Lateral Flexion is the Key to Vertical Flexion

(Part 2)

by Clinton Anderson


Some of the most common problems:

1. The horse doesn't want to go forward.

2. He tries to kick at your spurs and switches his tail

3. Instead of softening, he will "lock up" and try running backwards.


Photo 12

Problem 1) To control our horse's energy, we must first have energy or "forward motion" to begin with. Usually there are two main types of horse. There are the one's that are easily excited, nervous, always wanting to build speed when put on a loose rein. Then there are the one's that are more "lazy" cold blooded types, that are reluctant to go forward or in general not very motivated.

This basically puts all horses in two main groups; A) energetic and easily excited horses and B) lazy and unwilling to use their energy. Once we decide which group our horse falls into it is much easier to react to unwanted behavior from our horse. The filly in this article falls under A and is generally easier to control and teach to "wait for you" than the horse that falls under B.

Photo 13

Category B horse is generally more disrespectful. He will pin his ears, switches his tail and maybe even kick out at your spur when you ask him to move forward. When you start to bend and soften this type of horse, he will maybe go along with the whole thing as long as he doesn't have to put much effort into the exercise. Now because you are waiting to improve with every circle, he may just decide to shut down all forward motion. He may try a variety of options or maybe all of them. He may refuse to turn and stick his head in the air. He may try to scare you by trying to rear. Usually they will just lift their front legs off the ground one or two feet, mainly to try and make you think he is going to rear right up. Remember a horse can't rear if his feet are moving forward, so yet again get the feet to move. When you ask him to walk forward he may kick out at your spur, switch his tail and just basically say "I'm not going to soften to you and you can't make me".

Photo 14

With this kind of horse the worse punishment you can do to them is make them "work". Yes that's right, make them exercise. Think about it. This horse wants to be lazy; he hates doing physical activity. Especially one that requires a "want to" type of attitude. It's simple; we make the "wrong thing difficult" and the "right thing easy". We must have energy before we can start to control it. So In this case we must get this horse to move forward (release the hand break, so to speak) and eventually do it with a willing attitude. You do it as easily as possible but as firmly as necessary! If you have to get a riding crop to encourage him to go forward that's fine, but remember you do what you have to do to get the job done.

Photo 15

Now that you have your horse moving forward start to canter him around, continuously changing direction. This helps because you horse doesn't know which direction he will go next and in time creates a "what do you want me to do next" attitude from your horse. After maybe 5 to 10 minutes of this cantering and constant change of direction, try and go back to your lateral flexion exercise. What normally happens is your horse is more than willing to cooperate now because he realizes the lateral flexion exercises is much easier than cantering around using more of his energy. During the lateral flexion exercise, if your horse starts to give you the old "I don't want to do it" attitude, repeat the cantering drill again. Usually within one ride you can see an overwhelming improvement in your horse's attitude. All you did was make the "wrong thing difficult" and the "right thing easy".

Photo 16

Problem 2) Your horse "locks up" his head and neck and refuses to turn. He then tries backing up as opposed to softening to the rein pressure. Now what most people want to do is release the rein pressure when the horse starts to back up. By doing this you are actually teaching your horse to fight against you rather than soften to you. Look at it from your horse's point of view. "Right, all I have to do is resist and run backwards and I get rewarded". He got rewarded when you released the rein and leg pressure. You always want to reward the horse but only when he tries to soften to your request.

Now try this instead of getting all upset about your horse's fighting against you. Just let him continue backing and when he turns, you release the rein and leg pressure. For example, let's say he is backing up instead of turning to the right. All I will do is hold my right hand farther out to the side of my body and rub my right spur just behind the girth. By extending my hand out to the side it gives me better "lateral control". And makes it easier for the horse to understand you want him to turn to the right (remember you exaggerate to teach and refine as you go along). The reason why I will use my right leg in his side is to create an uncomfortable feeling that he will want to get away from. Meaning that when he softens to his rib cage around my leg he will also soften his face as well.

Imagine you are sitting in a chair and you push your rib cage to the right. Then I get my thumb and firmly rub it against your side. To begin with you can still push against my thumb but after awhile it will start to irritate you but when you move your rib cage away from my thumb, you instantly got relief. When you softened your rib cage you also softened your head and neck to the right as well. Remember we said the resistance is in the body not in the mouth! I made it difficult for you to push against me (the horse pulling on the rein) and easy for you to relax and soften. And all of it was your choice. It's important that when he turns instead of running backwards that you release the rein and leg pressure immediately to reward him for trying. Through repetition he will start to turn and soften instead of resisting and running backwards. Horses learn through repetition. The more you soften and bend the more willing and responsive he will be.

