Proper headset when riding is something that all equestrians work hard to achieve. Nobody wants to be known as “That rider with a giraffe for a horse” because their horse constantly has its head up in the air. Other nicknames to avoid may include, “She who rides the bobblehead horse” for horses that constantly toss their heads and “Little Miss ride the plastic pony” for horses that just seem incapable of having any bend in their body. While I’ve only been known by ONE of those nicknames(I’ll let you figure out which one), I have had and still have issues with all of those things when riding Zoey or certain other horses. We want everything to be soft and subtle when it comes to our riding, our aids and cues shouldn’t be noticeable to the inexperienced and to an extent the experienced eye. I’m no expert by any means, but I have picked up a few things between riding under and watching Bill, and also riding at Michigan State University, which I will try to share here.
But first, what IS flexion? Flexion provides a small angle from the poll to the wither, to either the right or the left. The rein used for flexing asks for the flexion and the non-flexing rein contains the amount of flexion allowed. Flexion is an aid used for preparing your horse before riding a circle or corner, and is used to supple the horse before asking for bend. Once flexing has been mastered, the horse will no longer recognize the inside rein as a steering aid, in order to achieve this you must develop an awareness and understanding of rein aids. If the outside rein has to be used to keep your horse on track then your outside rein is doing what your inside leg should be doing, which means you’re asking your horse to bend to the outside instead of flexing correctly.
What IS bend? That is when your horse’s body is uniformly bent, following the line of a circle or a turn. The bend from his nose to tail should be an equal curve, as if you’re sitting in the middle of a half Moon.
- It just so happens that my class today covered bridling up our horses when riding them, no more just trotting around all will-nilly, it was time to actually ride. Bridling up, as our instructor explained it, is when we get our horses to go onto the bit. We do this by asking them to put their heads down, tuck their chins and lifting their backs(collection), and maintain this frame throughout the entire ride at each gait and maneuver. We covered this today and we will be covering this again in more detail on Wednesday.
- To ask our horses to bridle up we had to be able to use our hands and our legs together, balancing out that we didn’t use too much hand or too much rein and making sure we gave them their release at the right time. Too much hand results in the horse slowing down, stopping and in some cases becoming irritated and throwing their heads around or perhaps rearing up. Too much leg can result in the horse speeding up, moving forward off the bit, or in some cases growing irritated and bucking or kicking out. No release for any maneuvers creates a horse who learns to ignore the aid or a horse that becomes irritated or sour to the aid when applied. The release is what let’s the horse know what they’re doing is correct and how they learn, the release is very important.
- So, to ask for their heads, we first made sure to sit back, keep our elbows bent and back under our shoulders, and hands up and a shoulder width apart. Fingers closed on the reins to maintain contact, we in a way, massaged their mouths with our fingers. It was similar to a gentle, even bumping on both sides of the bit. When they lowered their heads we stopped bumping, and when they went to slowly lift their heads up, we started to bump or massage once more. A common mistake that riders will make when doing this is to do a See-Saw like motion, pulling from side to side instead of bumping gently—DO NOT SEE-SAW—bump or massage instead, and if they need it, tap them with your feet and when they put their heads down, stop tapping and bumping.
- When we had it the halt we moved up to the walk—this time we did the same thing as before, but we also pressed and released with our calves to keep them moving forward and not slow down, and to also encourage them to move onto the bit. We did this for a while at the walk and did a few circles like this as well, before moving up to the jog.
- At the jog we did the same thing at the walk—it proved to be more challenging however, what with the jog being a much bumpier gait. We maintained a straight line from our hands to the horse’s mouth with the reins, so as to maintain contact(we did this at the walk and stand still too, keeping all slack out of the reins, even when we lengthened our reins, we kept all slack out of the reins). The difficulty I found was in keeping my reins straight and not bumping too hard when asking my horse to keep her head down. Make sure to keep your reins organized and clean, unorganized and sloppy reins results in a sloppy headset.
- That was the extent of what we worked on, we’ll cover more on Wednesday.
