Monday, March 21, 2011

Basic Exercise: Vertical Flexion

The second warm-up exercise I ask my horses to do is vertical flexion. This exercise teaches response to the rider’s weight and direct pressure from the rider’s hands. It is also the beginning of the reining horse's hallmark maneuver - the sliding stop!

Purposes of vertical flexion:
  • To teach the horse to respond to pressure from both reins.
  • To continue to warm up his mind and body for more difficult exercises.
  • To encourage engagement of the hind quarters with vertical flexion
The Basic Exercise
After your horse responds softly to lateral flexion (Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion), ask him to walk forward on a large circle.  Walk several steps, correcting him if necessary to stay on the circle and keeping your body in the center of balance.  Then, with your hands low and reins loose, brace your body against the forward motion by pushing your feet in the stirrups, locking your hips and squaring your shoulders. Give him time to respond (count to two) and then (and only then!), SLOWLY start drawing back on the reins with firm constant pressure until he steps back one or two steps. As he steps back, SLOWLY release rein pressure until your hands are back in the original position low on his neck in front of the saddle. Bring your body back to the neutral position and let your horse stand quietly for a few seconds. The goal is for the horse to willingly stop when you brace your body and say “whoa”, then give his nose vertically to rein pressure.
Repeat several times as you walk around the circle, then reverse and repeat in the other direction. If your horse is a green two-year-old, you will be happy with that. If he is farther along in training or is a trained reining horse, do the exercise at a jog. You might be tempted to react faster at the jog if he does not respond to your weight and voice aids, but you still must apply pressure with your hands SLOWLY.

Illustration:vertical flexion 1

Illustration: vertical flexion 2
Important! After you have stopped, backed up and stood for a few seconds, always walk a few steps before jogging again. Even at this basic level, you are teaching your horse the rules of stopping. You don't want him jumping out of a stop - that's why I stand and that's why I walk out.

  • Apply rein pressure and release rein pressure slowly.
  • Keep your hands low when you ask the horse to stop (hands should not be stopping him)
  • Do not immediately ask your horse to walk forward again. Instead, reward him by allowing him to stand for a few seconds.
The Basic Exercise with Refinement
As above, walk forward with your reins loose, your hands low and your body relaxed and in the center of balance. Brace body, say “whoa” and pick up the reins to ask him to back up and give vertically to the rein pressure but now, as your horse learns, or if he is a trained reining horse, you should expect a more correct response and more sensitivity to your aids. Feel where there is resistance (right or left) and instead of adding more pressure, go back to lateral flexion. Release the rein he is NOT resisting and draw him around as in Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion. That way you are correcting only the side that is resistant.

Note: I like to compare my training program to a ladder. You start at the lowest “rung” and step-by-step climb to the highest. If there is a problem, you step back down, fix the problem, then proceed up the ladder again.

What can go wrong?
  • The horse does not give to rein pressure at all. You can’t out-pull a horse, so this is a battle you will lose. Instead, ask the exercise just as if you expect him to back away from the rein pressure. When he doesn’t, lower one hand and turn him around with the other (Lateral flexion) until his responds softly to that rein. Walk forward, ask again, and this time when he resists, turn him the opposite way until he is soft. Repeat a few times, alternating sides, and then ask him to back off both reins again. If he even takes a step, reward him by standing; if he does not, repeat the corrections. I know this works every time but the secret is not asking too many steps back at first.
  • The horse backs away but puts his head up. He is trying to escape pressure and you have to tell him it where that escape is. You cannot force his head down. Instead, raise your hands (wide apart) to stay with level of his mouth and keep constant light pressure until he puts his head where you want it. Then release. (Your shoulders may get sore waiting this out so if you can’t hold on, lower one hand and turn him around with the other as above).
  • The horse stops backing abruptly when you release the pressure. You might be quickly dropping your hands when you feel him give to rein pressure instead of slowly giving back the rein. I see this a lot because the rider is anxious to reward his horse. I call this “dumping” your hands and the horse is actually responding to that quick movement with a quick movement of his own.
  • The horse pulls his head down too much or is “behind the vertical”. Almost certainly you are hanging on to the reins too long. Try to start giving back as his head is going down. If he has been doing this for a while, you may have to ask him to pick it up, then release.
Important! You are teaching your horse where you want his head by releasing when his head is in that position.

This exercise is not a backup exercise (although your horse certainly learns to back up). It's a back-and-give-to-the-bridle exercise. The purpose is to teach the horse to give to pressure from both reins at once.

In time, your horse will respond to the motion of your hands rather than pressure on his mouth. When that happens, he has developed real sensitivity.

Note: I will post a video later when I can ride in my arena!


  1. Really good tips. I found it very helpful.

  2. Thank you whoever you are. As you can see, I did not keep this up last summer. I will, however, continue the blog soon and throughout the winter. Keep watching

  3. Hi, Sharon!

    First of all, your blog is great, I already learned a lot from it since I started reading it (yesterday).

    I would like to ask if there is a video available now somewhere about the Vertical Flexion.

    Thank you in advance!

    Keep up the good work! :)