Building the Vertical Habit, by Chris Cox
It’s a fact: your horse either gives to the bit or pushes against it.
If he’s pushing against the bit, he’s pushing against your hands. When the horse does this, his back becomes hollow and he is stiff throughout his entire body. You don’t have a chance at smoothness and harmony as you ride and perform various maneuvers when your horse is pushing against the bit. The key is to teach your horse to give his head vertically when you pick up the reins and to carry his head in a natural headset.
“When I talk about creating a natural headset, I am referring to building a habit, so that the horse automatically gives vertically when I pick up the reins,” says popular clinician and two-time Road to the Horse Champion Chris Cox. “I want him to flex at the poll and to carry his head so that, when viewed from the side, his head is vertical, straight up and down. I don’t want his nose tucked to his chest, and I don’t want it pushing forward. When I release the reins, the horse knows he can relax and release that vertical flexion.”
In a recent article we covered how to teach your horse to give laterally. Once your horse has learned lateral flexion, it’s time to teach vertical flexion. Both are necessary for the horse to have a good, natural headset and to be ridden in a collected frame.
Teaching vertical flexion is one of the most important foundation exercises you can do with your horse. “When you ride, your reins should be either loose with your horse moving along naturally, or your reins should be collected with the horse soft and giving his head vertically,” Chris explains. “Don’t hold onto your horse’s mouth without expecting softness; doing otherwise causes him to become resistant and push against your hands.”
- Sitting centered in the saddle at a standstill, pick up your reins with both hands and make a bridge as you learned earlier.
- As you teach your horse vertical flexion, it is important to keep the bridge wide between your hands.
- Practice sliding your hands as necessary to adjust the bridge’s width.
- Wrap your hands over the top of the reins, not underneath, and around them.
- Hold the reins in a brace in front of the saddle, right above your horse’s shoulders.
- As you hold the brace, remember to keep your arms straight and forward with your elbows locked, but don’t pull on the reins. If you pull, you confuse your horse.
- In teaching lateral flexion, you created a hold with one rein.
- In vertical flexion, you create a brace with both reins and hold that brace steady until your horse gives.
- Remember: hold, don’t pull!
- Without pulling, hold the brace steady until your horse gives his head in the vertical position you want, and there is slack in the reins.
- Then immediately release the hold by opening your hands, which gives instant relief from pressure.
- Don’t release your hold, or brace, if your horse tosses his head or is stiff.
- If you release at either of these times, you create a bad habit by relieving the pressure for the wrong response.
- Give a prompt release as soon as the horse softens and becomes supple, but not until he does. Releasing when he is stiff and resistant only promotes stiffness throughout his entire body.
- A horse often tries to back when you first ask for vertical flexion because he doesn’t understand what you want. If your horse backs, maintain the brace. Let him back to a fence if necessary, but don’t release when he backs, or you confuse him.
Softness & Give
You’ve not doubt seen horses traveling along with their heads in unnaturally low and unnaturally high positions in the show ring. These horses learned to carry their heads this way in the same manner as you are teaching vertical flexion. The horse learns to carry his head wherever he finds that “sweet spot” of relief from pressure.
Keep this in mind as you work on vertical flexion lessons with your horse. You want to release the reins when the horse softens and gives his head in the vertical position you want. If you release pressure when his head is low, he will quickly learn that is where he must carry his head to gain relief of pressure. The same applies for releasing the reins if his head is high.
The secret is to give that relief when the horse becomes soft and gives with his head in a natural vertical position. “Your ultimate goal is for your horse to give vertically as soon as you pickup your reins,” says Chris. “His feet and body should be still.”
You soon establish a habit with which your horse can be comfortable, and create a program so he clearly understands where you want his head.
Vertical flexion is like putting in the clutch in a vehicle. It puts the horse in “˜neutral’ and softens his entire body.”
In the early stages, you can’t expect the horse to hold vertical flexion for very long. As the horse progresses and understands what you’re asking of him, you will be able to ride with collection with his head in the flexed vertical position for longer periods of time. Understand that it takes different muscles for the horse to carry his head this way, and he must build these up over time. During the learning period, give your horse a break and vary between riding with vertical flexion and just riding along with his head in a comfortable, natural position. “When I pick up the reins with both hands, I expect my horse to give vertically and be soft in hand. Once the horse learns vertical flexion, he automatically puts his head where I’ve taught him as soon as I pick up both reins,” says Chris.
Take the time to properly teach this valuable lesson.
It will stay with your horse for a lifetime.
Up Close with Chris Cox Born in Florida and ranch-raised in Australia, Chris returned to the United States in 1986 to make a career of working with horses. Years of working horseback on the ranch near Queensland gave Chris a healthy respect for the horse’s ability and intelligence, and helped him develop his own methods of individualized training. Active in the cutting horse world as both a trainer and competitor, Chris has trained a variety of breeds for different disciplines. He also loves to rope, having been into calf roping in the past, and in more recent years, team roping. Chris, his wife, Barbara, and their daughter, Charley, live on their Diamond Double C Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas. Chris travels around the world appearing at expos, conducting clinics and horsemanship demonstrations. His “Come Ride the Journey’ tour takes him to cities across the U.S. each year. This two-time Road to the Horse Champion offers week-long intensive horsemanship clinics at his Texas ranch, and has a regular horsemanship program on RFD-TV. Western Horseman has released Ride the Journey, by Chris Cox with Cynthia McFarland, a 225-page book packed with step-by-step exercises and color photos that details Chris’ practical methods and training techniques. Visit www.chris-cox.com or call 1-888-81-HORSE for information on upcoming clinic and course dates, expo appearances, equipment, books and training DVDs.