling on my left arm and on the lead rope, it doesn't actually mean that the horse is giving. It is what you call a false give.

Even if the horse's head is bending, it doesn't necessarily mean that he is giving. To me, a give is when the horse tries to please you or tries to do more than what you are asking for.

Eventually, your horse will keep his feet still and, more than likely, he will just pull and lean against the halter. That is basically a little cat-and-mouse game. He is hoping your arm is going to drop off and you are going to give to the pressure of his pulling, and you are hoping he is going to soften to the halter and lead rope so you can reward him. So basically, you have to remain patient and persistent and stay in the position and wait for your horse to figure it out. Resist the temptation to start tugging on the lead rope or to pull even harder. What we must do is wait for our horse to figure it out. If you start to jerk on the halter and lead rope or tug harder, you may get the horse to give; but you are always going to have to bump or tug on the halter to get that "give".

What we want to teach the horse is that he has to find the relief for himself. This may take a little longer in the beginning; but once your horse catches on that when he gives he will be rewarded, he will actually get better with this exercise very quickly because he thinks it's his idea. Remember, one of the keys to horsemanship is getting your horse to think something is his idea. Let your idea become his idea.

Once your horse stands still and bends his head as I have described, the first time he gives, it may only be an inch or less. As soon as he does this, immediately drop the rope out of your left hand and create a lot of slack in the lead rope. When you do this, he will more than likely straighten his head out. When he does, reach forward with you left hand, rub him on his face, tell him he did a good job, and let him stand there for a few seconds. Then slide your left hand back down the rope and pull it up towards his withers again and repeat the whole procedure.

In the beginning, especially with a horse that is very stiff and has been resistant for a long time, don't expect to get his head to bend around very far at all. If you can get his head to bend maybe 10 or 15 degrees, that's fine. But the key is to only drop the lead rope and relieve the pressure, when he actually gives to you. When he gives, you will notice that he will give a little nod with his head towards his side. You will also notice a little bit of slack in the lead rope. As soon as you notice that, immediately give back to him. The whole key to this exercise is the quicker you can release the pressure when he gives, the quicker your horse will catch on, and figure out that this is what you want him to do.

Remember, horsemanship is not so much about what you do - it's about when you stop doing what you are doing. So, the quicker you can release, the quicker your horse will understand; and the quicker he understands, the quicker both of you will see better results.

Each time your horse yields, ask him to yield just a little bit more the next time - maybe just half an inch more. Eventually you will not have to pull his head any more than 2/3 of the way around. The last 1/3 of the lateral flexion bend should be a yield he gives willingly and by himself. Now in the first couple of sessions, don't be disappointed if you don't get your horse to bend his head around and touch his belly. If you do this 5-10 minutes every day, usually within 3-4 days you will be amazed how soft and supple your horse has become; and pretty soon, as soon as you go to slide your hand down the lead rope to apply pressure, he will be reading this and will automatically start to bring his head around. Eventually, just from the lightest, softest pressure on the lead rope, he will be able to bend his head and touch his nose where the girth would be. This is what we are looking for - where it is so light that he instantly gives as soon as he feels pressure.

In the beginning, I recommend that you get really good with your horse on one side before you try the other side. Usually, I will work on both sides of the horse in one training session. But I may spend 5-10 minutes on one side, until I feel that I have the horse accepting the concept. The key is to set up the pressure and wait - wait for him to figure it out. You are not bending his head around. All you are doing is putting pressure on the halter and lead rope and waiting to see what he does about it.

All horses, in the beginning, will pull against the pressure, lift their head up and fight you. Some horses are so strong and have been resistant for so long that they may actually pull your left hand away from their withers. When that happens, try to keep pressure on the halter and lead rope and walk with him; and wait until you can get your hand back on the horse's withers. If you have to let your hand slide further down on the rope so his head isn't bent as far, that's fine. Just find a starting point. If you can only get the horse to give 10 degrees in the beginning, that's fine. That 10 degrees will soon turn into 11, 12, 13 and so on each time he gives. The key is, each time he gives, ask him to soften just a little bit more the very next time. If you don't, he will stop putting any effort into the exercise. Remember, the whole key to horse training is to get your horse to yield more than what you are asking. You want the horse craving to "give" more - not push more.

