This guide is intended to be read in conjunction with Lateral Flexion 101 in the Resources Section, which explains the importance of this key skill in your training programme.
Flexion at a standstill
Here are the initial steps for training your horse to flex laterally when you're in the saddle....
Reach down one rein to shorten the distance between your hand and your horse’s bit, but don’t take the slack out.
Make sure your other hand is low and forward and that the rein is completely loose all through the exercise.
Now close your hand around the rein making contact with the bit and feeling for the response your horse gives you.
Lift your rein hand upwards without crossing over the mid-point of your horse’s neck.
Depending on your horse’s suppleness and level of training you may get a small amount of lateral bend or he may move his head right round to your leg/foot.
If you encounter any resistance ask yourself if your own timing has been spot on, are you looking for the response and offering the release as quickly as possible or are you ending up pulling his head round.
It's not uncommon to find your horse is physically stiff along the top line. You'll need to work on getting him softer everyday. Don’t give up!
This is illustrated below by Judith and Forest Jac, showing flexion to both sides.
Figure 1: asking for flexion to the left
Figure 2:asking for flexion to the right
Using direct and indirect flexion will supple your horse’s head and neck and is vital for achieving vertical flexion and correct headset. Here are some more exercise to try when you're on the move!
Direct flexion on the move
First practise direct bend on a circle at walk, keeping control of your horse’s shoulders.
Constantly monitor if your horse falls in or out.
Work to keep his feet moving accurately around the circumference of the circle, while his head is more to the inside with good bend in his neck.
Work equally on both reins and try riding accurate figures of eight.
Introduce jog on a slightly bigger circle - you may need to settle for less flexion initially but will be able to ask for more over time.
When you're happy with the jog, try asking for more direct bend on a circle whilst loping.
Figure 3: here Judith has started a circle to the left, showing direct flexion i.e. to the left (inside). Note that the inside hand is raised and there is no tension on the inside rein. Forest Jac is maintaining the flexion himself (the beginnings of "self-carriage").
Figure 4: This is a mirror image, again showing direct flexion on a circle (this time to the right).
Indirect flexion on the move
Walk a figure of eight. Start with a circle to the right with direct (right) flexion. As you come to the centre and start onto the circle to the left keep the flexion to the right. You'll now have indirect bend (moving to the left with the bend to the right). On completion of this circle allow your horse to move back onto the right hand circle with direct bend.
Your horse will become more supple with this exercise and you'll be able to execute smaller and smaller circles. Once you're happy in walk try the same exercise in jog, perhaps jogging a 10 m circle with direct bend and a 15 m circle with indirect bend.
Figure 5: here Judith is riding a circle to the left whilst maintaining flexion to the right (the outside of the circle). This is known as "indirect" flexion. In this illustration Judith's right hand is referred to as the "inside" hand - because it is to the inside of the horse's bend. Also note that it is raised, helping to lift his right shoulder.
Click here to watch a video of Judith demonstrating this manoeuvre on Forest Jac.
Frequently asked questions
Q:As soon as I pick up the rein to start asking for flexion my horse moves his feet and won’t stop until I let go again.
A: Don’t worry. Most horses will do this until they understand what you are asking for or they lack vital suppleness. Keep the rein contact (matching his resistance, not pulling) and let your horse keep turning small circles. Sit passively without using your legs or tensing up in anyway. He will eventually start to slow his feet and then stop moving. IMMEDIATELY drop the rein and rub his withers. After a few seconds pick up the rein and ask again. You will probably need to repeat this several times but your horse will stop moving sooner and sooner until he can flex without shifting his feet at all. Then work on the other side.
Q: My horse flexes really well when standing still but as soon as I try to flex him when walking or jogging he falls in and ends up turning a small circle instead.
A: Well done on the flexion you have already achieved, your horse is becoming soft and supple. When you experience a problem on the move it is usually because your horse is not responding to your leg cues or you are failing to give him sufficient cues with your inside leg. Check that you are lifting your inside hand to obtain some direct flexion and at the same time you need to be applying your inside leg at the cinch to keep the horse’s inside shoulder up. If you horse falls against your leg you need to go back to teaching your horse to move away from leg pressure. This can be from the ground and under saddle. Practice turns on and about the forehand (moving the hindquarters) and leg yielding.
Q: My horse is supple with direct bend but when I try to circle with indirect bend he wants to keep going in the original direction.
A: You need to give clearer cues with your weight and legs. When asking for indirect bend on a left hand circle (bending to the right) open your left hand slightly, take your left leg away from the horse, apply your right leg and move your seat over to the left side of the saddle slightly. Keep your right hand up a little but be careful you don’t ‘trap’ your horse’s right shoulder with too strong a contact. You may need to exaggerate your weight and leg cues initially. Your focus needs to be on allowing your horse’s right foreleg to move over to the left.
Q:When practising flexion exercises, how do I know which part of my horse I am suppling?
A: When you're flexing your horse laterally at a stand-still you'll be working on suppleness of the head and neck. However - when moving at a walk, jog or lope you'll be affecting the head, neck, shoulders and rib-cage. Pushing your horse forward and sideways, for example leg-yielding, you'll be suppling not only the muscles and joints of the head, neck, shoulders and rib-cage but also the loins and hind-quarters. Turns on and about the fore-hand will have the effect of suppling the hind-legs, although you will also be working the rib-cage and - to a lesser extent - the fore-hand.