Lateral Flexion vs Over-Bending
I use lateral flexion as a softening, stretching and warm up exercise to loosen the neck and poll. This is also recommended by our Equine Chiropractor as being very beneficial to the horse. I do not do this repeatedly, only two or three times on each side and only asking for the horse to bend her neck a maximum of 90 degrees from the body, no more. I do not want the horse to bring her nose to her ribs.
Being “bad for the horse biomechanically” is to over-bend the neck (nose to ribs) and repeat this deep bending many times. I have seen some trainers teach students to do this and I strongly disagree. Many repetitions of over-bending can cause the horse to disconnect at the base of the neck and become “rubber necked”. This can cause the horse to have no integrity or control of the neck from the rider in the saddle and prevents the horse from carrying a nice shape throughout their body.
In over-bending laterally, the horse will reach a certain degree of bend in which the ears are no longer level. At that point the horse is not bending the neck any longer, but instead is in a position of “inverse rotation of the spine” which can be very damaging to the horse. In all lateral bending of the neck be certain to not pass the point at which the ears are no longer level. In this way you maintain a true bend through cervical vertebrae 1 and 2. A 90 degree bend is quite enough to achieve a good stretch of the neck and actually more bend than I will ask of the horse in any Classical movements we will perform.
I do not like to see a horse “come behind the bit” or over-bend vertically although this can be a bad side effect of over-bending laterally also. While this may be hard to prevent from the ground it can be corrected in the saddle with the reins by lifting the neck to prevent the horse from going behind the bit and becoming heavy on the forehand. I do talk about all this in detail during our Six Keys to Harmony clinics to make sure the participants don’t mistake my lateral flexion exercise for the repeated over-bending they may see from other trainers.
My lateral flexion exercise is not done just to have the horse bend her neck in any fashion but my goal is to teach the horse to follow my hand on the rein, to follow the slight movement of my hand or the bit. I want to see that my horse is soft and is with me mentally whether I ask for a bend of 20, 45, 70 or 90 degrees. When the horse knows the flexion and calmly follows my hand without bracing its muscles against me, then I don't have to do the flexions very much. I just make sure the correct response is there and then move on to something else.
If you are in a new location and your horse is nervous about the surroundings it would be a good idea to just lead her around the arena for a few minutes to let her see everything, then you might start with a more energetic exercise like sending or the half circle exercises with lots of changes of direction in order to use some energy, settle her and gain her attention before asking for more quiet and precise movements like flexions.
Enjoy the Journey,
Ed Dabney is an internationally acclaimed clinician, presenting horsemanship and riding clinics all over the US and in Europe. In 2007, Ed was named Champion of the East Coast Trainer Challenge Series by Equine Extravaganza. Ed was honored to have been selected by the University of Georgia to teach their senior level Young Horse Training course.
His training articles have appeared in many major national magazines. Ed produces instructional videos and the “Gentle Horsemanship” TV program which has been seen on RFD-TV.
Ed's blending of natural horsemanship and classical equitation has made an indelible mark with students all across the United States and now also in Europe, drawing the attention of serious riders searching for the lightest touch and the deepest connection with their horses irrespective of breed or discipline.