Editor’s Note: For more groundwork tips from Clinton, check out his series “Groundwork for Everyone” in the June 2009 through February 2010 issues of Horse & Rider.
In the December 2004 issue of Horse & Rider magazine, I gave you tips for gaining your horse’s respect. In this special online excerpt from my new book, I’m going to explain how to help your horse flex to the halter.
Flexing to the halter increases a horse’s suppleness and builds a foundation for flexibility and direction control under saddle. If the horse flexes well from the ground, you’ll have few problems flexing him under saddle.
Tools Needed: Rope halter, 14-foot lead rope
1. For this exercise, position the halter slightly lower on the horse’s nose than usual. This will make it easier for your horse to understand your cues. It’ll also make it more difficult for your horse to pull against you or ignore you.
2. Stand by your horse’s flank, with your belly button facing him. “Hug” your horse, putting the arm closest to his tail over his hips or hindquarters. Fold the lead rope in half and drape it over his back.
3. Slide the other hand down the lead rope about 2 1/2 feet from the clip. Pull the lead rope to the horse’s withers, bending his head toward you.
4. As soon as the horse gives to the pressure, creating slack in the lead rope, and his feet don’t move, quickly drop the rope to reward him. Repeat several times on both sides.
Common Handler Mistakes
Standing too far forward. Stay by the flank. Standing close to the shoulder doesn’t allow enough space for the horse to turn his head and yield to the pressure you create. You also run a greater risk of the horse stepping on your foot.
Drawing the rope over the horse’s back. Keep your hand on the side where you’re standing. Don’t let the cueing hand cross over the horse’s spine.
Holding your hand up in the air. Keep your hand beside the horse’s withers. This will give you stability and you’ll be able to recognize the slightest try on his part. If necessary, put both hands on the rope.
Releasing too slowly when the horse gives. The quicker you release the pressure, the sooner your horse will learn the lesson.
Pulling the horse’s head all the way around. Only pull the horse’s head about 3/4 the way around. Let him decide to yield the rest of the way. This keeps your horse light and ensures you don’t get into a pulling contest with him.
Not allowing the horse to straighten his neck between exercises. Let him straighten his head and neck for five seconds or so after he’s flexed. This rewards him and provides an incentive for him to flex the next time you ask. When you release, make sure there’s enough slack in the rope to ensure no tension on the horse’s head.
Releasing the rope in order to tighten it. If you need to tighten the lead rope, keep it taut with the hand on the withers. Pull the rope through with the other hand.
Jerking on the rope. Resist the temptation to jerk on the horse’s head-follow the steps and be patient.
Falling out of position when the horse moves. Hug the hindquarters to help keep you in the correct position. Keep your cueing hand firmly on the withers. Stay with the horse until his feet stop and he softens toward you.
Common Horse Mistakes
Walking around or backing up. Your horse may try to move away from the cue at first. Don’t correct him. Stay in position until his feet stop and he softens toward you.
Leaning on the halter. Again, there’s seldom a need for correction. Anchor your cueing hand securely beside his withers and wait. If the horse actually falls asleep, however, bump his belly with your knee and wake him up a bit.
Smelling you. The horse may be more interested in smelling you than in flexing and giving to the pressure. Wait patiently until he makes the correct decision.
Softening but nibbling on his side or belly. In the early stages, as long as the horse doesn’t bite you, ignore this behavior. Allow him to rest, then continue the exercise.
If the horse doesn’t seem to understand the concept, make sure your lead rope isn’t too short. The object isn’t to pull the horse’s head all the way around his body.
If he understands the concept early in the lesson, but gets less and less responsive, you’re probably releasing the pressure too slowly. Drop the leadrope and give immediate relief when the horse flexes and softens.
Tips for Success
Remember to reward the slightest try. You can eventually ask for more and more flex until the horse touches his side with his nose. At first, however, release as soon as the horse willingly yields to the pressure, creating slack in the lead rope.
Repetition keeps the horse light. For an easy way to work this exercise into your daily routine, flex the horse at least five times on each side every time you catch him.
Clinton Anderson presents horsemanship clinics across the country. For more information, visit www.downunderhorsemanship.com.
To order Downunder Horsemanship, call 1-800-952-5813 or visit HorseBooksEtc.com.