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It’s Not About Strength . . . by Chris Cox



_P8Y8799When it comes to developing a natural headset in the horse, lateral flexion is a key foundation. A horse should learn to give and flex laterally, or side-to-side, early in his training.
“I don’t believe in tying a horse’s head to the side for lateral flexion, or tying down his head for vertical flexion, because there is no release of pressure when the horse gives. I want to be the one helping the horse by immediately releasing the pressure when he gives,” says popular clinician and two-time Road to the Horse Champion Chris Cox.
“You can get much more response by pulling on one rein than by pulling on two, which is why I teach lateral flexion before vertical flexion,” says Chris.
“I never stop a horse with both reins, or hands, until he gives laterally and stops well with one rein or one hand.” Lateral flexion gives you a great deal of control of your horse and also allows you to stop safely. If you find yourself in a situation where the horse is starting to run off or is getting out of control, you can quickly interrupt the horse’s forward motion by bringing his nose to the side.
“Too many people ride with tight reins all the time because they are afraid they can’t control their horses. What these people don’t realize is that riding on a tight rein eventually desensitizes the horse,” Chris explains. “Once you learn lateral flexion, you realize that you can ride on a loose rein and, if need be, gain immediate control by bending your horse laterally.”
Getting Started
Before a horse can properly learn vertical flexion and collection, he should have good lateral flexion to both sides. You want his entire body to bend in an arc following his nose around to either side. If the horse’s head and neck are bent, but his body remains stiff, he is showing resistance and not truly giving laterally.
Chris explains that teaching the horse to respond to pressure is all about horsemanship “” not mechanics. If you have knowledge and patience, you can teach lateral flexion. Special devices aren’t necessary; a D-ring snaffle is the perfect bit for these lessons. You don’t want to put the horse in a more severe bit, or one with shanks, until he already knows and responds in a simple snaffle.
As a rider, you should be comfortable managing your reins, as we covered in the last article. Every position of your hands should mean something to your horse and you should be able to handle your reins smoothly and fluidly.

Let’s work on developing lateral flexion:

  1. Sitting centered in your saddle at a standstill, hold the center of your rein in the left hand, and use your right hand to “choke” the rein all the way down to your horse’s neck.
  2. Drop your left hand to the horse’s withers and hold the rein with both hands.
  3. Don’t bend your elbow, but go wide with your left hand so that your horse’s neck bends around and toward your left hand.
  4. Keep your left hand low and level.
  5. If your hand is high, you can throw off your horse’s balance.
  6. Don’t pull the rein past your hip because this throws you off balance in the saddle.
  7. Instead, if you need to steady your left hand, put it on your leg.
  8. If your horse walks in a circle, maintain a steady hold on the left rein until your horse stands still and gives his head with slack in the rein. When he does, immediately release your hold by opening your left hand and dropping the rein.
  9. Don’t move your hand forward to release the hold.
  10. Remember to hold, don’t pull.
  11. The secret is releasing as soon as your horse gives.
  12. Your horse should stand still, not spin or move, so don’t release until he is still.
  13. Reverse the process to flex your horse laterally to the right.
  14. Practice lateral flexion on both sides so your horse bends equally well in either direction.

Look for Willingness

Once your horse learns that you will release the hold as soon as he gives laterally, he will become more willing and soft. This is why it’s so much more effective to teach a horse lateral flexion this way rather than tying his head to the side. If the horse’s head is manually tied to the side, there is no release. But when you open your hand and drop the rein to give him release, he associates that relief of pressure ““ that release – with you.
As you work on lateral flexion, remember that the key to success in this lesson is timing and skill, not strength. You aren’t pulling the horse’s head around to the side, but rather holding your hand steady until the horse gives to that pressure.
Look for willingness in the horse. He should be giving both physically and mentally. You don’t want him resigned to just giving the minimal amount he can get away with. If he gives for a moment and then snatches his head away, he is not truly giving laterally.

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.
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 or call 1-888-81-HORSE for information on upcoming clinic and course dates, expo appearances, equipment, books and training DVDs.

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