The Importance of Flexibility & Straightness

Why Is Stretching Important?

Any rider working toward their best performance with their horse benefits from the understanding of straightness.  Straightness gives life to progressively more intricate and demanding maneuvers for your horse; you cannot get really good lead changes without straightness, you cannot get lateral maneuvers without straightness, you cannot turn efficiently without straightness.  But straightness comes from freeing up those parts of the horse's body that are tight and inflexible.  Truly, in order to be STRAIGHT, you must BEND.

Skooter - straightWhen describing straightness in the horse, we are talking about the body being evenly divided along the mid line, weight evenly distributed on each of their legs, strides matched in length, suspension, and elliptical movement.  A “straight” horse can be ridden easily along a line at any speed, with little correction, and paradoxically, can be ridden in a circle or around a curve without a dramatic leaning of the body, and without coming off track with either the shoulder or hip.  Being straight produces a much more pleasing-to-the-eye performance, and makes the rider's work easier, as there is less re-balancing, and less support needed to aid the horse in doing its job correctly.  It makes the horse's job easier too; they need to endure less interference, less correction, and are freer to express their athleticism. [Pictured right: Skooter and Judith riding straight at the camera.]

It takes a vigilant, on-going effort from the rider to achieve and maintain straightness.  Horses are not born straight; like humans, their bodies are not perfectly symmetrical, and through genetics, habit, or injury, will carry their bodies to compensate for discomfort.  Over time, the habit of moving in a crooked fashion builds muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia unevenly on the body.  So it makes sense that the most important tool in achieving straightness is bending and stretching.  Straightness does not come from holding a horse tightly, attempting to force them into an unnatural frame, but rather, it takes a loose, flexible horse to move in a truly balanced manner.  If you can stretch out the areas of tightness on the horse's body, he will be able to move straight with little intervention from the rider.

I'd like to go deep into an analogy to explain the importance of stretching. You may have heard how dressage riders and horses at the highest levels are like dancers; my belief is that we should look closely at how ballet dancers prepare to perform and take lessons from their body awareness.  Flexibility is the cornerstone of ballet.  The body is stretched and limbered before anything else is done, and flexibility must be learned at the most elementary levels in order to be able to proceed in learning higher movements.  Every part of the body is used, and if there are 'kinks' in a muscle, they are massaged and stretched out.  If one leg is weaker, extra work is done to bring it into equality with the other.  The goal is to make the body as symmetrical as possible, as flexible as possible, as springy and light as possible.  From there, the dancer is able to hold a position with ease – a position that requires perfect, tall carriage or something more demanding, like a leap, pirouette, or change in direction.    Flexibility also builds body awareness, and body memory, allowing the body to be used in more effective ways without having to over-think it.  Sounds like something we could use while riding our horses, right?

It should be noted that if the rider isn't flexible, the horse probably won't be either.  Take the time to stretch daily, being aware of every body part, feeling for knots or points of discomfort.  Try to discover where your own inequalities lie; for example, after riding horses my entire life, my hips are quite different in their degree of rotation.  I attribute this to mounting horses from the left thousands of times – sound familiar?  My left hip more limber, in order to get my left foot in the stirrup, while my right is significantly tighter.  I must spend time stretching to loosen up my problem spots and try to keep myself as symmetrical as I can.  When you are fit and flexible, you are more effective as a rider, so make it a goal to improve that area of your life.  The more straight you are, the more balanced you will be in the saddle.  I have been fortunate to have taught several riders who were former ballet dancers, and you could really tell the difference in their balance and body awareness.  Do you need to go take ballet classes?  Well, it wouldn't hurt, but you can improve just by doing some basic yoga stretches at home.

The Diagnosis

Getting your horse straighter begins with identifying where he is crooked.  Begin on the ground; does your horse have 'dead' areas on his body, where light pressure from your fingers does not illicit a reaction of give or moving away?  When you lunge the horse, does it make smaller circles one direction, seeming to lean in more?  Horses that lean a lot when you ride them tend to lean on a lunge line, so look for a horse that throws its shoulder in going one way or the other, turns its nose out, or refuses to take the correct lead when loping.  A horse that can only take a certain lead when lunging could be severely one-sided, and will most likely be difficult under saddle to get into the uncomfortable lead too.

