Horse-Training for Flexibility, Part 1
A flexible horse can perform at his fullest potential.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Al Dunning in The American Quarter Horse Journal | November 6, 2018
The Big Picture
Every good trainer wants flexible horses. Flexibility causes versatility, and versatility results in obedience. If you are one-dimensional with a horse and don’t give him fundamental flexibility, you limit what he can learn and is able to do.
We bend our horses for them to be able to give, to flex at the poll and be softer in the mouth. With basic bending and flexibility drills, we are trying to get a horse to become supple. We want all our horses, when we pick up on the reins, to react in a positive manner. You want a horse to “give” to your hands, or have “feel.” When you pick up on the bit, he should react first by not pushing into your hand, but by giving to your hand, breaking at the poll and becoming soft.
The only way I know to get a horse really obedient vertically (meaning that when you pick up the reins the horse gives his head and breaks at the poll) is to get him obedient laterally first. You do that with bending.
A lot of problems people have with bending their horses come from using only their hands. You have to use leg to bend the horse. It’s easier to push a horse from the hind end toward the bit than it is to pull the bit toward the hind end. You can’t get the same feel on a horse by not using your legs. As you use your legs to get a horse to give, then you start using even more leg and less hand.
It’s hard for a horse to have feel unless the rider has feel. When a horse gives, the rider has to give back. When the rider pulls on the reins and the horse becomes obedient, then the rider must give back, reward with a release, immediately.
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When your horse gives and breaks at the poll properly, that’s one step closer to achieving collection, which is all part of the balanced feel of the horse. You want the horse to use his hindquarters more, rather than using just his front end, which allows him to stay in good cadence.
Bending is a foundation for the horse. Without properly bending and flexing the horse, you’re going to end up with a horse that:
• Is rigid, stiff and nervous.
• Can’t turn on the haunches properly without raising his head.
• Can’t turn on the haunches properly without swinging his rear to the outside.
• Won’t back up straight.
• Won’t stop properly because he’s too rigid in the poll, neck and shoulders.
• Has problems changing leads.
What to Do
Bending into circles
You want the horse to make his body concave to the inside of the bend. For a circle to be truly round, the horse’s body has to be correct. The horse has to follow his head with his neck, withers, shoulders, back and hips in a perfect arc.
A lot of people have the tendency to want to use the outside leg to turn. In a circle to the right, they want to use a heavy left leg. But that turns the head to the left and takes the ribs to the right, and the body is not bending into the circle.
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To get a proper bend to the right, you need the ribs to go to the left so the body arcs around your right leg. If you’re standing and I poke you in the right rib, your head will go to the right and you’re going to arc on that right side. It’s the same with the horse and his reaction to your inside leg.
A correct bend is not a bend in the neck. If you touch a horse with the neck rein and he just bends his neck around, that’s not right. What we want him to do is look to the inside and turn his shoulders. It’s a slight look to the inside, so we can just see the edge of the inside eye.
If the horse is looking too far to the inside, his shoulder is going to be too far to the outside. If the horse’s head is looking to the outside, the shoulder is going to be too far to the inside. In either case, the body won’t track over that perfect, arcing circle. A horse has to look the way he’s turning to turn properly.
If you’re riding the horse with one hand (neck reining), turning to the right, to initiate the bend, touch the horse lightly on the left side of the neck with the neck rein and use your inside right leg a little.
The horse’s nose should tip slightly to the inside, so you can see the inside corner of that eye.
Then release your right leg, and keep your outside leg fairly close to the horse to keep the hips from swinging left.
If you are riding with two hands on the reins, you can pick up your inside hand slightly, letting the nose tip to the inside, before adding the neck rein.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.