You should be able to get the horse to flex to both sides by picking up on the lead rope with only two fingers. The horse’s nose should be able to touch his belly in the same place the girth would normally be.
Whenever you can teach a horse something from the ground first, it will make your job under saddle much safer and less frustrating for both you and the horse. A horse can never be too soft or too supple. If your horse can’t flex and be soft and supple on the ground, he’s not going to flex and be light under saddle either. Lateral flexion will be the foundation of your One Rein Stops when you ride. This exercise is also important to teach your horse to respect the halter pressure in general so that he doesn’t pull and lean on it during other groundwork exercises.
Bumping on the Halter
There are two stages to every exercise. First, there’s the Teaching Stage, where we’re very patient and give the horse the benefit of the doubt. For example, when we first teach the horse to flex, we pick up on the lead rope, wait for him to find the answer, then release. Once the horse understands the concept and knows what he’s supposed to do, then it becomes the “Do It Now” stage, where we give the horse a chance to be good and if he doesn’t put a lot of effort into it, isn’t paying attention, or doesn’t try, he’s going to feel very uncomfortable until he gives the right answer. At this stage, we focus on making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. With consistency and repetition, the horse will learn to respond immediately with the right answer as soon as you ask with the lightest amount of pressure.
It’s good to teach all horses how to respond to an increased amount of pressure. Most horses’ first reaction to an increased amount of pressure (such as bumping on the halter) is to throw their head in the air and become defensive. The horse needs to realize that when you apply more pressure, the answer should be to soften and yield quicker. This will help him to use the thinking side of his brain in various situations. For example, if you take your horse somewhere such as a trail ride or a horse show, you’re probably excited; your adrenaline is up and your mind is thinking of a hundred things at once. Because of this, you may pull or kick the horse a little harder than you mean to. If he’s only accustomed to you applying a very light amount of pressure, he’s probably going to react badly. But if you have taught him how to respond to driving pressure, he’ll know what to do.
Poke and Flex
I have several different flexing exercises, two of which we’ve already covered: Flexing Stage One: Steady Pressure and Flexing Stage Two: Bumping on the Halter. Flexing Stage Two works on eighty percent of horses, but for older, stiffer horses, this third technique will really get the horse light and responsive to the halter. Some horses are especially dull to the halter pressure, where you could bump on them all day long and they’ll just continue to lean against it. So by moving the driving pressure to their belly, they aren’t able to lean against it as much. Remember something, horses don’t have hard mouths, they have hard, stiff bodies. All the resistance you feel in the horse’s head or mouth is coming from his body. If you get the body soft and supple, the head and mouth will feel light. That’s why in this exercise, you’ll use driving pressure on the horse’s ribcage to teach him to bend. It’s still the same concept as using driving pressure with the halter: Ask with steady pressure, then tell with driving pressure. The only difference is where the driving pressure is applied.
Flexing from the Opposite Side
Once a horse can flex really well, he’ll have a tendency to cheat. He’ll cheat in the fact that rather than softening to the halter pressure, he’ll just watch your hand and when he sees you reaching for the rope, he’ll automatically flex to his belly. This is a nice problem to have, because it means that the horse is thinking about being soft and trying hard. At this point, I will start to flex him from the opposite side, meaning that I will stand on the horse’s right side, but flex him to the left. By doing this, the horse is unable to see my hand coming, and it will test him to make sure he is softening to the halter pressure and not just watching my hand.