Now that this filly is doing our "lateral flexion" exercise well and is willing to soften to my rein and leg pressure I will begin to start Vertical Flexion". In this article I have done lateral and vertical flexion all in one ride. However if your horse is still quite resistant with the bending exercise, don't move to vertical flexion. Remember lateral flexion is the key! If you haven't got a soft and willing partner in grade 1 don't move to grade 2. By skipping grades and trying to force your horse to do more complicated exercises, you'll only create more resistance. I would strongly recommend that you spend 3 or 4 days doing nothing but lateral flexion. The softer he is with this exercise the easier it will be to gain vertical flexion (collection of the poll).

To start vertical flexion, I begin at the stand still and when he understands that he has to soften to my hands I'll work at the walk then trot and canter. Always making sure your horse is completely comfortable and understands step one before you move to step 2. This type of thinking makes it so easy for your horse to progress to more difficult exercises without you fighting with him.

Stand still: First I'll place both of my hands on my thighs and in doing so I make contact with the filly 's mouth. (Photo 12) What I would like this filly to do is immediately give to my hands and drop her head, neck and poll downwards and back to me. However what most horses do and this filly is no exception, is to lift their head and neck and fight against your hands. (Photo 12) They also will probably start to back up to try to escape the pressure instead of giving at the poll and keeping their feet still. When this happens most people want to release the reins and try again. Which is exactly the opposite of what you should do. Think about it, the horse was rewarded (rein pressure released) when he resisted against the reins and ran backwards.

Photo 17

When your horse gives you this negative reaction, you just simply freeze your hands on your thighs and wait for him to soften. To begin with your horse may back 30 or 40 steps before he stands still. Even when he eventually stands still he will still probably be pulling against your hands. You must not release any rein pressure while the horse is pulling against your hands. But the second your horse softens his poll and give even just an inch or so it's very important to instantly throw your hand forward and release the rein pressure to reward him. (Photo 13) By fixing your hands on your thighs you are in a good position to tell if he is still pulling or he has softened a little bit. Because your hands haven't moved, if the reins are still tight you know he is still fighting against you and also when you feel a release in the reins you know and also see and feel he has softened as well. Where as if our hands are in mid air pulling when your horse does soften a little bit you may not realize it because your hands are still pulling and you will remove any slack the horse creates by giving to the bridle.

Once your horse softens for the first time it won't take long before he looks for that same "reward" he got the first time. Remember horses learn through repetition. You exaggerate to teach and refine as you go along. Depending how resistant your horse is, it may take two or three rides before he is quite soft at the stand still.

Vertical flexion (collection) at the walk is basically the same as the standstill. I usually start the horse walking forward and then apply the rein pressure. Once again make sure you fix your hands on your thighs and apply some leg pressure to encourage your horse to keep walking forward. The reason we will add our legs is because most horses will try to stop or back up when the rein pressure is applied. Our leg will reinforce "move forward and soften". True collection is where you drive the back of your horse into your hands.

Photo 18

Just set it up and let your horse figure it out. (Photo 14) To start with, it may take 3 or 4 steps before he softens his poll. The main thing to concentrate on is the release of the rein pressure when he softens. Without the reward it is meaningless to your horse.

After 15 steps or so the filly decides there was no "reward or relief" in fighting against my hands and she "chose" to soften her poll. (Photo 15) Once the filly gave to me, I let her walk on a loose rein for 15 steps and then repeated the exercise again. Only this time she didn't walk as long before softening to my hands and legs. (Photo 16)

Usually I'll walk beside an arena fence to do the exercise or pick out a post and ride straight to it. Don't forget to do some lateral flexion in between your poll softening exercise, just as a friendly reminder to you horse that you are the one that "calls the shots" so to speak.

Photo 19

In time you can repeat this at the jog and then the lope. Keep in mind though the faster you go the more difficult it will be. Especially if you haven't mastered the previous step (for example: Standstill, walk, jog, and lope). If you have problems go back and repeat the previous step until you see your horse is ready to try to move up a grade again.

This filly has sure made a drastic improvement, wouldn't you say? Look how soft she is. (Photos 17 & 18) Note how my hands have hardly any pressure on the reins. Compare these photos to the photos when I first got on her!

This entire ride lasted 33 minutes from start to finish. Imagine what can be accomplished when you gain control of the rest of the body, shoulders, ribs and hindquarters. (Photo 19).



A native Australian, Clinton Anderson was born with a love for horses and an extraordinary, natural talent for working with them which has been encouraged and honed since he was a young boy.

Clinton made his first trip to America in 1995, and has since made the USA his home. Presently, he and his wife, Beth, are based in Texas. His weekends are reserved for clinics. Between weekends he dedicates his time to his reining futurity horses.

Seeing is believing, but learning for yourself makes the difference. Why not buy his range of videos or treat yourself and your horses by attending one of his upcoming clinics or, schedule one for your own area. Clinton accepts up to 12 riders in each clinic - rides each horse - and helps each rider with specific problems, or, helps them learn how to expand and enhance their horse's performance.

More details are available from Clinton's website or you can email him at or click here




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