Training Exercises: Vertical Flex

The Goal


The goal of this exercise is to teach your horse to yield to pressure at his poll. This is first used to induce a horse to lower his head for easy haltering or bridling. It is further used to start your horse lowering his head and tucking his nose in preparation for Collection. It is also a very good softening and attitude-adjustment exercise. A horse whose head is low and easy is relaxed. He is not thinking about protecting himself or objecting to your requests. If you start every ride asking him to lower his head for his halter, proceed through his paddock gate on request, and back up when you meet him on the other side, you will have 3 tremendously calming exercises before you even start your day.

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. While the colt in the video is a sweetheart and easy to catch, it would be very nice if he knew this exercise. It will be next on his agenda.

Vertical Flex training uses the same principles as lateral flex does. I start my horses on the ground with direct pressure from my hands at the poll.

I take his halter in one hand, then reach up, find the occipital knob just between and behind his ears and find the little indentions on either side (maybe an inch back). Most horses are sensitive in this area. I begin to “pinch” the indentions between my thumb and middle finger – first very gently, then with medium pressure, then uncomfortably if I have not gotten a response.

The horse often raises his head in alarm the first couple of tries, but I keep pressing if I can hang on, following the evasive maneuvers until he purposely or accidentally lowers his head a bit. This is sometimes hard to follow with a very tall horse who can raise his head higher than I can reach. Holding on to the halter helps, but sometimes I have to ask a taller person to do this exercise until the “fighting” stops.

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 two or three sessions 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. It takes longer for them drop it and then hold it low.

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, as he holds the low position longer, 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 heads low when they greet me (in anticipation of their cheek rubs).

horse's head lowered for a cheek scratch
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.

Under Saddle


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 or side-pull. 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 and bring his face vertical 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. Also remember that collection involves more than just his face. When he is collected he must move the power to the rear and round his back as well. We’re not there yet, but the first piece is underway.

Now you can move on to Collection

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