Once you get your horse reasonably giving on one side, go to the other side and repeat the procedure. Don't be surprised when you go to the other side and the result is as bad or worse than the first side was. Just because you have done something on one side, doesn't mean it is going to be easy on the other side. Most horses have one side that is stiffer than the other. Don't let this bother you. As a general rule, I will usually work 2/3 of the time on the bad side, and 1/3 on the good side. Again, you don't have to get all of this accomplished in one training session. But, make sure you don't release the halter and lead rope pressure when the horse is pulling against you and moving his feet.

Remember the steps: 1) he has to keep his feet still; 2) he has to bend his head; and 3) he has to give more than what you are asking him for. If you release the rope when he bends his head, he keeps his feet still, but he is still pulling on your hand, you are not really teaching him to give - it's a false give. Remember, you want it to be very black and white. As soon as he tries and gives, and you notice any slack in the lead rope, immediately release, let him stand for a few seconds, pat him and start again.

Every day when I catch my horses, as soon as I put the halter on, I will do from 5-10 flexes on each side before I even take them out of their stall. Eventually, it becomes like a friendly little reminder - like shaking somebody's hand. It's like starting the day off with the correct attitude - remember the halter, remember you have to give and soften to me, please pay attention now.

COMMON MISTAKES PEOPLE MAKE

  1. The handler stands too close to the horse's head; and when the horse turns his head, he can't bend and touch his belly because the handler is in the way.

The further back you stand on the horse's body, the easier it is for him to bend his head around. Make it easy for your horse to attempt to try. Standing too close to his head will make it harder for the horse to bend around.

2. Releasing the pressure on the lead rope when the horse is still resisting and pulling against the halter and/or moving his feet.

Remember, any time you create slack in the lead rope when the horse is still pulling against you, you are actually teaching him to resist you more and pull against you. You only want to give the horse relief and slack in the lead rope when he gives to you - not pushes against you - so make sure you get your timing right and you only release the pressure when he gives to you.

3. The handler does not make a clear distinction between pressure and "giving" by creating a lot of slack in the lead rope when the horse gives.

When a horse is first asked to give, and he does, he will usually be so stiff that most people, release the halter pressure so slowly that the horse actually snaps his head back and pulls the slack through the handler's hand. When the horse does this, he thinks that he is rewarding himself by pulling the rope through your hand. When my horse gives to pressure, I want to drop my hand off the rope and create a lot of slack in the lead rope very quickly. This teaches the horse that we are the ones giving him the reward - he didn't take the reward from us. This is a very common mistake. So when you release, act like the rope is burning your hand and drop it quickly so that he can feel no pressure on the halter or lead rope at all. Remember, make it black and white - no shades of gray.

4. The handler is not being consistent with the cues.

Make sure you are being consistent every single time you pick up on the halter and you are not releasing the pressure until he tries and he gives more than the last attempt. If you sometimes release the pressure when he gives and other times you release it when he pulls against you, you will be giving your horse a mixed message; and he won't catch on very quickly. In fact, you will be frustrated because you will feel that he is not making any improvement at all. Therefore, make sure that you are very consistent both when you are waiting for the horse to give, and when you reward your horse for giving.

5. The handler is pulling the rope high above the horse's withers when trying to get the horse to bend.

Don't pull your hand up in the air. When you do this, you will be putting so much pressure on the halter and lead rope that when the horse does give, you won't recognize it and you will pull even harder. It's kind of like when two people are having a tug-of-war and one person drops his end of the rope when the other person is pulling. This causes the other person to fall over backwards. This is because he had all his weight on the rope and, when the other person dropped his end, he couldn't compensate quick enough and he fell over. That's why you should fix your hand to the horse's back - it becomes a stationary point. When you fix your hand and you notice any slack in the lead rope at all, you can immediately drop it out of your hand and let your horse's head go out straight. Be very clear about this.

