Vertical flexion is your horse giving his face in answer to a pressure from both reins. He will flex at the poll, bringing his head into a vertical position in relation to the ground. In the picture to the right, Forest Jac shows a rounded frame with well engaged hind-quarters. A collected outline can only be achieved if the horse's back is lifted up. This happens when the abdominal muscles are engaged, fully supporting the horse's mid-section. The rider will feel a soft swing under the saddle. In turn the shoulders are elevated, giving the rider a feeling of no longer riding 'downhill'. Rein contact at this stage is minimal, with the horse maintaining this frame not because of the action of the reins but because the whole of his body is being held correctly - hence the expression 'self-carriage'. Developing a rounded frame in any horse will increase it's long-term soundness, longevity and well-being.
Why do you need it?
There has been the equivalent of ‘War and Peace’ written about vertical flexion. So to keep it brief I’m not going to write it all again. However, I will just go over the major issues. This is a vital piece of your horse’s training and can be looked at in three ways:
Vertical flexion is necessary to achieve collection
Without vertical flexion it is impossible to supple the horse longitudinally (from nose to tail)
You need the ability to place your horse’s head EXACTLY where you need it at any given time to truly have a trained horse.
What do you need now?
If you can consistently achieve lateral flexion both in hand and under saddle then achieving vertical flexion is simple. Check that when you pick up on one rein your horse gives his head without hesitation and as lightly as possible. If your horse moves his feet or offers resistance in any way then continue working on the lateral flexion until the exercise is smooth, soft and easy for both of you.
How to achieve vertical flexion
When introducing this exercise to your horse it's best to use a snaffle bit. Having checked the response to lateral flexion, quietly take the slack out of both reins until you have equal pressure on both sides of the bit. Your horse will probably give pretty quickly, so be ready torelease the reins completely. I always try to drop them down onto the withers to give a big release and then sit quietly for a few moments. Then pick up the reins and repeat the exercise.
Your aim is to consistently achieve a soft, quick response - once you have this, you can begin to wait for longer before you give the reins back. Your horse should stand quietly with a soft mouth and relaxed neck without pulling or leaning on your hands.
Once you are happy with the vertical flexion at a stand-still, start asking your horse to give his face when walking. As you begin to take the slack out of the reins close your legs and - when you feel a soft, willing response - release your reins and legs. After a few strides repeat until you can get your horse to tuck his chin and round his back whenever you ask. After practising at a walk, try jog and then lope.
Framing up and self-carriage
Being able to ‘frame up’ your horse allows you to develop a more collected way of going. However, this isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes time for the horse to become physically able, and mentally confident, to carry the rider whilst maintaining a collected frame at all gaits and manoeuvres. So in other words you need to build up the amount of time you work in collection, and the degree of collection required.
Self carriage is when the horse is able to maintain a rounded frame on a light or loose rein. You can continue at your chosen gait, in a regular rhythm whilst your horse is completely on your aids. Now you and your horse are in tune with each other, your horse is waiting on your cues and responds instantly.