Training Exercises: Vertical Flex

Vertical Flexion Because I train Friesian crosses, their head carriage is usually very high. I cannot easily reach their ears for grooming or haltering. I make the stretch the first few times to get him started, but after he understands that I want him to lower his head for me, I give him the responsibility of making my life easier.

Vertical Flex training uses the same principles as lateral flex does. I start my horses on the ground, teaching them to lower their head to poll pressure. I reach up, find the occipital knob just between and behind his ears and then find the little indentions on either side. Most horses are sensitive in this area. I begin to “pinch” the indentions between my thumb and middle finger. The horse often raises his head in alarm the first couple of tries, but I keep pressing if I can hang on.

At some point, he bobs his head down to get away from the pressure, and I immediately release my grip. The lesson to him is that if he lowers (rather than raises) his head, I will stop. In just one session of 10 or 12 tries, most horses learn to drop their head quickly and easily as soon as I put my hand gently on their poll.

When he is calm about dropping his head, I begin to scratch his near-side cheek while his head is lowered. Most horses appreciate this attention. Slowly but surely, I begin to lay my arm fully across his neck to scratch the other cheek. If he flies up when my arm goes over, I pinch the indentions again so his head comes back down, then lay my arm over again. Eventually my horses have their noses on the ground when they greet me (in anticipation of their cheek rubs).

Horses are more or less sensitive in the poll, depending on the horse. I trained both a half Friesian mare and a half Friesian gelding to lower their heads to poll pressure in record time. However, the Tennessee Walker was another story. She was totally insensitive at the poll, and I could not pinch hard enough to get her to lower her head using this maneuver.

From lowering their head while I am on the ground, I begin to request them to lower and tuck their head under saddle.

While astride, I gently but firmly pull back and down on the halter. This pressures the nose and a little of the poll. The instant that my horse responds to the pull by retracting his nose, I release the pull and let his head slide back out in front. Then I do it again. I repeat this process until he is so light to the pull that a thread would do it. You will also notice that he begins to hold the flexed position for longer and longer periods of time as he anticipates that you will just request again and again.

When I feel that the standing vertical flex is perfected, I ask him to move off in a nice steady trot. Then I pull the reins back in exactly the same way I did the standing flex. At first he may be confused. He may think I want him to “Whoa”. Use leg and click to keep him going at the steady trot, but continue to ask him to flex at the poll at the same time. First a short flex of only a second is rewarded with a release. Then hold for more steps until he can do it for an extended period of time.

Remember that flexing and moving at the same time requires muscles he may not be using in his day to day activities. He will need some time to tune up his skeletal muscles.

Now you can move on to Collection

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