Lateral Flexion Is The Key To Vertical Flexion

By Clinton Anderson

One thing all horse enthusiasts throughout the world have in common is they all want softness and collection both in mind and body of their horses. The horse world continually craves knowledge, understanding and a simpler way of gaining control without having to fight with their horse. To get it, there is an endless supply of information in books and videos. One thing lacking is the realism and understanding of the difference between the trained horse in the book or video and the disrespectful, disobedient behavior a lot of horse owners are faced with everyday. When you ask horse owners from all equestrian activities what they are having trouble with when riding, it usually revolves around the control, or lack of control, between the rider and the horse through the bridle, reins and bit! You'll continually hear people say things like "He opens his mouth when I take a hold of him" and "My horse is always excited and won't relax".

We communicate with our horse with our hands, through the reins and bridle, and with our legs, which in turn leads to control - or a confrontation between the horse and our legs and hands.

When someone says that their horse runs off out of control with them, the first thing we think of is the rider pulling desperately back on the reins and the horse running with his head up and mouth wide open. It's impossible to physically force your horse to do what he doesn't want to do - in this case, stop and remain calm.

Instead of trying to "out-muscle" your horse you need to "out-think" him. When you pull straight back on both reins to gain control of his head and neck (vertical flexion) you immediately enter a tug of war you can't win, because your horse can pull against your hands easily. The horse's body is lined up and he can use all of his strength against you.

Imagine two men facing each other standing about 20 feet apart holding a rope. One of the men is very big and strong. The other is smaller and weaker. Obviously the stronger man can pull the smaller man off balance and move him where he wants (horse running forward with his head up and mouth open). Now imagine the two men but this time the smaller man is standing at an angle to the bigger man (he is still facing in the same direction). Now the smaller man can apply pressure on the rope and pull the bigger man off balance and make him step towards him. The bigger, stronger man lost most of his strength when his arms were pulled across his body because he couldn't balance himself and brace against the rope as he had before when he was facing the direction the resistance was coming from (rider pulling straight back on both reins). The smaller man didn't out-fight his opponent; he out-smarted him instead. He used "Lateral Flexion" to gain control of his unwilling partner.

Now that we understand how much easier it is to take better control of an over-powering situation through lateral flexion, we can put it to good use in our horse-training program.

The key to Vertical Flexion is Lateral Flexion. The softer and more flexible we get our horse through lateral flexion (bending) the easier it is to get softness and collection (vertical flexion) of our horse's poll. This in turn gives us greater overall control of our horse's direction, speed and attention.

Horses have hard bodies, not hard mouths! Let me give you an example. If someone says to me that their horse has a hard mouth I ask them to take the bridle off and ride the horse in a halter instead. After a few minutes I ask, "does your horse still feel hard?" The answer is yes! It proves that if the horse really did have a hard mouth he would have been softer and easy to control in general when the bit was removed. But instead he was just as resistant and hard as before. The mouth is nothing more than a sending station. If every body part (poll, neck, shoulder, ribcage and hips) is unwilling to yield and soften, the mouth will feel hard and unwilling to soften to your pressure on the reins. When you have your horse's body soft and supple, the mouth will feel very light, soft and willing to give to the pressure you apply with the reins. Basically, in a nutshell, the more we bend our horse laterally, the easier he will be to control!

The end result is to gain control of our horse's head, neck, poll, shoulder, ribcage and hips. I gain control from the front to the back in that order because the farther back you get (shoulders, ribs and hips) the body parts get bigger and harder to soften and gain control of. However when you break it down into a step by step system (Step 1: head and neck, Step 2: poll, Step 3: shoulder, Step 4: ribcage, Step 5: hindquarters) it is quite easy, especially when you move to the next step only when the preceding one is accomplished.

The horse I used in this article is a 2-year-old ranch bred filly that was very poorly started under saddle. She had no idea how to give to the bridle and soften vertically or laterally. Her attention was everywhere else but on me. To top it off she was nervous and wanted to speed up when you put her on a loose rein. The photos were taken during the very first time I rode his filly because I wanted readers to "see the real thing" so to speak. The entire ride lasted 33 minutes.










Once I had mounted this filly she was a nervous bundle of energy and I tried to control her the way most people would by pulling back on the reins. When I asked her to calmly walk off, she immediately started trotting and continued to build speed! (Photo 1) I tried to slow her by pulling straight back on the reins and yes you guessed it, I had very little control. (Photo 2) Then I tried to get her to soften at the poll, dropping her head and neck down (vertical flexion). (Photo 3) By doing this, all I had done was enter a fight I couldn't and didn't win. I did this just to reinforce to you how hard it is to control a horse that wants to fight using only vertical flexion.

