Today, I wanted to tell you about a problem that I struggled with for a long time. It made it really challenging for me to properly collect my horse. That problem was neck flexion.
Whenever I would try to flex my horse’s head, it would invariably overflex, underflex, or not flex at all. Meanwhile the whole body of the horse would be falling in or drifting out at the same time.
Ideally, I was aiming for a nice smooth bend in the horse’s neck and for the arc of the horse’s body to follow along that bend.
I knew I was missing something
When my horse fell inwards I would try and squeeze my inside leg or try and pull out with my outside rein. This of course did the opposite of what I wanted. It created an S-bend in the horse rather than the nice C- shape I wanted.
When my horse’s hindquarters drifted outwards I tried to put pressure on my outside leg. But this just resulted in the horse falling into the circle I was trying to ride.
I was at a loss on how to balance all my aids in such a way to ensure a proper bend every time.
Of course every now and again I would get lucky and my horse would bend just right. But I couldn’t ensure that would happen, and when it went wrong I didn’t know how to fix it.
So, to summarize, I would end up in 1 of 3 scenarios:
1. I would use my inside rein but my whole horse would move in without establishing actual neck or body flexion.
2. My horse would flex too much too quickly so his shoulders would keep going forwards and drift to the outside.
3. My horse would flex appropriately but his body would start falling into the direction he was flexing.
Asking for neck flexion the right way
The best trick I used to prevent any of these things from happening in the first place was to change the way I asked for flexion.
I realized I was being too aggressive and constant with the rein contact on the side I wanted my horse to bend from. My horse knew I wanted to go in that direction, but didn’t understand how I wanted him to get there.
By learning to gently take and soften on the side of the bend, the horse slowly turns his head and then the body follows. The gentle asking makes it more intuitive for the horse to bend his neck rather than just fall in or let his whole body shift to face that direction.
This is one of the simplest hacks I’ve learnt that works like a charm.
Whether you’re standing still, trotting or cantering, this is the best trick to get just enough flexion.
Also I learned that taking and softening more aggressively isn’t the best way to get more flexion. In fact it’s better to just do more take and softens more quickly to get more flexion. But be sure to keep the contact gentle.
So, let’s do a neck flexion recap!
Instead of pulling on the rein that you want to flex on, you’ll want to very gently take and soften with that rein.
I mean seriously gentle; just use the weight of 2 fingers to pull back and release, pull back and release, pull back and release. Do this a few times until you get the desired amount of neck flexion.
Don’t change any of your other aids.
Once you’ve established that flexion and avoided situation 1 and 2, let’s talk about how to keep your horse going on a perfect circle in the direction of flexion so that number 3 above doesn’t happen…
Recall that in problem #3, your horse’s body keeps falling into the middle of circles that you’re riding.
You want to correct him with your outside rein intuitively; however, the second you do this, you lose that beautiful inside flexion that you just mastered with the tricks above.
I remember doing this very thing and have my coach yelling “inside leg!” over and over at me. I swear that I would be squeezing with that inside leg as hard as I could but it never seemed to make a difference.
Hold Pressure in the Outside Rein (Don’t Pull Though)
From the second that you start to take and soften with that inside rein to obtain your flexion, you want to hold pressure with that outside rein.
This means that you want to have contact from your outside hand to the bit.
When your horse starts to flex towards the inside, you’ll naturally feel that pressure increase on the outside rein as his head turns away.
You want to hold that pressure and don’t release it the whole time – just keep your outside hand holding exactly where it is.
What this does is acts as a kind of outer “support” for your horse so that he doesn’t fall towards the inside.
If your horse starts to fall in, you can very slightly and slowly increase the pressure on the outside rein.
If there is any loss of flexion, take and soften again with the inside rein while still maintaining the pressure on the outside rein.
Use Your Inner Thigh, Not Your Lower Leg
When you’re applying pressure with your inside leg, it’s intuitive to use your lower leg and your heel because that’s what usually we’re taught to use when we’re starting to ride and trying to move the horse forwards.
When you’re keeping a horse in flexion and pushing his whole body outwards, you want to actually use a different part of your leg. You want to use your inside upper thigh.
When you have your feet in the stirrups, in order to point your toes directly forwards, you actually need to internally rotate slightly at the hip because your knees and hips are bent so if you kept your hips neutral, you would end up with your toes rotated outwards.
Because of this internal rotation of the hips, the inner part of your thigh should be in contact with the saddle rather than more towards the back part of your thigh even when your seat bones are directly downwards.
When you’re flexing your horse, you want to imagine that you’re flexing him around this part of your body and you’re flexing him to the degree that your circle is tight.
The tighter the circle, the tighter the flexion.
If you really pay attention, you’ll notice that if he starts to fall into the circle, you’ll feel the pressure of his body against that part of your thigh and you want to push right back to move him outwards.
Note! This same trick works with drifting out of the circle and using that outside inner thigh.
If you’re hungry for more horse content, have a read of last week’s post on how to sit the trot.