Training Exercises: Flex Training

Teaching Your Horse to 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 vertically (up and down).

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!

Vertical Flex is the KEY to Collection : a soft coming into your hands and easy carrying of the bit.

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)

Flexing 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. A horse whose face is to his girth cannot easily run away.

It also helps to teach respect. A horse that is flexed is not protecting himself or exerting his own will. You should get into the habit of flexing laterally several times every time you get your horse from the stall or the paddock. It is my belief that flexing and sending through the paddock gate in a mannerly way are the keys to getting a horse ready for your day.

Just a bit of personal observation here: Many many people believe that hopped-up liberty lunging is the way to start the day. They believe he must be “put through his paces” or “worn down”. Without it, many riders don’t feel confident to mount their horse. My experience has been that horses who walk into a round pen and are expected to lunge endlessly get excited before they ever get started. They anticipate the lunge, get light on their feet, start twirling and being overly sensitive before your day begins. Why they need to be put into a frenzy of right-brain activity before they come down to left-brain control evades me. I don’t believe in it.

I expect a horse to be haltered and enter the round pen as controlled as possible. He should ask me what I would like him to do before he anticipates a hot activity. If you MUST ask your horse to lunge before a ride, ask that it be done at a walk with several “whoa’s”. Then get to the business of riding.

If you want to train, get to training – not running. If part of his training is learning gaits during a lunging exercise, do it later in the process instead of at the very beginning. Ask for attention and up-close control during the first half of the lesson; gait transitions in the last half.

Horse training can be dangerous. Not all methods work on all horses. Instruction presented here is not meant to be prescriptive in nature, and takes no responsibility for the welfare of any animal or person using our methods.

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9 thoughts on “Training Exercises: Flex Training

  1. OK. So everything is fine until you put the bit into his mouth (what type of bit?) and ask for the same routine you did with the halter? Even on the ground: He is responsive on the ground with his halter but unresponsive and stiff doing the same maneuver with a bit.

    Is he a trail horse, a weekend-rider?

    If so, have you tried riding in a side pull? If you follow this blog very much, you will know that it is my favorite piece of equipment. It totally alleviates the need for the bit. In this case, you can experiment, and take the bit out of the equation. It is hard for some people to trust that the horse will be controllable without metal in his mouth, but my experience tells me that many, many of the weekend horses I meet do very well with it.

    Do you have an arena or fenced pasture where you can comfortably try riding him in just his rope halter before investing in a side-pull? If so, wearing a halter instead of his bridle, make sure you test flexing both sides under saddle at a stand, and test the emergency stop as well. If his flexing improves under saddle riding with just the halter, invest in a side-pull and give it a try.

    Read: Side Pull
    Let me know.

    1. Right, everything is fine and I do the same thing with the bit as I do with the rope halter but get a different response. I just use a grazing bit on him. He is just my pleasure horse, we do go trail riding. I do have an arena I can work him in. I’ve actually considered something bit less, like a bit less bridle. I have ridden him bareback with just a halter and lead rope. He neck rains well. So maybe he will be more responsive without the bit. I will definitely give it a try!
      Thank you so much for your help and input.

      1. Nikki, I figured you were probably using a snaffle bit of some type. Maybe it is the grazing bit. It is not meant to be a one-handed bit. It gives him very mixed signals during one-hand reigning – especially if he is good at neck reining. He is used to turning in the opposite direction of the pull across his neck. When you lay the reins to the left across his neck the right rein gets tighter, and his bit actually pulls right, where a snaffle pulls in the direction of the rein drawing his head around.
        see: Curb Bit Basics

        If you really WANT to keep a bit, try a double-jointed snaffle. But I say again, I LOVE a side-pull.

        1. That makes so much sense and now that I think about it that could be his issue.
          Is a side pull similar to a bit less bridle? Can I still neck rain using one?
          Sorry for all the questions 🙂 I just want to make sure I make the right decisions to help him and me!

          1. No problem. It just took us a little to get it figured out.
            The bitless has the reins “crossed” under his chin in such a way that direct rein pressure causes indirect pull to the other side of the face. You lay the reins across his neck and the and the other side of his face feels the pressure moving his head the direction you want to go. The side pull is exactly direct pressure. You pull left, his head is pulled left. (more like a halter). If he is already good at neck reining, he can probably use either.

            1. Great, thank you so much! I will look into a side pull and see if that will help him understand what I’m asking of him and not confuse him. I love your page. It has helped me a lot with many different things. Great advice and explained very well.

  2. Hi Nikki:

    As I re-read your message, I believe your are mounted when you are trying to teach all of the flex exercises? Get off and work on the ground.

    Read: Lateral Flex

    If your horse is able to sidepass or back up, you may not be in the right position relative to his body. You must be at his side, giving him room to bring his head to his girth. Perhaps you are too far forward (blocking his access to his girth) or too far back (pulling back instead of laterally). Put his fanny and/or his side to a fence if you have to. That will also help to limit his responses. If he can’t go back, and he can’t go sideways, you are more likely to get the right move.

    Is he saddled? I find that wearing his saddle gives me something to hold on to if he spins away. That way I can keep the pressure on, dragging his head around, bracing against my hold on the saddle and also spin with him without letting up.

    I’m also surmising that you are releasing before HE is giving. When his head “gives” a tiny bit, release. But not before. When “he will stretch completely out, with his legs”, keep the pressure on. Keep it on until he gives. He can stretch till doomsday, but until he voluntarily brings his head toward the pressure, don’t release. Some particularly stubborn or unschooled horses take several minutes, and your arms may get tired.

    When you say, he “will just throw his head around to the opposite side”, it leads me to believe that you are releasing when he does this. He jerks the reins from your hands? Are you astride him? Do all of the flexing to perfection with a rope halter (on the ground) before you try it with the bit or mounted. The horse you have on the ground is the horse you have under saddle but LESS controllable. If it is not perfect from the ground in both halter and bit, you will never get it under the saddle.

    Unless he has some medical problem, he can do this on both sides easily. If he couldn’t, he couldn’t scratch or relieve an itch on the right side.

    Read: Lateral Flex

    1. I have worked him with a rope halter, with his saddle on while I am on the ground. He flexes very well like that. I do give to every tiny change he gives me, after he gives it to me. I also never relieve the pressure until I get the slightest change. While he I stretched out I continue the pressure until he does give. But, whenever I put the bit in his (while I’m on the ground) that’s when he begins to fight my request. That’s when he will stretch out (not while using a rope halter). I still continue the pressure whenever he throws his head and stretches and he does eventually give the tiniest bit and that’s when I release. But, he will not quit stretching out. He moves and moves ( while I’m continuing the pressure) until he seems tired of moving so then he will stretch out.
      He’s a sweet horse that you can do just about anything on, but flexing is our only issue.

  3. I am having an issue with flexing my horse. When I put his bridle on with the bit he refuses to flex. When I try he just backs up or side passes, he will not turn his neck. Also, whenever I have his rope halter on him he will flex to a certain point (which is not very far) then if I try to get him to flex a little bit further he will stretch completely out, with his legs, and refuses to move and will just throw his head around to the opposite side I’m trying to get him to flex to. I have been working on him, very slowly, having him flex and as soon as I feel a change I release and give him the reward for flexing just a little further than before. But….I’m not sure how to work with this problem.
    He flexes to the left just fine, sometimes takes a few steps then stops and flexes all the way, but to the right he is horrible at it. The right side is my dominant side, which I use in case of any type of emergency but i am not able to do that with him.

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