We gain respect from our horse by moving them left, right, forward and backwards, just as the dominant horse would in the herd.

The first thing I am going to do with this filly is use all the uncontrollable energy in a constructive and positive way. Instead of us trying to make her relax and stand still I'll channel that energy using lateral flexion. (Photo 4) I'll hold my reins in a "bridge fashion" and slide my left hand down the left rein to make contact with her face. In doing so she immediately tried to run forward instead of having to yield her head and neck to the left (lateral flexion). I didn't try to slow her down or begin to jerk and fight with her. All I did was fix my hand on my hip and make it uncomfortable for her to run around pulling on the bridle. (Photo 5) What I did for her was set her up and let her figure it out; the more she ran around pulling against me, the less relief and reward she found. Then after a few minutes she decided to try something else and soften the head and neck to the left.

Immediately, I put my hand forward onto my knee to reward the filly. (Photo 6) I continued with a couple more circles to the left just to reinforce the concept of "left rein means go left, think left and soften left".

Let's break down what just happened. All I did was "ask" her to walk a circle to the left and soften her head and neck. Her reaction was "no, sorry I'm not going to do that and you can't make me." In turn my thoughts were "that's correct, I can't make you but I can guarantee you won't get any relief from this pressure until you soften."

She then had to make her own choice whether to soften or keep pulling against me. So it was completely her choice to soften. That's the whole key to what my program is about, because it was her choice to give and soften, she actually thought she had won but really we both did. She got the relief she wanted and I got her to soften and release to the left.

When I take hold of my horse I always want to pull to my hip and release the pressure by dropping my hand to my knee. In doing so there is a very distinct difference between when I've taken hold of her and when I released the pressure to reward her. Also by pulling to my hip, if I happen to be a bit long on my rein (have taken hold too far back on the rein) I have got quite a bit of room to bring my hand past my hip and still have good control. However if I had pulled towards my belly and was long on the rein, my hand would be up around my face, which gives little control and at times can be very dangerous.

It is very important to release the pressure on the rein by sliding your hand forward to your knee. If you don't give back to your horse, he won't look for the comfortable place. He will just keep fighting against you, trying to fight his way out. Now I'll repeat the procedure to the right, which will let me know what side she is worse on. Now I'll work 2/3 on the bad side and 1/3 on the good side until they're even.

As I put the filly on a loose rein she tried to run off again, so I slid my right hand down the rein and fixed it on my hip. (Photo 7) I also used my legs to keep her thinking forward and around, forward and around. In the beginning your horse will probably lift his head and neck up and not be very willing to give to the pressure on the rein. Your horse might go around 9 or 10 circles before he tries to soften. He might only soften maybe an inch or less, but it's very important to still slide you hand forward and release the pressure. That one inch will soon be 2, 3, 4 and 5 inches and so on until he is soft and supple on both sides. You exaggerate to teach and refine as you go along.        

The reason why I fix my hand to my leg is so when my horse gives, there will be an immediate slack in the rein. If my hand doesn't move and there is tension on the rein, it means my horse is pulling on me. But the second I feel any slack in the rein, I know he has softened to me as well. If your hand is out pulling in mid-air most people will be pulling so hard that when the horse does soften to the pressure their arm usually pulls back and removes the slack in the reins that the horse put there when he tried. Looking at it from the horse's point of view, when he softened he was pulled on even more and he never found the reward he was looking for.

Now that I've slid my right hand down and started bending her in a circle to the right, I'm going to keep her moving forward with my legs and wait for her to figure it out. After 7 or 8 circles of pulling on my arm and jogging around she then tries to soften to the right and I instantly release my rein pressure and bring my hand to my knee. (Photo 8) Notice how rigid my arm and hand look when she is pulling against me? Now compare how soft and relaxed my hand and arm are when she gives to the pressure. It's instant relief. I will continue to repeat the exercise on both sides, each time asking her to soften more and then releasing. When I released this filly to the right she tried to run off. (Photo 9) So all I did was repeat the circles to the right until she softened. At any stage my horse speeds up when I put them on a loose rein, I will slide my hand down the rein and wait for them to soften and relax. If it takes 1 circle or 20, it doesn't matter. The longest time will be at the beginning, because you never release the rein pressure until the horse gives. It doesn't take long before the horse starts to relax and soften as soon as you take hold of him. When you release your hand forward, most horses will initially try to take their head away again and stiffen up; as soon as this happens you should take your hand back to your hip and wait for them to soften again. You never want your horse to just "snap" it's head back straight as soon as you release the pressure, Through time your horse will stay in that small circle, bending his head and neck around by himself on a loose rein.

