This lovely image shows a horse moving in the most elegant self-carriage. Longitudinal bend, flexion, and give create the lowered hind quarter, elevated front and ultimate lightness in movement.
My last post was concerned with the lateral bend of the horse. Today I hope to add the missing piece to put the puzzle together that will help you to connect the energy created in the hindquarter of the horse.
There is a vast number of articles in print regarding longitudinal bend and flexion, however, through working with my students and my own training I realize there is an important aspect that is very rarely discussed: GIVE, so I thought I would share my prospective.
Longitudinal flexion is in regards to the entire top line, (spine) of the horse in a straight line (versus lateral flexion, meaning left to right).
Longitudinal bend is the lowering of the hindquarter caused through hindquarter engagement which will produce a higher neck carriage and flexion at the poll.
Now if that doesn’t make you ponder for a moment, think about this: you can have longitudinal flexion without a bend, but you cannot have a longitudinal bend without flexion.
Confused you yet? I certainly had to sit with pen and paper and sketch that out the first time was told this tidbit of information. Since I would love it if you would stay with me for a while and not click me off, let me explain how it makes sense to me and what this post is really all about: Longitudinal give.
In training our equine athletes we want to bring out their utmost athletic ability. In order to do this we want to develop a channel of energy of the entire spine. So when we cause the horse to round his back and soften that spine, we create flexion. If we want a greater use of the energy and power of the hind quarters we must keep the flexion, which will develop the strength and power. This enables the bending of the hindquarter joints, creating a lower hindquarter and elevated front end.
The conflict in today’s training world is the idea that the more we round the horse’s back, the better it is. Because of this, riders of all disciplines have found usefulness in devices that force flexion. In my opinion this is tragic. Forcing a horse’s head position between their legs or to the saddle with any number of tools (tie-downs, draw reins, etc) does not — I need to repeat that — does not develop a strong, supple back. What it does do is cause physical damage to the spine and muscles, and it does not allow a true connection of the entire horse.
It is truly the bend and lowering of the hindquarter developed through the flexibility of the spine that will create that flow of energy. It is a most amazing feeling of effortless energy under you. It is power with softness. It’s a feeling, once experienced, you will always continue to strive for.
I added the word “GIVE” to the title because many times riders teach a horse to flex, but they do not release the pressure of the bit. Instead, they feel they must hold onto those reins with a steady pressure. In doing so, this encourages the horse to lean and to pull, which in itself does not allow self-carriage. This prevents the horse from moving freely through the spine.
I believe in training where pressure is used to ask a horse move in a certain direction with any part of his body. Once the horse complies, release should be immediate. This is equally as important as the pressure used to cause the response. This does not mean you lose connection or communication; you simply go back to no pressure, but you maintain a light feel or contact.
I tell my students it’s like the feeling of flying a kite. You feel energy flowing through the reins and it’s alive, not dead weight. Anytime you hold pressure either with your legs, seat or hands after 2 seconds a horse will brace and begin to hold stronger.
In nature, horses communicate to their herd using body language in the form of varying degrees of pressure such as carriage, eyes, ears, teeth, and limbs. If another horse does not respond to the softest of pressure of perhaps the carriage, eyes, or ears, the horse will add more pressure in the form of a bite or kick. At whatever stage of pressure the horse responds and gives space to the leader, the pressure is released.
So if we use a natural horsemanship approach to train, we need to talk to the horse in a similar fashion. We ask with pressure, the horse responds, we release pressure and go back to contact. Psychologically, the horse understands quickly, and physically, it allows the development of the correct muscles to create self-carriage.
We do not need to hold our horses up if we develop the longitudinal flexion and bend; they can hold themselves up just fine.
I know some of you may ask, “how?”
It is a process of teaching the horse to give quickly to your aids through gradual, progressive pressure. At whatever stage of pressure (less than 2 seconds) the horse responds, release the pressure. Do not add pressure again until the horse needs direction.
As an example: we know energy comes from the hindquarters. We ask the horse to move forward with calf pressure. We should start with a very light breath of leg, and gradually but quickly, adding a stronger pressure. Once the horse moves even a step, we release all pressure. As long as he is still moving forward we should only keep a light contact on the horse, but no pressure. The first stride he falters, we start again with a breath of a leg and gradually, progressively, add pressure until he responds, then instantly releasing it.
All it takes is absolute consistency, knowing what your leg is saying to the horse at all times, whether it be at work or at pleasure. Horses respond to the pressure of legs, the seat, or the hands willingly if you give them the chance. Through consistency, the horse also learns to respond to the lightest of touch. That is why it is so important to always ask first as gently as possible before going to a stronger pressure. You can always add pressure if the horse does not respond but once there you can’t reduce the pressure.
Horses learn so quickly if given clear, consistent, and repetitive aids. When you give in response to the horse’s willingness to give, you will find in your horse a partner wanting to follow your lead.
I’d love you to give it a try. Allow your horse that freedom and you will be amazed.
I highly recommend the late Mark Russell’s wonderful book Lessons in Lightness.