Guest post by Jeannie Choate
Lets go all the way back to lateral bending or flexions. Ask yourself, are they really good? Do I feel for my horse, he feels of me and we feel together? If not, then maybe you haven’t really done a thorough job of your homework with flexions. This can be started when you are working with a foal and his first halter lessons. But, even your older horse in his teens can go back and really learn these flexions and get balanced, so there is harmony between you and your horse when you ride. A true softness, balance and feel.
Start you flexions from the ground with a green or young horse that has not been ridden. All these flexions are done at a standstill. These flexions should be revisited a lot during every ride to get them really good and for checking in with your horse through out his riding career. Not just for a few sessions, few rides or a month or so. You should start flexions with your halter and lead, then progress with your snaffle. These flexions will be revisited often as you progress into the hackamore and with greater refinement as you advance into the two-rein and bride.
LATERAL FLEXIONS: Be sure the horse is balanced and square on his feet before you ask for flexions. Your want the horses’ head from his foretop to his nose to be perpendicular, You want his nostrils perpendicular to the ground and you want elevation of the poll. You will take the head to the side (flex) up to a 90 degrees bend. But this will be done in increments. Let the horse find that this is the most comfortable way to flex. At first you may get only one of the three positions. Release for that. You may get 2 of the 3 positions, release for that, it is a try. As you work these flexions you may get any combination of the 3 positions and this is acceptable at first. Remember to keep yourself mellow, even if your horse is not, he is searching and trying. Just hold until the horse gives you a try in the right direction. His mouth may get busy during a session of working on flexions. He is processing, so hold until you get a try and he is not fussing with his mouth. If you release while he is fussing with his mouth even when you got a response to the asking for a flexion, you will get what you released for, a sloppy flexion with lots of mouth. Once they start to understand, you hold a little longer to get them to search for the exact proper place for the release and true balance point of the flexion. Be sure to keep your hands about your shoulder width apart on the snaffle bit horse. Wide hands will make you timely. If you ask for a flexion that moves the horse’s head about two inches to the right, for example, you have moved your right hand about 2 inches out and back, be sure to give 2 inches with your left. Your feel will change a lot as you work on the flexions and all during your ride. As the horse gets better in the flexions but you find he still needs more vertical in his face, take the rein more toward his mane than to you hip and hold and let him search. The horses’ forehead and nose should be perpendicular and his poll between his ears, horizontal and level with each other.
SOFT FEEL: After you and your horse have the lateral flexions working pretty well, you will combine working with soft feel. Soft feel is nothing more than you reaching for the horse and he responds to that reach. It ultimately leads to the true form of collection. You feel of him, feel for him and you both feel together. Ray Hunt would say this many, many times during each of his clinics. It takes a while to understand and get the true feel of this phrase. Buck Brannaman has emphasized in his clinics how important it is to master these flexions and soft feel before you ever get on your colt for the first time. Once you understand and have a feel for these flexions, spending about an hour working on flexions and soft feel, can make all the difference in that first ride! Then you are ready to go – in balance!
Again, we are looking for balance through the whole horse. The horse needs to raise his poll up to a feel. Lifting and elevation is not head throwing. Elevation in the neck and poll is not gotten by bumping, just hold. If the muscle down the neck of the horse is tight, the horse rises but looks like a lama. The horse should rise softly to open his shoulders, clear through his rib cage. The shoulder blades are closed if the head is lower than the withers. First, ask you horse to elevate his neck slightly, by having your hands shoulder width apart, in front of the horn of your saddle and raise your hands no higher than you elbows. You will have your reins short enough to make soft contact. Release for the slightest try. After your horse gets good at elevating his neck softly, then you will bring you hands slightly back to encourage vertical flexion with softness, think of it as rolling into softness. Remember, the key is reward the slightest try. If the horse bobs his head and does not lift, do not reward this, just wait, he is searching. If you do too much he reacts instead of responding to you. Take a feel of your horse, do not think of it as you lifting your horse, let him find you. Make sure you hands are soft on the reins to ask for this softness. Also, remember, that a chin dropped towards the chest does not always mean soft feel, this position can be the horse avoiding you.
Practice the flexions and soft feel anytime you are sitting around on your horse throughout you ride. As you are walking ask for soft feel from you horse. You will ask for thousands before this becomes really good, so be patient. Just wait for a little change and release. When you are moving, do not allow your horse to slow, just take a feel of you horse with the elevation and giving to you, in mind, while you ride. All the time put in on flexions will get you better and better and you and your horse will have a very good feel of each other.
Photo 1–Kate and Ranger, slight bend, notice width of her hands and softness in her hands, notice there is no tension in the rein and the relaxed giving expression on Ranger’s face. This horse is advanced in the bride.
Photo2– Kate and Ranger doing a flexion at 90 degress. Notice the horizontal line between the ears, slight elevation of neck and almost vertical postion of the front of his face.