Training Exercises: Lateral Flex

Teaching Your Horse the Lateral Flex

The object of this exercise is to teach your horse to move his neck and shoulders: to bend and flex laterally (left to right and vise versa). Lateral flexion is a HUGE basic lesson that all horses must learn on the way to training. Without it there is no control, no steering, sometimes not even good balance. It also helps to teach respect. A horse that is flexed is not protecting himself or exerting his own will. A horse whose face is to his girth cannot easily run away.

Lateral Flex is the KEY to every exercise from now on. It prepares your horse mentally for your partnership and teaches him to be “soft” and supple” in the turn and controlled when you mount. The Lateral Flex is also the very foundation of the emergency stop!

The Flexing lessons use three of the training principles used by all trainers:

Physical pressure: that is the tactile feelings such as the bit against the bars in his mouth or the rope halter pulling at the side of his face. (see Pressure)

Release is the reward that the rider or trainer gives the horse for executing the proper maneuver. (see Release Training)

Shaping is the term used for GRADUALLY lengthening or fine-tuning a response. (see Shaping)

Teaching a horse to yield to pressure is a paramount building block of horse training. Yielding will turn into an entire resistance-free attitude.

Start with teaching your horse to flex his neck laterally (left to right and vice versa) in response to your request:

While still on the ground with your horse wearing a halter, stand with your side at his flank facing his head. Drape the lead rope over his back. Then grab the lead with the hand closest to his head and begin to pull the halter back toward you (around to his side) and slightly up toward his withers. You are “dragging” his head around to his girth or stirrup line (as shown in red above).

Don’t be surprised if he resists the pull at first. He will probably be very rigid, as if he can’t possibly bend that far. (It is obvious that your horse is capable of turning his head far enough to bite his side if he had an itch. Don’t be misled into believing he CAN’T turn that far).

He may begin to turn in a circle, disengaging his rear rather than bending at the neck – especially if you have done a lot of disengaging. Follow him calmly, but don’t let up the pressure. The object is to get his muzzle to touch his girth. This is where you can get stepped on if his front spins around and lands on your foot, so watch for that.

(Performing the exercise while parallel to a fence often helps, as his rear is inhibited from rotating away from you. If he is a large horse or you a small person, it sometimes helps to do this exercise while he wears a saddle because you can hold on to the saddle as he spins around. A rope halter is also better than a flat halter for this exercise.)

Be persistent and keep pulling his head steadily and with resolve. He is not used to this request, feels vulnerable, and has not acquired good balance here. It takes a little practice.

Scrimshaw flexingEventually, you will feel him move his head toward the barrel of his chest, giving in to the pull ever so slightly. Just a TINY NOD in the direction of his girth is considered successful for the first baby step. RELEASE your pull immediately when you feel his head comply. He doesn’t have to be all of the way to his chest yet. “Baby steps” should be rewarded.

Let him bring his head back to the forward position. Now ask again. Pull steadily on his halter toward his side again. Don’t release until he actually moves his head under his own power toward the girth line. The moment he gives in and moves his head voluntarily (a tiny bit closer to his girth this time), RELEASE. Repeat this procedure, releasing as soon as he is voluntarily assuming the position you desire, shaping his movement until he is moving his head all of the way around to the stirrup line, touching his side with his nose, and holding that position for several seconds. (I often stroke my horse’s cheek as she is touching her girth. She sometimes falls asleep in this position with gentle strokes and no pressure) That is how easy this exercise should become. Your horse should swing his head as easily as a door on a well-oiled hinge.

Teach both sides of your horse. (see Two Brains)

Ask for more precision and more energy

When he is very good at this exercise, we will up the ante a little bit. We want him to flex instantly and always, even in tense or high-stakes activities when you may be less attentive and might be using a stronger hand than usual. Do not use this correction until the horse is very good and easy at the flex exercise.

Start your regular flex routine. This time, pick up on the rope. If you make contact with his face before he comes around like his neck is oiled with WD40, count one full second (one-one thousand) then start “bumping” on the halter with quick, sharp pops in a steady rhythm. He may startle because you have not done this before, but we want him to get used to a higher level of force without freaking out.

It’s almost like starting over, but won’t take nearly as long. Follow him if he moves. Continue to rhythmically bump until his nose moves toward his belly. The very second he moves his nose closer to his belly, (even if his feet are still moving), release. He will soon understand that moving his nose to his belly will stop the halter knocking.

Repeat this until he is touching his belly as soon as you begin to slide your hand down the rope. If he resists at any time, resume bumping.

From now on, his life is a series of lateral flexes: 5 on each side when you first get him from the pasture or stall, when you put him away at night, when you tack-up, before you mount, after you mount. It prepares both his mind and his body for your partnership. You will have the softest and most supple horse in the world – the most cooperative horse. Lateral Flex is the KEY to every exercise from now on.

Lateral Flex Under Saddle

The next step will be to teach the horse to flex while under saddle. It is almost exactly the same procedure. While astride, lean down and grasp your rein about 1/2-2/3 down and pull it back and up toward your waistline.

Because she has done this routinely on the ground, your horse will probably get the hang of this fairly quickly.
horse doing flex
If she tries to turn in a circle instead of just bending her head toward her girth, just keep riding the circle until she stops. At the point where she voluntarily gives to the pressure with her head, release. (Remember, baby steps are to be rewarded until she gets all of the way around to your boot) Then try again. Relax, Try again.

When this is accomplished without fanfare, introduce the halter-bump request. She should not be so startled by the knocks because she experienced them from the ground. My horse is as light as a thread for the lateral flex, so she doesn’t NEED to be “punished” by a bumping halter. However, I want her to be steady if my request is hurried, and rougher than usual. In essence I am de-sensitizing her to inconsiderate cues.

Later, when under saddle, every ride will start with lateral flexing to both sides before “walk-on”.

The next step is to turn flex “yielding” into an entire resistance-free attitude. The horse will need to learn to move each body part separately until he generalizes the exercises into a life habit.

You already have a good start. And you are well on your way to the emergency one-rein stop, which requires that the horse instantly bring his head to his girth, even while moving. (This posture makes it very difficult to continue to “run away”.) You will also have an easy time with bending around your leg when you start teaching direction.

Here is a good video that demonstrates the lateral flex and the one-rein stop.

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