How I do it on Zoey is similar to Michigan State University’s way—except the trainer at my barn has me straighten my elbow and give slack in the rein when she has her head down where I want it.
A horse can only flex or soften properly if it knows how to do so, teaching them to flex, I think, should begin on the ground before beginning under saddle. I do flexes with Zoey on the ground usually before I get on her, and I do them once I’m on her and when I get off of her, she’s more stiff in her neck it seems on her left side than she is on her right, so I do flexes and carrot stretches before, during and after each work out session to try to help loosen her up a bit.
- When flexing on the ground I do it in a halter(my instructor had me use a rope halter always, but a nylon works too).
- I stand at their shoulder and pick up on the lead rope, softly at first, and pull it around to me up towards their withers(or saddle horn if saddled) and hold it there until they bend their heads around. If the horse starts to back up or spin around just keep your hand planted where it’s at until they stop moving and bring their heads around. Zoey knows to bring her head around and tip her nose inwards or touch her side with her nose, then I release and do the other side.
- As soon as your horse gives to the pressure and bends their head around, give them slack in the rope. The timing and speed of your release are critical; the quicker and more completely you release the pressure, the quicker your horse will understand what you want, and the lighter he will become.(EquiSearch)
- Repeat this on the other side, I do three times per side for Zoey. Once he/she is responsive in a halter, switch to a snaffle bridle. Go back to asking for just a little bit of bend, and when your horse “gives” and creates some slack.
- And release the contact immediately. You want the rein to drop, not to be pulled through your hand.(EquiSearch)
- Repeat this sequence several times, each time drawing their head farther back until they can touch almost their girth area. Do this on both sides until you barely have to pick up on the rein. Then you can move on to working on it under saddle.
- Sitting on your horse, there should be a straight line from your horse’s mouth, along the rein through your hands to your elbows. Maintain contact with your thumbs pointing towards the bit, and your hands should be a fist height off your horse’s neck. Make sure you’re aware of your body position, left to right, front to back, imagine yourself as a lego man with a stalk on your bottom that plugs you into a hole in your saddle, you need to keep this as the basis of your position.(Imogen Johnson)
- Ask your horse, while at a halt, to gently turn his head to the left until his nose touches your knee(I do my knee or the toe of my boot for Zoey). Lift up on your rein when asking your horse to bend his head around and hold until he does, then release. Do this on the other side too, repeating this sequence at the halt until you barely have to pick up on the rein. Make sure to keep checking your position in the saddle, making sure you’re still sitting straight and tall and back in the saddle. If your shoulders twist back when you ask for the bend, then you’ll pull too hard on your left rein, allowing your right shoulder to travel forward, giving away your right non-flexing rein.(Imogen Johnson)
- At the walk, on the right rein both your legs should be parallel, under your hip and close to the girth. Adjust your legs to the opposite bend position, to do this, your left(outside) bending leg triggers left bend(counter flexion), and right(inside) holding leg controls the quarters, creating a very small amount of bend to the left(outside). Check to make sure your outside rein isn’t touching your horse’s neck, and your right rein is touching the neck.(Imogen Johnson)
- If your bending to the left, then you left leg, the inside leg, will apply pressure to the horse, open your inside rein and keep your outside rein and leg on to make sure your horse doesn’t start drifting too far to the outside. If your horse starts to cut to the inside instead of bending, then move your outside leg and rein off a little bit so they can have the chance to create that bend, once it’s created, if they start to drift to the outside, close your outside rein and leg again. Vice versa for if your bending to the right.
Below are a few helpful images and a couple videos as well.
Johnson, Imogen. “Bend And Flexion”. Your Horse Magazine, 2018, https://www.yourhorse.co.uk/advice/improve-your-riding/articles/2016/4/19/understanding-bend-and-flexion. .
“Flex Your Horse’s Neck From The Ground”. Expert Advice On Horse Care And Horse Riding, 2018, https://www.equisearch.com/articles/flex_neck_ground_100208.