Flexing Your Horse
Why are flexing exercises important?
Flexing helps you improve and maintain the nice gait your horse already has.
Flexing is the first step to teaching your horse proper collection.
Flexing increases engagement of the hindquarters for proper gaiting. This loss of engagement and lack of suppleness may cause the horse to “fall out of gait.” When this occurs, he is unable to maintain his gait, and he trots or paces.
Flexing exercises are helpful to improve a horse that has become heavy in your hands. It is a particularly useful tool to correct horses that have learned to pull on you and/or that respond with resistance. A horse that is heavy in the headgear will not be as supple, relaxed, or gait as well. You may also experience problems with control.
Paso Finos may carry their tension in their neck and their back. When properly applied, flexing relaxes them. This is a vital step in teaching a horse the “off button” as described in previous article.
Suppleness & Control:
After flexing has been properly taught, it may give you another tool (depending on the particular situation) to “re-direct” a horse's attention, if your horse is acting out. A simple flex or partial flex may be enough, in some situations to re-direct the horse's attention and focus back to the rider.
Flexing exercises helps to create overall suppleness in the body. It teaches them to “follow their nose,” enabling the rider to direct him easily in any direction you ask. Suppleness in the body and responsiveness to light cues is one of the first steps to training a well-trained horse to more easily negotiate trail obstacles, work cattle, barrel race, show, or any event you choose.
The overall purpose is to teach the horse to respond with the touch of our finger. Instead of dragging or pulling the horse around, he will learn to respond lightly and easily, without resistance.
Flexing from the Ground:
It is helpful to introduce these exercises from the ground, before asking from the saddle. Choose a well fitted halter. When you pull on one side of the halter, it should not rotate on the off side and poke into the horse's eye. We prefer a well fitted rope halter.
Position the noseband of the halter lower on the nose than what is normally adjusted. Place the lead rope over his withers loosely. To flex on the left side, stand on the left side with your body placed next to or just behind the shoulder. Place your right hand on the horses withers. Using the fingers of your left hand, place them lightly on the side of the noseband and lightly, using small, short, tugging motions, ask the horse to yield his head to the left side. Use a “tug and slightly release method. (Be careful of the placement of your fingers that they do not get caught up in the halter). If you encounter resistance, the moment you feel this resistance, release and ask again.
Initially, do not ask for the horse to take his nose all the way around to his shoulder. Ask in increments, a little at a time to determine his flexibility, resistance and comfort level. Like any athlete, you are stretching muscles and this must be done gradually and patiently. Repeat the process on his right side, reversing your hand position.
You may have to ask more insistently with the small tug and release, but ALWAYS test the response by going back to the lightest feeling with your hands. The ultimate goal is to ask the horse to respond with the lightest touch possible. Resist the temptation to pull the horse around. Repeat the exercises on both sides of his body. Stretching these muscles may be uncomfortable, at first, so remember to allow him to stretch downward on a loose rope from time to time.
Flexing from the Saddle: Headgear
Horses unfamiliar with flexing are first taught in a jaquima and no bit. Attach one rein to each side ring of the noseband and another set of reins to the barbada (curb). Place one or two fingers between the reins to separate them. (see photo).
Proper attachment of reins:
Adjust your rein that is attached to the noseband slightly shorter than the barbada rein. Place your reins and hands above the withers, with your hands in a forward position, not back by your hips or down into your hips. You will ask for the bend with the rein on the noseband first, and then, finish the bend by engaging the barbada rein by turning your wrist slightly. Use the same light tug and release feel that you used on the ground.
Pay close attention to the way you hold your reins, and be consistent with your technique. If your horse is not used to a barbada, then start off by using only the noseband rein for your flex. This process may take a week to several weeks to accomplish, depending on the flexibility, condition of your horse, former training, and so forth.
Reins and hand position:
When you are flexing on the right, the muscles on the left side of his neck are stretching and the ones on the right are contracting and vice versa, when working on the left flex. For this reason, it's important to remember to work both sides and to alternate frequently between sides to keep muscles from tiring and becoming sore.
How will You know if he is flexing incorrectly?
A correct flex is when the horse's head is able to come around to the shoulder with a flat face. The eye and cheek will be parallel or almost parallel to the shoulder. The horse's poll should be in the middle, without twisting, tilting or leaning in the opposite direction of the flex. The chin is in a tucked position, not jutting outward. Once the horse's head reaches his shoulder, release and praise him.
Correct flex & head position:
An incorrect flex is apparent when the horse leans his head sideways parallel to the ground, in a direction opposite of the direction of the flex. You will see the ears and poll tip over(as opposed to remaining upright) and he will lean his poll over. This may be a classic sign of avoidance.
Incorrect flex & head position:
Other reasons for avoidance are numerous and not limited to the following: sharp teeth, caps on young horse's teeth, conformational problems, improper technique, rushed training, soreness, lack of understanding and so forth.
A Word About Flexing:
It is quite natural and common that the horse will first respond to the pressure with a low flex. Do not worry about this. Until you and the horse have mastered a low flex, do not ask for a higher one. It takes time to develop the correct muscle groups to ask for a higher flexed position. Technique for higher flex will be addressed in a later article.
Lastly, flexing is not something you will do once or until mastered and then forget about it. Think about it, if you get into a routine of stretching your own muscles, what happens to you when you no longer follow that routine? Further, flexing is a training tool. It is something you will continue to use to keep your horse light, supple, relaxed, in control and gaiting properly.