Next, ride the horse in a small round pen.  You want to see what the horse's natural way of going is on a curve, so the pen needs to be small enough so that the horse will continually be asked to bend while going around it.  As you go through your gaits, try to ride with as little interference as possible and take note of where the horse naturally goes.  Most horses will 'wrap around' going one way, in other words their bodies will follow the natural arc of the circle.  This we will refer to as the horse's “good” way.  When moving around on their “bad” way, they  will be canted away from the arc, with their bodies resisting the natural arc of the circle.

A vast majority of horses give on their left sides, and are stiffer on their right sides because from an early age they are trained with a human on their left side.  From day one, many learn to move away from the left, avoiding the human or being pushed over by the human, so naturally they will be softer on that side.  When a horse seems to be stiffer on the left, and gives more to the right, I often suspect discomfort or injury on the left, or a horse that had little groundwork done to influence its 'sided-ness.'  These horse may often be pushier on the ground when leading, or tend to invade their handler's space.  There is a very good case here to make sure that you train a horse on the ground equally from both sides.  In this way, you can positively influence your horse's straightness long before they are even under saddle.

Skooter - small circle right bendThis is a good time to introduce the small bending circle to your horse.  Shorten one rein and bring that hand up to your hip, asking the horse to step around in a small circle with his head bent each direction, keeping him moving. Take care to use the same rein length going each way.  Is this easier one direction versus another?  Notice the manner in which your horse bends each way; does he tend to lift his head higher one way, while dropping his nose down toward his shoulder going the other?  Does he stop movement of his feet, lock the shoulder or neck, resisting the turn?  Does he open his mouth and resist the bit pressure?  [I will explain the bending circle more in depth in a minute.]

[Pictured above: Skooter and Judith demonstrating a small right bend circle.]

From the round pen, you can then determine the horse's straightness in a larger space. Use an area that is large enough so that you can stay away from the walls or fences, so the horse is moving freely, and not leaning toward the fence.  Riding in a large area without walls or fences is even better.  Ride a series of circles, and take note of how much pressure it takes to keep the horse on the circle, and how that varies from one direction to another.  Determine where the horse carries its nose in relation to its hips, and where the ribcage is in between.  Then ride, at a walk, trot and lope, a straight line.  Make sure that your shoulders are square, weight evenly distributed on both feet and arms relaxed at your sides while doing this, so as to not be negatively influencing your horse's body line.  As you ride the line, find a fixed target with your eyes, and ride directly to it.  Where does your horse want to drift?  Can you tell where his nose is, and where his hips are, in reference to your line?

By now, you will be able to trace some patterns in your horse's carriage. Hopefully, you are able to identify his good way and his bad way, and can discern where the horse is physically crooked.  For the sake of simplicity, we are going to assume that your horse's teeth have been floated and he has been properly bitted, thus eliminating the possibility that the horse is feeling discomfort in its mouth.  A horse can have injuries to its jaws, such as from a kick from another horse, and would then be resistant to bending, so make sure that you are aware of any issues the horse might have in its mouth or on its head that might create discomfort and resistance.  If these conditions are met, then our discussion on where the inflexibility lies will start at the horse's poll and go all the way to its tail.  Anywhere along its body, on either side of its mid line, the horse can have a 'blocked' area that tightens up during exercise, and in that spot, the horse will not bend or engage that body part.  A horse that has discomfort at the poll will avoid turning its head to any degree, and when asked to bend in a small circle, will lock up its  neck, usually stopping forward movement of its front legs, spinning in a 'turn on the forehand' sort of fashion, and may toss its head.  The further back you go along the body, you will see the locking up of other body parts, from the shoulders, to the ribcage, to the hips.  If your horse has a tight wither and shoulders, it will lean heavily going around corners, or going a particular direction on a circle.  If your horse has tightness in its ribcage or back, he may brace his head very high, and carry his entire body as if it were a plank, resisting the natural curve of the ribcage along an arc.  If your horse has a tight spot in its hips, it may have trouble with its leads, or throw its hips one way or the other.

