When you pick up on your reins while squeezing with your legs, does your horse immediately soften to the bit, tuck his nose in, and create slack in the reins?
Or does he pull on the bit, brace his neck against it, and/or try to speed up instead?
If he opts for the latter set of responses, then this month’s arena exercise is for you. I’ll show you how to use lateral flexion that is, bringing your horse’s nose slightly to one side to achieve soft vertical flexion (flexing at the poll), at a trot.
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Why You Need This
It’s important to teach your horse to soften vertically because whenever a horse’s poll gets above the level of the saddle horn, your control of him is compromised.
Why? When a horse braces up against the bit and raises his head and neck, he’s in a powerful position where he can avoid your rein cues and therefore do as he likes.
The soft feel you’ll begin to obtain with this exercise can, given additional training, eventually turn into true collection the softness and responsiveness throughout your horse’s body that makes him a true pleasure to ride.
This exercise will teach him to soften at the poll whenever you pick up on both reins while closing your legs.
For Best Results?
- Your horse should already be able to travel around your arena’s perimeter, next to the fence, without constant guidance.
- Outfit your horse in a snaffle bit; you’ll be riding with two hands for clearest communication.
- Do groundwork first to get your horse relaxed and using the thinking side of his brain.
- Allow at least three or four sessions of working on this exercise, ideally on consecutive days, to give your horse enough time to “get it.”
Warm your horse up by walking, trotting, and loping around your arena’s perimeter. For this exercise, you’ll stay along the fence so you don’t have to worry about steering and your horse can focus on what you’re asking him to do.
When he’s ready to work, proceed at a posting trot (rising slightly out of the saddle every other step) on a loose rein, holding the middle of your reins with your inside hand.
When your horse has a steady, forward rhythm, your next move will be to pick up on your reins in a specific sequence I’ll describe in a moment, plus squeeze with both your legs in the middle of your horse’s ribcage to encourage him to maintain his forward movement.
The sequence of steps in picking up on the reins involves flexing your horse’s neck slightly to one side, then using the opposite rein to simultaneously straighten out his neck and achieve the vertical flexion you’re after.
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Begin by placing both hands side-by-side on the middle (endpoint) of the reins. Then slide one hand about 10″ down the rein. (To start, choose the side your horse is normally the stiffest and most resistant on.)
Next, slide your other hand a bit down the rein on the other side, as well. (You won’t be doing anything with this hand at this point in the sequence, but you want to be ready to use it in a moment.)
Now, tip your horse’s head to the side by bringing your original hand back to a midpoint on your thigh and gluing it there (see photo 3).
Then straighten your horse’s neck and tip his nose back to the center by bringing your other hand back to a midpoint on that thigh.
Try to avoid pulling too hard; your goal is to apply just enough steady pressure that your horse gives to the bit on his own.
Throughout the rein-cue sequence, remember to keep squeezing with both your legs to maintain your horse’s forward motion. If you don’t use your legs enough, your horse will simply slow down when you apply the rein pressure.
Now, as your horse’s neck straightens back out, be alert for the moment when he softens vertically to the bit, creating a bit of slack in the reins. The instant he does this, throw the reins away and go back to holding them in their middle with your inside hand. I tell my students to do this quickly, as if the reins were burning their hands (more on that in a moment).
At the same time, release your leg pressure as well. Both these releases, done instantaneously, enable your horse to tell that it’s his softening to the bit that you’re rewarding.
In other words, he’ll understand that his putting slack in the reins is what you wanted, so he’ll be more likely to do it when you ask him again the next time around.
The ‘Hot Potato’
I call my immediate pitching of the reins a “hot-potato give” because I want it to simulate what I’d do if someone threw a hot potato to me. And I want my horse to come to think that every time I pick up on the reins, the bit becomes a hot potato, and he should immediately soften and get “off” of it. As soon as he does, of course, I drop the reins as if they’re burning me.
This imagery really helps, because the quicker you can release the pressure when your horse gives to the bit, the quicker he’ll learn and the softer he’ll get.
Once your horse gives to the bit and you respond with the hot-potato give, let him trot on a loose rein for a bit as a further reward for doing the right thing.
Then repeat the exercise, eventually tipping your horse’s head in the other direction as well. Then reverse directions, and again tip your horse’s head both ways to achieve first lateral and then vertical flexion, always pitching the reins the instant you feel your horse soften, even just a little.
Eventually, you’ll be able to begin holding a soft feel on the reins for a moment longer before releasing the pressure. Over time, this teaches your horse to maintain his soft connection with you through the reins. But at first, the most important thing is always to pitch the reins in response to his softening, so he doesn’t get confused.