Lateral Flexion

By Jay O'Jay

Regardless of the discipline we practice - reining, cutting, dressage or trail - we all want our horses to be soft, light and responsive to our leg and rein cues. Lateral Flexion is one of the first steps in teaching horses how to do this.

Lateral Flexion exercises are very beneficial for the “hot” nervous horse, who is quick to run, and the lazier horse, who does not want to listen or give you his attention. Anytime a horse is in a straight body alignment, from head to tail, he is in his most powerful position to lean or push against your hands; by flexing his head and neck to the inside, you are taking away a lot of his power to lean on your hands. You are putting him at a disadvantage to be in control, stiff, resistant or quick. The more we can bend or flex our horses to the inside, the easier it is to gain control of the poll, soften his head and neck and get him to relax.

We begin teaching lateral flexion from the saddle by walking a small circle, approximately four feet in diameter to the left. The goal is to have the horse bend around our inside leg by softening his head and neck and rib cage. You want the horse’s head and neck to be bent quite far to the left while keeping forward impulsion on the circle. In the beginning, the horse may become stiff, resistant and pull against your hands.

Shorten your left rein by sliding your hand down the rein, and place it in a fixed position on your hip and be sure to hold it there. Bump his side rhythmically with your inside left leg to encourage him to bend or soften his rib cage. You will feel how much easier it is for your horse to bend his head and neck around your inside leg once he softens his rib cage. Repeat the same exercise to the right.

Stiff and resistant horses will take more time, walking several circles before they soften. Do not be surprised if it takes five to ten minutes for your horse to begin to soften and give to your cues. Be patient. Eventually he will try to get away from the pressure and begin to soften through his body, even if it is just an inch or two. As soon as you get the slightest try, immediately release the pressure by moving your hand to your knee and stop bumping with your leg. Relief of pressure is the horse’s reward and that reward will give your horse more try to do it again.

Ask your horse to give a little bit
more each day

Remember: you add pressure by placing your hand in a fixed position on your hip and you relieve the pressure by moving your hand to your knee. This will help you remain in a balanced and effective position.

Through consistent repetition, you will begin to see changes in your horse. His head and neck will start to lower, soften and bend. This is very important. The more your horse lowers his head and neck, the more he becomes relaxed through his back. This, in turn, brings his hindquarters (the “motor”) underneath him for better balance, impulsion and performance in all maneuvers.

Always ask your horse to bend slightly more than he is willing to give. By consistently asking him to bend a little more, he will continue to become softer. You exaggerate to teach and refine as you go along. You cannot bend, flex, soften or supple your horse too much. Ask your horse to give a little bit more each day, eventually, he will be able to walk a circle with his rib cage and his head and neck bent around your inside leg on a loose rein, and stay there by himself.

Horses learn from their mistakes; allow them to make a mistake and then correct it. This way, they learn how to be more independent and not rely on us. So, with a horse who always wants to “get quick” or speed up when I ask for a walk on a loose rein, I immediately slide my hand down the rein and pull him into another circle. I will keep my hand on my hip in a fixed position and stay in the circle until my horse starts to give, soften and relax. As soon as he does, I release my hand to my knee and give him the opportunity to make another mistake (to get quick) before I correct him again. Keep working on this exercise until your horse understands and walks out in a straight line on a loose rein, without picking up speed.

Whenever introducing something new to your horse, look for small improvements and reward him with a release of pressure and a good old fashion pet to let him know when he is responding correctly. Always avoid drilling or training him on any one thing for a long duration of time. End on a good note after you can see or feel an improvement.

Your goal is to have the horse bend around your inside leg
by softening his head and neck and rib cage.

Always follow up by working on something completely different for a while, returning to what you were working on earlier. This keeps your horse mentally stimulated and interested, ready to come back out fresh the next day with a willing and happy attitude.

By being consistently repetitious with our cues, our relief of pressure and our willingness to allow the horse to learn from his mistakes, our horses will just keep getting lighter and more responsive. Lateral flexion is one of the corner stones of horse training and it works for any breed or discipline.

Remember – “Success with horses, starts with us”!