An Exercise in Softness: Flexing at the Standstill by Clinton Anderson
Photos courtesy of Darrell Dodds
To be able to slide your hand down one rein and with the lightest amount of pressure ask the horse to bend his head and neck around to the side and have his nose touch your boot, jeans, stirrup or the fender of the saddle. The horse should be so soft and supple that you can get him to bend and soften by only sliding your thumb and index finger down the rein.
Horses don’t have hard mouths they have hard, stiff bodies. The softer you can get your horse through his five body parts (head and neck, poll, shoulders, ribcage and hindquarters) the softer he will feel in your hands, and the more responsive he will be overall. I work on getting the horse soft and supple through his head and neck by teaching him to flex from side to side. If you don’t get a horse soft and supple laterally, when you pick up on the reins he’s going to lean against the pressure and fight you. Lateral flexion is the key to vertical flexion, meaning that the softer the horse is from side to side, the easier it will be to get him to tuck his nose in vertically and collect.
1) At the standstill, hold the middle of the reins in one hand. Then slide your free hand halfway down the rein and pull it up to your hip.
Follow the seam of your jeans up to your hip and hold it there until the horse keeps his feet still and softens. In order to slide your hand down the rein without having to lean over and unbalance yourself, bring the rein up to you. Hold the middle of the rein, and then lift it up before sliding your opposite hand down the rein. As you go to flex the horse’s head, bring the hand holding the middle of the reins back down to the horse’s mane.
3) When the horse’s feet stop moving and he softens to the rein pressure, immediately drop the rein out of your hand and let his head straighten out.
The horse’s nose should actually touch your boot, jeans, stirrup or fender. As soon as it does, instantly reward him by dropping the rein. If his nose touches but his feet are moving, it doesn’t count. He has to soften AND keep his feet still. Horses learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself, so be conscious of your timing.
4) Flex the horse’s head and neck from one side to the other.
Pick up with steady pressure and wait for the horse to stand still and soften. As soon as he creates a little bit of slack in the reins, immediately release the pressure to reward him.
5) Eventually, you should be able to pick up on the rein with two fingers and have the horse immediately soften and touch his nose to your boot, jeans, stirrup or the fender of the saddle.
Tip: Use a Snaffle Bit
For the majority of training that I do with my horses, I use a snaffle bit. Snaffle bits are meant to encourage lateral flexion as opposed to shank bits that encourage vertical flexion. I start all horses in snaffle bits because lateral flexion is the key to vertical flexion. In other words, the softer you can get your horse from side to side, the softer he’ll be vertically. In fact, even when I do switch my performance horses to shank bits, I still ride them two or three times each week in a snaffle bit to work on suppling exercises. You can get a horse a lot softer through his entire body using a snaffle as opposed to a shank bit. My theory is if a horse is light and responsive in a snaffle, he’ll be even better in a shank bit.
Author note: Clinton Anderson is a clinician, horse trainer and competitor. He’s dedicated his life to helping others realize their horsemanship dreams. Learn more about the Downunder Horsemanship Method at www.downunderhorsemanship.com.
This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 4
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