When you can get your horse to bend and soften laterally around your leg, it’ll create more softness in everything else you do with him. Remember, horses don’t have hard mouths, they have stiff bodies. If you can get your horse’s body soft and responsive to your leg, he’ll automatically become softer in his mouth.
With this exercise, you’ll teach your horse to bend and soften through his entire body. You’ll do this by teaching him to walk a small circle while bending around your inside leg and softening to your inside rein, maintaining the bend by himself. Your goal is to keep him soft and supple through his whole body, from his nose to his tail.
You’ll need: Your usual schooling tack and an enclosed work area with good footing. You’ll also need to wear gentle spurs and carry a spanker or dressage whip to reinforce your leg aids. (To order spurs and a spanker from Downunder Horsemanship, go to www.downunderhorsemanship.com.)
Before you begin: Lead your horse to the work area, mount up, and walk him forward on a loose rein.
Step 1. Slide your hand down the rein. You’ll first bend your horse to the left. To do this, slide your left hand down the left rein. How far you slide your hand down the rein will depend on how soft and supple your horse is and how willing he is to go forward.
If your horse is stiff, you won’t be able to slide your hand down very far, because he won’t be able to bend and walk forward at the same time. If he’s fairly soft and supple, you can slide your hand down farther on the rein, because he’ll be able to bend while maintaining forward motion.
Step 2. Cue with rein and leg pressure. Pull the left rein up to your hip. At the same time, press the middle of your horse’s ribcage with your inside (left) leg.
Keep your outside (right) hand down in your horse’s mane, so that the outside rein is loose. Let your outside (right) leg hang without applying pressure.
If your horse doesn’t respond to your rein and leg pressure, roll your inside spur to encourage him to yield his ribcage to that pressure. Continue to hold the inside rein at your hip and roll with your inside spur until he softens.
Step 3. Release the pressure. As soon as your horse is walking forward and around (that is, all four of his feet are moving forward) and he drops his nose down toward your toe, instantly drop your inside hand to your kneecap, and release your leg. Your horse should remain walking the circle, bending his head and neck with slack in the rein.
Don’t actually drop the rein out of your hand. You’ll continue holding the rein as you lower your hand to your knee.
Your hand and leg should work together like a pulley system. When you pull the rein up to your hip, apply leg pressure to your horse’s ribcage at the same time. When he softens, immediately release the rein to your kneecap, and release your inside leg at the same time. When he tries to take his nose back, pull the rein to your hip again.
At first, you won’t be able to keep your hand at your knee for very long, because as soon as you release it, your horse will try to take his nose back, and you’ll have to pull it to your hip again. As he gets better, he’ll start leaving his nose bent for a second before taking it away. Through repetition, he’ll realize that when you release your hand and leg he’s not supposed to straighten out his head and neck.
Step 4. Maintain forward movement. Always sacrifice bend for forward movement. It’s better to have a little bend with your horse moving forward, than a lot of bend with him pivoting on his front feet. You want him to walk forward and around, not pivoting on his front feet.
Whenever your horse loses forward motion, get it back by pressing or rolling your spur in the middle of his ribcage. You may also have to use your spanker or dressage whip to encourage him to go forward. If you don’t have forward movement, you can’t train your horse.
Step 5. Perform circle work. Do three or four circles to the left. When your horse softens, drop the rein completely, and let him walk straight for 15 to 20 feet.
Step 6. Bend to the right. Switch sides, and repeat Steps 1-5 to the right. If you continue to drill on the same side, your horse’s head and neck will get tired, and he’ll start to pull against you.
I usually spend two-thirds of my time on the stiffer side and a third on the softer side. As you practice, the sides may change, so you’ll have to adjust accordingly.
Keep in mind your horse may give only a little in the beginning, so don’t try to get a lot of bend in the first lesson. It may take three or four lessons before he can actually touch your boot. Every day you practice this exercise, he should get softer and have more bend through his whole body.
Clinton Anderson grew up in Queensland, Australia, learning to ride as a teenager and training with many of his country's top horsemen. In 1997, he relocated to the United States to perfect his Downunder Horsemanship program. Under Anderson's guidance, horses learn to respect and respond to their handlers, developing willing partnerships. To learn more about Downunder Horsemanship, Clinton Anderson Walkabout Tours, and more, visit www.downunderhorsemanship.com.