Between each direction I will let my horse walk 15 or 20 feet on a loose rein before I bend them in the other direction. There are two reasons for this. One is that it is a test to see how relaxed my horse is and if he is listening to me. If he trots off and I didn't ask him to, he is trying to escape. If so it gives me an ideal chance to reinforce our later exercise, saying "wait and listen to me, please". Two is it also gives my horse a chance to think about the whole thing without overloading his mind. To begin with, he probably will be a little confused because normally he takes control of you and now all of a sudden he can't fight against you as he did before and you're not fighting with him. Usually within 10 to 15 minutes he will start to figure the whole thing out and with every circle (bending) the horse gets more and more relaxed and you get more and more control. Yet again it is a "win-win" situation.     

The reason this concept is so effective with an uncontrollable horse is simple. We take away their ability to fight with us as easily through lateral flexion and because we never get mad and fight with them. Remember all we do is "set it up and let the horse figure it out" in a non-aggressive manner and because the horse chooses to give, he thinks it was his idea. That also means he'll have a better attitude and he'll remember the lesson more readily compared to if we tried to force him to give by jerking on the reins.




(Photo 10) You can see here after only 15 minutes of my lateral flexion exercise how this filly is starting to relax when I put her on a loose rein between direction changes. She is still jogging off without me asking her to, so the filly is basically telling me to keep bending her and waiting for her to soften and walk. Horses talk to us all the time. We just have to be smart enough to hear them.

Look at the difference (Photo 11) now after a further 2 minutes of bending. She is now quite willing to walk on a loose rein and wait for me to guide her to the next cue to do what I want.

All of this was accomplished in just 17 minutes, mainly because I didn't fight with her and I put her in a position so that she chose to give and relax as opposed to my trying to force her. The key is to set it up and let the horse figure it out. The end result is to have your horse walk a small circle (4 to 5 feet in diameter) with his head and neck bent to the inside and then to keep circling on a loose rein until you ask him to straighten or change direction.

Not only is this a great control exercise, but it also acts as a "discipline dare". For example, when I bend my horse to the left and release my hand down to my knee I basically am saying "go left, soften left and continue to circle left until I ask you to change direction".

Initially my horse is going to only do one or two steps on a loose rein (dare) before she tries to stiffen and brace against me by trying to leave the circle. However, every time your horse does this you immediately bring your hand back to your hip and ask him to soften again. It won't be long before your horse learns to wait for you to tell him to do something else. That 1 or 2 steps soon will be 3 or 4. Then after a week or so it will be 1 or 2 complete circles on a loose rein. Remember, exaggerate to teach and refine as you go along.

Problems you may encounter:

Some of the most common problems:

1. The horse doesn't want to go forward.

2. He tries to kick at your spurs and switches his tail.

3. Instead of softening, he will "lock up" and try running backwards.

Problem 1)

To control our horse's energy, we must first have energy or "forward motion" to begin with. Usually there are two main types of horse. There are the ones that are easily excited and nervous, always wanting to build speed when put on a loose rein. Then there are the ones that are the more "lazy" cold-blooded types that are reluctant to go forward or are in general not very motivated.

This basically puts all horses in two main groups: A) energetic and easily excited horses and B) lazy and unwilling to use their energy. Once we decide which group our horse falls into it is much easier to react to unwanted behavior from our horse. The filly in this article falls under A and is generally easier to control and teach to "wait for you" than the horse that falls under B.

Category B horse is generally more disrespectful. He will pin his ears, switch his tail and maybe even kick out at your spur when you ask him to move forward. When you start to bend and soften this type of horse, he will maybe go along with the whole thing as long as he doesn't have to put much effort into the exercise. Now because you are waiting to improve with every circle, he may just decide to shut down all forward motion. He may try a variety of options or maybe all of them. He may refuse to turn and stick his head in the air. He may try to scare you by trying to rear. Usually he will just lift his front legs off the ground one or two feet, mainly to try and make you think he is going to rear right up. Remember a horse can't rear if his feet are moving forward, so yet again get the feet to move. When you ask him to walk forward he may kick out at your spur, switch his tail and just basically say "I'm not going to soften to you and you can't make me".

