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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
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Flexion Lateral
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To the layman, flexion appears to be only a downward flexion of the neck, but the real horseman knows it is the beginning of one of the most necessary ingredients of pure horsemanship, roundness in the horse's top line. It's totally dependent on two things: the amount of relaxed flexion in the neck and the amount of collection or "reach" from behind.  Each turn and every exercise begins with flexion, including; backup, stop, riding through corners, circles and changes of direction, serpentines, leg yielding, increasing and decreasing the size of circles, turns on the forehand and haunches, side passing, lateral movements, flying lead changes and so forth.  If the horse uses its body with proper flexion, it will be healthier and more powerful.  Also, it will be more comfortable and balanced, which will help it be a better and more cooperative partner.  A horse that uses its body in a negative way, such as with its head in the air, looking to the outside of a circle, and with a hollow back, will not just be tight and sore. Physically, this horse is in a position of stress, with adrenaline naturally coursing through its body and a constant strain on its internal organs and joints. The horse will be more distracted and fearful as well. Its balance will be constantly affected, its body weight will throw the limbs into unnatural and detrimental positions, and eventually stiffness and lameness will result. The horse’s whole health can be affected.  A horse that has been encouraged or taught to use proper flexion will be softer and more responsive and ride.  The horse can carry a rider’s weight much better and can carry its own body weight much more effectively, without twisting its limbs into painful positions. It will be able to bend its limbs effortlessly and use its hind legs for power and forward motion rather than its forehand.  A horse that uses good flexion shows that its human partner is aware of how it moves and has put the time and effort into helping it be healthier and more agile. And who among us doesn’t want that?


What Is Flexion?

Whether you are doing exercises on the ground or in the saddle and perhaps you may have noticed the horse use very inefficient or negative forms of flexion. You may have heard this referred to as a “bad banana,” with the horse’s head high and it’s back hollow. You may see legs that move very straight and choppy. The horse may look to the outside of a circle.  As you progress through the levels of training with your horse, you will want to achieve certain flexions that are beneficial. For example: a horse that lifts its withers and tucks its hindquarters in a back-up, a horse that follows the direction of the circle with its nose and spine, and a horse that is able to change his body shape into various forms of lateral movements. 


Where do I Start?

With a Behavior and Learning Pattern analysis written report , then developing a proper training plan for each horse to establish solid Foundations of Ground and Mounted Training!  Think of each exercise on the ground as part of a whole; you will not teach one, skip one or put it on the shelf.  They are all linked exercises of a progressive system and they should all become part of your routine.  When you hit a snag in the saddle, you can back to the exercise to correct the undesirable behavior or to the very beginning if you need to and refresh your horse’s memory.  For the basics of this article to develop a soft and supple horse, I am going to divide flexion into main categories: lateral flexion, vertical flexion, bend, longitudinal flexion and flexion of the joints:




Lateral Flexion



It will be quicker and easier to teach the horse the all-important basics of lateral flexion if we start on the ground before attempting to do it mounted. Your hands must learn to take, to wait to release and to praise.  You can make yourself more clearly understood from the ground because you will not be using your reins or legs for balance. If you teach a clear, individual response, you can teach the horse to follow a feel or improve his response and prevent him from pulling against your hands. Learning to have “good hands” is of crucial importance if you are to become a true horseman in the saddle.  If you don’t work on lateral flexion, your horse will tend to lean against rein pressure and fight you.  Lateral flexion is the key to vertical flexion. The softer your horse is from side to side, the easier it’ll be to get him to tuck his nose in vertically and collect.



Vertical Flexion



Vertical flexion refers mostly to a “head set” but needs to be just one piece of longitudinal flexion, rather than one’s idea that it is the whole goal. The horse should bend its neck at the poll and have the front of its face just in front of a vertical line, hence the name, “vertical flexion.”  An important note:  Vertical flexion is your horse giving his face in answer to a pressure from both reins.  He will flex at the poll, bringing his head into a vertical position in relation to the ground.  In the picture to the right, Forest Jac shows a rounded frame with well engaged hind-quarters. A collected outline can only be achieved if the horse's back is lifted up. This happens when the abdominal muscles are engaged, fully support ing the horse's mid-section. The rider will feel a soft swing under the saddle. In turn the shoulders are elevated, giving the rider a feeling of no longer riding 'downhill'. Rein contact at this stage is minimal, with the horse maintaining this frame not because of the action of the reins but because the whole of his body is being held correctly - hence the expression 'self-carriage'. Developing a rounded frame in any horse will increase it's long-term soundness, longevity and well-being.