TROUBLESHOOTING

  1. Your horse keeps walking around rather than standing still and giving.

Most horses, in the beginning when you apply pressure to the halter and lead rope, will start to walk a circle or step around in the direction you are in. Some horses will back up, run sideways, lift their head up - whatever. All you have to do is stay in the same position you started in with your belly-button facing the horse and with your right arm (if you are on the left side) hugging the horse's hindquarters and your left hand right behind the withers. It doesn't matter what he does - you should try to stay glued to your horse in the same position. If he walks around for 4-5 minutes, all you should do is wait for his feet to be still and for him to give. As soon as he gives, drop the lead rope and reward him. When he walks around, he is wanting you to release the halter and lead roper pressure. If you do that, you will be teaching him that all he has to do to resist you is walk around rather than isolate his head and neck from his feet. So you should remain in the same position and be patient - wait for him to stop moving his feet, bend his head and give. Just because he bends his head and he is not moving his feet, it doesn't mean he has given. It's only a give if he gives more than you are asking him to and you see slack in the lead rope.

  1. Your horse resists you a lot and keeps pulling your hand away from his withers.

Some horses, in the beginning, will be very resistant; and they are extremely strong. You may not be that strong in your arm. Never mind! If you horse ends up pulling your arm away, keep trying to get it back to the withers. Even if you can't, the main focus should be not to release any pressure on the lead rope. Even if he pulls your arm away, still keep tension on the lead rope until you can eventually get your hand back on his withers. The key is that the quicker you can get your hand glued back on his withers again, it will act like a leverage point; and it seems to give you a lot more stability in your arm. So, if he does this, try your best to stay in the same position and wait for him to give. You might even let your hand slide further back on the rope so that he doesn't have to bend his head quite as much. In extreme cases, horses have been very stiff for a long time. If you can get them to give 10 degrees in the beginning, that's fine. Just build on that with each repetition.

  1. Your horse doesn't seem to be getting it.

If you feel that your horse doesn't understand what you are asking him to do, ask yourself some basic questions. Are you doing the correct thing? Are you pulling to the right position? Are you releasing when your horse is still resisting you? Are you making a very clear distinction between slack and tension in the lead rope? Remember, the quicker you can release to your horse and the more exaggeration you can do when you release, the quicker your horse will understand. Most times I find that when people have trouble with this exercise it is because they release to the pressure on the lead rope while the horse is still pulling against them; and if you do that, you are actually teaching him to pull against you more. The second biggest problem is that, when the horse does give, the person is so happy that the horse tried that they forget about releasing their hand and creating a lot of slack in the rope quickly. Because they release their hand slowly, the horse snaps its head back into the straight position and thinks that he created his own reward. Therefore, every time you give, he thinks he is pulling the lead rope back through your hand. You never want the lead rope to slide through your hand; you want the horse to give and you to drop it out of your hand (or at least quickly throw your hand up towards the horse's head) to release that pressure. Remember, the more black and white you can make it, the quicker your horse will understand. No shades of gray - it is either pressure or relief - no in between. The quicker you are at the release, the quicker your horse will understand and begin to catch on. Don't be discouraged if it takes you 4-5 days to get your horse really soft with this. But remember, the traditional halter will usually take quite a bit longer than a rope halter because the rope halter will cause your horse to feel more uncomfortable when he does lean against the pressure. Horses are notorious for leaning against pressure. So in the beginning, don't be surprised if he does lean against it. All you do is become as dependable as fence post and wait until he softens. As soon as he softens, you soften back to him.

CONCLUSION

Once you get your horse really good at giving to the halter and lead rope on both sides, you can do the same with a snaffle bit in his mouth. You can use any bit you choose, but I find that a snaffle bit works best. If you flex with the bit every day before you ride, you will be amazed at how much lighter and softer your horse will get when you ride him; especially if you do this in conjunction with my lateral flexion under saddle exercises.

Remember, you cannot bend your horse "too much". The more you bend and soften your horse, the lighter and more supple he will become. The straighter you keep your horse, in general, the stiffer and more resistant he becomes. You will be amazed at just how much softer and calmer your horse will get when he learns to give to the halter pressure and soften. You will start to notice that his overall attitude will change over time, and he will start to become more respectful and listen to you.

 

 

 

 

 

Home | Anatomy of a Horse | Conformation Charts | Choosing a Horse | Types of Tack | Caring for your Horse | Catching your Pony | How to Acclimate Your New Horse | About Diamond J | Teaching your horse to flex. | Dropping his Head

This site was last updated 02/28/13