Monday, March 14, 2011

Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion

Other than forward motion, the first exercise I want my horse to learn and, thereafter, the first exercise I ask after I mount up, is lateral flexion. Lateral: to the side. Flex: bend. In other words, I ask my horse to bend his head and neck to the side by “giving” to pressure from each rein, one at a time.

Purposes of lateral flexion:
  • Teaches the horse to give to pressure from one direct rein.
  • Warms the muscles before more difficult exercises.
  • Warms up the horse’s mind by asking for a simple exercise first.
The Basic Exercise
Ask your horse to walk forward with your hands low. As he walks, apply slow, steady pressure to the right rein, drawing the rein back toward your hip by bending your elbow and bringing the rein back with your wrist straight. (Important! Your left hand should remain low with no pressure on the left rein.) The pull from with your right arm should come from your shoulder, not your forearm or wrist. This establishes a straight line between the horse’s mouth and your elbow.  The goal is for the horse to bring his head around and down towards his right shoulder but, if he is a colt, you will be satisfied with less – as long as he gives to the rein. He should not lift his head in the air or try to take the rein away from you. Apply pressure for four or five strides, then release for four or five strides. (As your horse becomes better trained, you can change the timing a little (four strides with rein pressure, two strides without, etc.) but always with a release. It’s important to start giving back when your horse is responding. If you release pressure when he is resisting, he is learning to resist.

Repeat the exercise until your horse responds readily with the appropriate correctness and softness for his level of training, then go to the left side and repeat until he gives to rein pressure on that side. After I have “softened” both sides, I like to alternate the lateral flexion a few times – bend to the right, release, bend to the left, release, etc. Be sure to completely release one rein before applying pressure with the other. You should feel a willingness to respond to the pressure from the rein on each side. If he is stiffer on one side (as horses often are), work that side more...until you feel a response.

  • Keep your horse walking forward.
  • Always start the exercise with your hands low.
  • Always apply pressure slowly.
  • Always release pressure slowly.
  • Do not let your hand come in contact with your body.
This video demonstrates lateral flexion. This horse had several months of riding but was far from finished.

 The Basic Exercise with Refinement
As your horse becomes more schooled, you will want to ask for more refinement in lateral flexion. If he has learned to bend, but does bring his nose down as well, you can gently "bump" (pull, release) him with the outside rein until he drops his nose. So, if you are asking him to give to the right rein and he bends around but does not bring his nose down, add the left rein with give-and-take bumps until he responds.

What can go wrong?
  • The horse pulls away his head away from you. If this happens, you may be releasing pressure too soon. To correct, apply pressure slowly and with increasing strength until he responds so he is rewarded in the lateral position. Release, but re-apply before he brings his head back straight. Also, don't expect him to bring his head completely around until he learns to give to a lesser command. Gradually expect more until he understands.
  • The horse lifts his head as he brings it around. You will have to try to find a spot when he is giving, even if it is only a stride or two into the exercise. It is important to start to release when the horse's head is dropping. If you wait too long, he may be starting to bring it up again. If you release then, you will be teaching him that the release comes when his head is high.
  • The horse gives to the presuure but, instead of walking in  a circle, he continues in a straight line with his nose bent. To corect, bump with the outside leg to encourage him to follow his nose.
When my horses have learned lateral flexion, most will not bring their heads back straight because the know I will repeat the exercise and will stay in a small 6-10 foot circle as I apply pressure with one rein, release, apply, release, etc.

Note: Equipment for this exercise should be appropriate for the level of training. My two-year-olds or horses just beginning training are bitted with a snaffle bit. I usually school trained reiners with a long-shanked snaffle. With the trained reining horses, I want them to be comfortable performing all basic exercises as well as advanced ones in the bit they will be competing with.

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