Bending in the training environment one often hears that the horse must be evenly from head to tail around the rider's inside leg. This is only provisionally correct, for the horse's spinal column is a solid structure of interconnected vertebrae, which can't bend very much in itself.  The "bend" is manifested when the horse yields in its ribcage to the pressure of the rider's inside leg.  This is supported by the rider's right leg, moved slightly back and well draped against the horse.  In the corner, the horse needs to bend slightly more. The degree of flexion asked for leads the horse into the desired degree of bend, which will depend upon the level of the horse's training.

Longitudinal Flexion


What is Longitudinal Flexion?

Being on the bit or longitudinal flexion, as it should be called, has to do with the total horse.  When a horse is on the bit; his skeletal position as well as his use of his muscles changes.  To be on the bit connotes relaxation, suppleness of muscles, elasticity in the joints, elegance and obedience. That is both the foundation and the substance of all dressage work. The most important feature of a horse on the bit is that he is longitudinally flexed, thereby becoming a shorter horse, capable of moving deeper under his own weight with the hindquarters, lifting the weight up rather than pushing it forward.  The longitudinally flexed horse is well poised to carry his rider, and therefore will be able to surrender his haunches to the rider’s will and become obedient rather than subservient to force.  A horse with this kind of flexion will be able to support a rider’s weight with its uplifting back and it will not slam its forelimbs into the ground with every stride since the hind limbs reach forward and support the horse’s weight just under the withers. The horse that has a strong top line will be more evenly balanced and will not over-weight one leg versus the others. Also, a horse that uses its top line well will be more powerful, agile and is often eye-catching in the field.


Flexion of the joints


A horse that flexes its joints appropriately will not be stiff or creaky. A horse that moves with its legs very rigidly or, in the very opposite, with high stepping overuse of its joints is not using its core body effectively. If you are achieving good flexion of the joints, your horse will reach forward equally with fore and hind limbs and can bend its legs appropriately for the moves it is being asked – from simple gait changes to things like slide stops and spins. It will be light on its feet and its movements will be smooth.  Good flexion in the joints will relate directly to good lateral and very flexion, bend and will alert you to improper use of either of the other types of flexion, especially over time. For example: a horse using improper flexion may have one forelimb more regularly injured due to excess stress by overuse, or one stifle joint may be constantly more sore than the other.



What Does Flexion Look Like?

Flexion looks very different than just a body position. For example: you can turn a horse’s head around to the right, but that doesn’t mean it has good lateral flexion to the right. You can have a horse put its head down and not have achieved longitudinal flexion. And just because a horse moves its legs doesn’t mean that it is flexing them!  Good lateral flexion does not involve just the head and neck. Physically, the horse’s spine does not bend side to side very well, so most of a horse’s lateral flexion comes from two places: the horse’s neck joints (from the back of the horse’s head to its withers) and from its low back and sacral-iliac joint (hips, basically). Lateral flexion also involves the horse moving its rib cage to the left or right so that the other two parts can come closer together (ribs out = neck and hips in). Whenever the horse turns or is on a circle, it should have its body on the arc of the turn.  So how does good lateral flexion relate to how we train? You should pay attention to which way your horse bends on turns and circles. You can be particular about body position in sideways manoeuvres, which is how they gain different names. If the horse is turning or circling properly, it will be in a better position to carry its weight and will be soft and attentive to the direction. In the sideways, the bend will determine the arc of the movement (such as shoulders-in versus haunches in), and will determine if the horse will be building strength (such as in manoeuvres such as half pass and shoulders-in) or flexibility (such as in leg yields and haunches in).  Good flexion refers to the horse’s top line shape. A horse that has been taught to have this flexion will be more strongly muscled across the top of the neck, back, and hindquarters, and will have a tight belly. Its stride will be longer and smoother. Again, proper longitudinal flexion is not just about the head and neck. A horse can have its chin on the ground and not be stretching upward in its back. A horse cannot have this kind of flexion either if it is tense or tight in its back and hindquarters. Tension is often mentally or emotionally based, so go back to respect or impulsion on the ground first before fixing a physical problem.


So What Now?

Though the idea of learning about proper flexion can seem daunting, you will be greatly enriched by becoming more aware of it over time.  Establish flexion on the ground using horse specific progressive step by step training plans then and only then transferred what the equine has learned into the saddle.  If you have issues such as; respect, accepting pressure and leadership you will have to deal with those issues first before you can succeed with flexion training mounted.  If your horse can’t be a calm and responsive partner, you should not worry yet about how it is physically moving.  However, as you progress up the levels, there is more and more information available for correct flexion. There are also lots of ways to learn about body control and in books and videos from advanced riders and other horse lovers around the world. The main thing is to start being aware of flexion. You may not have the desire to compete with your horse but you and your horse will benefit from proper flexion and it will improve health and wellness over time.