Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Makes The World Go Round: Circles, lateral flexion and why you want your horse to bend

If you have ever spent any length of time either riding or training horses, you have likely encountered frozen shoulders, dropped shoulders, stiffness through the body or various other issues which will prevent your horse(s) from being the best they can be. All of these issues and more can be addressed by circles and lateral flexion work. Of course, lateral work should begin way back in the ground work stage before the horse is ever mounted, however that's not always possible. With many trainers, they'll tell you how to begin the training process, but not what to do if you acquire a horse in the middle of that process or if the horse has already developed bad habits.

Here in this post, I'm going to refer to several previous entries which all relate to the training we're wanting to accomplish. Lateral work is essential to opening the lines of communication between you and your horse. Whenever I've got a new project, one of the first things I'm going to do is ensure the horse is laterally flexible. Back in 2009, I published an article on this blog about suppling your horse, here. Flexion then circling, counter bending and asking the horse to lift his shoulders and raise his back are key points in these exercises. But, pulling the horse's face around to my leg is NOT what I'm looking for, to me, that's going about it the wrong way. Often all this does is creates a horse that refuses to accept contact with the bit and pretty soon you have a horse who, with the slightest pressure on a rein, flings his head toward your leg.

Which brings me to the so called "hard mouthed" horse. I wrote a post on these types of horses back a couple of years ago, too. This entry here gets into what causes and creates what some people call "hard mouthed" horses. In actuality, these are horses who have been trained to lean on their riders. They're not soft and supple, they're decidedly not flexible. For this reason, many trainers will suggest to folks (and you see this frequently on those RFD-TV horse training shows...) that they "teach their horses to flex". Doing so does NOT fix the problem, generally it makes the problem worse.

What's the ultimate in performance we want out of our horses? Collection, correct? Trouble is, both laypersons as well as too many trainers think merely slowing a horse down constitutes collection. I wrote all about that on this blog, as well. You'll find that entry here. You achieve collection through a series of building blocks (training exercises), not yanking on the horse's mouth to slow him. This is yet another place where lateral flexion and circles both small and large can help your horse, and thus your riding, immensely.

Before you can begin circle work, your horse must be balanced and to have a balanced horse, you've got to have a reasonably balanced rider. Why are circles important? Because they showcase that balance and your horse's suppleness and responsiveness. These traits are important for any horse, of any breed, in any discipline whether you show or simply ride down the trail. Don't forget to ride your horse front to back, not the other way around. Oftentimes riders get that part backwards. Concentrate every bit as much on the horse's hindquarters as you do on his front end and you'll be rewarded with a soft, supple horse who's a joy to ride.

I begin each exercise at the walk, preferring to stay away from too much flexing at a halt once the horse has a basic grasp of what I'm asking. After he understands how to use his body in a circle at the walk, I'll progress to a trot and eventually a canter, but I don't want to skip steps -- I want to ensure my horses have a decent grasp of the subject matter before moving on and trying to cram too much knowledge into them all at once. Once the horse has mastered lateral bending and simple circles, I'll add figure eights, spirals and serpentines into the routine. Spirals can be accomplished all the way through the canter, as can figure eights (using easy, relaxed simple changes of lead for a vast majority of horses). Serpentines are best used as trot exercises.

Summing up this evening's entry, I'll go back and answer the question raised by the title...why do you want your horse to bend? Because having a flexible horse means a far more trainable horse and generally a more balanced horse (provided you work each side equally, only concentrating on one side slightly more to the horse's "worst" direction).



  1. One of the other blogs I follow is showing dressage horses doing the "auction trot"--European horses being prepared for the big sales or the "for sale" videos.

    Most of them look very "loosey goosey" and limber. Saw one the other day a three-year-old walking and her overtrack was at least 12". Had a "walk like a hooker," as TB trainer Bob Baffert said when describing the perfect broodmare ;o)

    Good post. Lots of good ideas and yes, getting a horse with problems and working around them is a big challenge. KNOWING there is a problem is the first step.

  2. I'm honestly not a fan of too big an overstep, because you often get into overreach issues, the horse clipping itself or even pulling off shoes. That's something I view as "too much of a good thing". :)


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