With this kind of horse the worse punishment you can do to them is make them "work". Yes, that's right, make them exercise. Think about it. This horse wants to be lazy; he hates doing physical activity. Especially one that requires a "want to" type of attitude. It's simple; we make the "wrong thing difficult" and the "right thing easy". We must have energy before we can start to control it. So In this case we must get this horse to move forward (release the hand brake, so to speak) and eventually do it with a willing attitude. You do it as easily as possible but as firmly as necessary! If you have to get a riding crop to encourage him to go forward that's fine, but remember you do what you have to do to get the job done.

Now that you have your horse moving forward, start to canter him around, continuously changing direction. This helps because your horse doesn't know which direction he will go next and in time creates a "what do you want me to do next" attitude from him. After maybe 5 to 10 minutes of this cantering and constant change of direction, try to go back to your lateral flexion exercise. What normally happens is your horse is more than willing to cooperate now because he realizes the lateral flexion exercises is much easier than cantering around using more of his energy. During the lateral flexion exercise, if your horse starts to give you the old "I don't want to do it" attitude, repeat the cantering drill again. Usually within one ride you can see an overwhelming improvement in your horse's attitude. All you did was make the "wrong thing difficult" and the "right thing easy".

Problem 2)

Your horse "locks up" his head and neck and refuses to turn. He then tries backing up as opposed to softening to the rein pressure. Now what most people want to do is release the rein pressure when the horse starts to back up. By doing this you are actually teaching your horse to fight against you rather than soften to you. Look at it from your horse's point of view. "Right, all I have to do is resist and run backwards and I get rewarded". He got rewarded when you released the rein and leg pressure. You always want to reward the horse but only when he tries to soften to your request.

Now try this instead of getting all upset about your horse's fighting against you. Just let him continue backing and when he turns, you release the rein and leg pressure. For example, let's say he is backing up instead of turning to the right. All I will do is hold my right hand farther out to the side of my body and rub my right spur just behind the girth. By extending my hand out to the side it gives me better "lateral control" and makes it easier for the horse to understand you want him to turn to the right (remember you exaggerate to teach and refine as you go along). The reason why I will use my right leg in his side is to create an uncomfortable feeling that he will want to get away from, meaning that when he softens his ribcage around my leg he will also soften his face as well.

Imagine you are sitting in a chair and you push your rib cage to the right. Then I get my thumb and firmly rub it against your side. To begin with you can push against my thumb, but after awhile it will start to irritate you and when you move your rib cage away from my thumb, you instantly get relief. When you softened your rib cage you also softened your head and neck to the right as well. Remember we said the resistance is in the body not in the mouth! I made it difficult for you to push against me (the horse pulling on the rein) and easy for you to relax and soften. And all of it was your choice. It's important that when he turns instead of running backwards that you release the rein and leg pressure immediately to reward him for trying. Through repetition he will start to turn and soften instead of resisting and running backwards. Horses learn through repetition. The more you soften and bend him the more willing and responsive he will be.

Now that this filly is doing our "Lateral Flexion" exercise well and is willing to soften to my rein and leg pressure I will begin to start "Vertical Flexion". In this article I have done lateral and vertical flexion all in one ride.

However, if your horse is still quite resistant with the bending exercise, don't move to vertical flexion. Remember lateral flexion is the key! If you haven't got a soft and willing partner in grade 1 don't move to grade 2. By skipping grades and trying to force your horse to do more complicated exercises, you'll only create more resistance. I would strongly recommend that you spend 3 or 4 days doing nothing but lateral flexion. The softer he is with this exercise the easier it will be to gain vertical flexion (collection of the poll).

To start vertical flexion, I begin at the standstill and when he understands that he has to soften to my hands I'll work at the walk then trot and canter. Always make sure your horse is completely comfortable and understands step 1 before you move to step 2. This type of thinking makes it very easy for your horse to progress to more difficult exercises without you fighting with him.










Standstill: First I'll place both of my hands on my thighs and in doing so I make contact with the filly 's mouth. (Photo 12) What I would like this filly to do is immediately give to my hands and drop her head, neck and poll downwards and back to me. However what most horses do, and this filly is no exception, is lift their head and neck and fight against your hands. (Photo 12) They also will probably start to back up to try to escape the pressure instead of giving at the poll and keeping their feet still. When this happens, most people want to release the reins and try again, which is exactly the opposite of what you should do. Think about it; the horse was rewarded (rein pressure released) when he resisted against the reins and ran backwards.

