In 1996 I’d been training horses for less than a year. I got a call from a neighbor who wanted help with her horse. When I arrived, Polly, a paint mare, stood quietly at the hitch rail, a spring breeze lifting her brown and white mane. I was chatting with her owner that morning, finding out how I could help them both.
Anne zipped up her jacket and flipped her long braid over her shoulder before saying, “I would like to take lessons at some point, but riding her makes me nervous right now. She doesn’t stop very well, even with a curb bit, and I hate pulling on her mouth.”
I went to my car and got a bridle that had a snaffle bit on it. I figured if Polly didn’t stop no matter what, a curb bit wasn’t going to be much help.
Once mounted in Anne’s arena, I asked Polly to walk, and she did with a large, ground eating stride. As we were coming by the end closest to where Polly ate, I shortened the reins and asked Polly to stop.
Polly kept walking, this time with her nose stuck out and her neck braced. I slid my left hand down the rein and brought Polly’s nose around and put her in a circle until her feet stopped moving. Once we were stopped and I’d released the left rein, Polly took a deep breath and stood still.
“So Anne, is this normally the way it goes?” I asked.
Anne smiled and said, “Well, there’s usually a lot more pulling and cursing, but yes, that’s how it goes.”
“Well, she’s pretty stiff. I’ve been doing something with other horses, including my own, that is working really well and I’d like to give it a try with Polly.”
“Sure,” Anne said. “What is it?”
“It’s called lateral flexion and it gets the horse more relaxed in their neck.”
The trainer I’d learned this from said that you couldn’t do too much lateral flexion and I took that statement as truth. Anne would watch as over the next couple of weeks, Polly stopped fighting the pressure from the bit and as I sat on her, brought her head to the left, and then to the right over and over again.
When I did ask Polly to go and then stop, all I had to do was pick up on one rein and bring her nose around and she would halt. I added a slight pressure from both reins and she would stop. Then I would swing her head around to my left stirrup, and swing her head around to my right stirrup.
I felt like we’d hit the equine lottery; such a simple technique and I was proud of myself for figuring it out and proud of Polly for being so easy to work with.
After a couple of weeks practicing a halt from a walk and trot in the small arena, I asked Anne if Polly loped.
“Sure, she lopes,” Anne said as she adjusted her big brimmed straw cowboy hat. “She’s got that rocking horse gait that’s easy to sit. I just haven’t done it in awhile because, you know, the stopping thing.”
“Right,” I laughed. “Well, your arena is great for the work we’ve been doing, but I think I’d like a little larger area to canter her in. Is there somewhere close by that you know of that we can do that?”
“My neighbor has a large dirt track they ride their motorcycles on. It’s big enough for a loping horse.”
I bridled Polly and the three of us walked over to the dirt track. As I mounted up, and after bending her to the left and right a dozen times, we turned to our left and began walking around the dirt track.
Several times I asked her to stop by bending her head around to one of my boots, and Polly did, just as easily as she’d done when we were in the arena.
“Alright, Miss Polly, let’s see about that rocking horse lope,” I said to her as her ears flicked back and forth.
Sure enough, Polly’s lope was gentle and easy. I relaxed into my creaking saddle and noticed that a turn to the left was coming up. I slowly shortened my left rein.
Polly’s nose tilted to the left until her nose was at my boot. Her body kept going straight until we were now in the middle of the field. I straightened her out, put pressure on both reins and pushing into the bit, she thankfully slowed from a lope to a jog to a walk and then a halt. It occurred to me that Polly was being generous; I hadn’t used pressure on both reins going that fast.
I did it exactly like the book and the trainer had told me to do it. Why didn’t Polly turn? I’ll try again, I thought.
Swingy walk to cushy jog to smooth lope. I relaxed in the saddle and took a deep breath. I picked up the right rein as the turn was coming up.
Polly’s nose tilted to the right. Her body kept going straight and once again she was loping in a straight line with her nose bent to my boot.
That image sparked an aha moment for me; she was doing exactly what I’d taught her to do.
After slowing to a walk, we made our way over to Anne.
“I think I may have taught her that lateral flexion lesson a bit too well,” I felt embarrassed by the difference in what I thought I’d taught Polly and what she’d actually learned.
I mentioned that I wanted to try something with Polly that I hoped would clear up how to turn and lope at the same time. The last thing I wanted was to leave Anne’s horse with no way to steer.
We loped to the left again and I shortened the left rein and kept a hold of the right rein, instead of lengthening it. This gave Polly a boundary. She shook her head and then loped around the left turn. We did this twice more before turning to the right and trying it in that direction. The paint mare turned easily, even as she kept trying to bring her nose to my boot.
Polly was the last horse I ever did lateral flexion with. I learned from her that it actually can be overdone; it takes away the rider’s ability to steer their horse as well as mentally disconnects the horse’s head from the rest of their body.
Over the last decade of working all over the world, and seeing the results of this technique on countless horses, I can honestly say that I have yet to see one horse who could turn when the rider asked or soften at the poll and carry themselves balanced in their bodies. Every horse who has been over laterally flexed has to have their steering re-installed. Most horses get worried when they are asked to turn. And don’t even get me started on the hypermobility it creates in their neck, which can cause a myriad of physical issues. If Rollkur is horrible for Dressage horses, lateral flexion is its equally as horrible sibling.
So what do I do instead? I prefer to teach horses how to give to pressure and how to soften using backing up and turning. There is then a purpose behind them learning to give to pressure, whether it is vertical, horizontal or lateral and we still keep the horse connected to themselves, both in their body and mind. A horse connected to him or herself has a better chance of staying connected to us, as well. A connected horse has a greater chance of finding and staying in balance.