When your horse gives you this negative reaction, you just simply freeze your hands on your thighs and wait for him to soften. To begin with your horse may back 30 or 40 steps before he stands still. Even when he eventually stands still he will still probably be pulling against your hands. You must not release any rein pressure while the horse is pulling against your hands. But the second your horse softens his poll and gives even just 1/2 an inch or so it's very important to instantly throw your hand forward and release the rein pressure to reward him. (Photo 13) By fixing your hands on your thighs you are in a good position to tell if he is still pulling or if he has softened a little bit.  Because your hands haven't moved, if the reins are still tight you know he is still fighting against you, but when you feel a release in the reins you know and also see and feel he has softened. If your hands are in mid air pulling when your horse does soften a little bit, you may not realize it because your hands are still pulling and you will remove any slack the horse creates when he gives to the bridle.

Once your horse softens for the first time it won't take long before he looks for that same "reward" he got the first time. Remember, horses learn through repetition. You exaggerate to teach and refine as you go along. Depending how resistant your horse is, it may take two or three rides before he is quite soft at the standstill.

Vertical flexion (collection) at the walk is basically the same as the standstill. I usually start the horse walking forward and then apply the rein pressure. Once again make sure you fix your hands on your thighs and apply some leg pressure to encourage your horse to keep walking forward. The reason we will add our legs is because most horses will try to stop or back up when the rein pressure is applied. Our leg will reinforce "move forward and soften". True collection is where you drive the back of your horse into your hands.

Just set it up and let your horse figure it out. (Photo 14) To start with, it may take 3 or 4 steps before he softens his poll. The main thing to concentrate on is the release of the rein pressure when he softens. Without the reward it is meaningless to your horse.

After 15 steps or so the filly decides there was no "reward or relief" in fighting against my hands and she "chose" to soften her poll. (Photo 15) Once the filly gave to me, I let her walk on a loose rein for 15 steps and then repeated the exercise again. The next time she didn't walk as long before softening to my hands and legs. (Photo 16)

Usually I'll walk beside an arena fence to do the exercise or pick out a post and ride straight to it. Don't forget to do some lateral flexion in between your poll softening exercise, just as a friendly reminder to your horse that you are the one that "calls the shots" so to speak. In time you can repeat this at the jog and then the lope. Keep in mind, though, the faster you go the more difficult it will be. Especially if you haven't mastered the previous step (for example: standstill, walk, jog, and lope). If you have problems, go back and repeat the previous step until you see your horse is ready to try to move up a grade again.

This filly has sure made a drastic improvement, wouldn't you say? Look how soft she is. (Photos 17 & 18) Note how my hands have hardly any pressure on the reins. Compare these photos to the photos when I first got on her!

This entire ride lasted 33 minutes from start to finish. Imagine what can be accomplished when you gain control of the rest of the body, shoulders, ribs and hindquarters. (Photo 19)

Things to remember:

Always think your way out of a problem rather than trying to fight your way out of it. Lateral flexion is the key.

Do what you have to do to get the job done. Do it as easy as possible but as firm as necessary.

You want respect without fear.

Always reward the slightest try.

You make the wrong thing difficult, the right thing easy.

Horses learn through repetition.

You gain body control through suppleness.

Without body control you have nothing.

Remember form to function.

Make sure the horse understands "grade one" before you move to "grade two".

It's feel, timing and experience. You gain feel and timing through experience. Exaggerate to teach; refine as you go along.

Trouble comes from a lack of suppleness and body control.

Never release the pressure until you get the feel you want.

True collection is where the horse gives you its entire body to do with whatever you want.

Always quit on a good note.

Remember to have fun!

About the author:

Clinton Anderson was one of Australia's best-kept secrets until his natural ability to communicate with horses became evident. Word quickly spread throughout Australia and so did Clinton's ability to teach horses and humans to produce extraordinary performance from a simple step-by-step system. Clinton uses the horse's natural 'blueprint' to his advantage rather than disadvantage. "Feel the Difference" is the nucleus of Clinton's program because you will feel the difference it makes to your horse with your own hands and legs. Interestingly, his philosophies follow the classic dressage masters of the 18th and 19th centuries in developing a supple, light, collected horse Clinton and his wife Beth are now permanent residents of America and are working with people and horses all over the country. Clinton is the only Australian to ever be invited to perform at two of the largest horse expos in the country, Equine Affaire and Equitana USA in 1998; in 1999 he performed at Equitana USA, Ride With the Stars, and at Northern Illinois Horse Fest. He has also produced three new videos and books to accompany every video called Video Mates.

For more information, contact:

Downunder Horsemanship with Clinton Anderson

985 Eastman Lane

Petaluma, CA 94952


Fax 707-776-4706


or visit