Because the front half of the horse bears 65 -70% of its weight, crookedness in the front end of the horse is more easily recognizable, but can be more stubborn to fix. Concussive forces on the front end are heavier, so it is physically more uncomfortable for the horse to change his position for any period of time.  No matter where your horse is exhibiting tightness, remember that if you were taking ballet classes, you would begin by holding the new, challenging position in small increments, gradually increasing the length of time held during any stretches or new position.  The idea is to slowly mold your horse's body into a straighter, more flexible, dancer.  Expecting him to change overnight is like expecting Swan Lake after one dance class!  Your patience will pay off with a horse that feels good, is giving and has no resentment or pain.

The Remedy

Let's start out toward becoming more flexible by beginning in the same place: A truly well-trained horse that is happy and comfortable in his job should allow you to put his body anywhere, anytime.  That is the goal we are all working toward.  We want our horse to move where we want him to move, when we ask him to, and stay there until we move him again.  Two things need to happen in order to accomplish this; first, the rider needs to know how to ask so the horse understands, and second, the horse needs to be able to comfortably do what you are asking.  You cannot expect your horse to curve around your leg on a circle if every time he does, he feels pain or discomfort in his neck.  This is what we are trying to address here. We want to help the horse overcome its physical discrepancies so that it is comfortable putting its body wherever you ask.

Have you ever been in physical therapy to rehab from an injury?  Most physical therapy consists of stretching and light strength training.  We are going to put your horse in physical therapy by stretching and teaching them to hold a position in small increments.

Skooter - stretch to the shoulderStretching on the Ground: Stretches can be done from the ground to warm up for stretches under saddle.  There are stretches for the neck, stretches for the legs, and even some for the back.  First, the neck;  you can do these stretches with just your hand on the halter, moving the horse's head, or you can use a treat to entice him to move his head himself.  Stand your horse so that he is up against a fence, let the horse sniff the treat and then hold the treat on the horse's shoulder, preferably low to encourage the horse to keep his head low.  You want the horse to bring his head around, stretching his neck to get that treat.  You will be able to tell if the stretch was too easy, and can increase the difficulty.  [Pictured right: Skooter and Judith, gentle stretch to the shoulder.]  

Skooter - stretch to the hipThe further back you hold the treat, and the higher you hold it toward the spine, the more difficult the stretch.  Spend more time on the side that you suspect is his “bad” side, making the horse reach two or three times before he gets the treat.  I have seen very flexible horses who are able to touch their hips with their nose, so see how far you can get your horse to go – but do it over the course of a few weeks.  There is no rush, and you don't want any strained muscles. [Pictured left: Skooter and Judith, gentle stretch to the hip.] 

Skooter - stretching the backThe next neck stretch is the same concept, but this time put the treat on the horse's chest, or between his front legs.  This is an excellent stretch for the poll all the way back to the shoulders, but keep in mind, you are only asking for this stretch for a couple of moments.  Extreme bending for longer periods in this position make it hard for your horse to breathe, and under no circumstances should you pull the horse's head into this position with a bit. [Pictured right: Skooter and Judith, gentle stretch between the front legs.] 

Skooter - front leg stretchMoving on to the legs, we want to be mindful of our horse's level of training and our own safety when beginning.  Your horse must have impeccable manners to do this, so work on him giving his feet with ease, allowing you to move his leg around first before asking him to stretch.  The first position is to pull your horse's leg straight forward, picking up his foot, rolling it forward naturally, switching your hands around so that one hand is cupped around the fetlock and one behind the knee.  GENTLY ask the horse to straighten his leg – this must be done at a very low height at first, gradually lifting the leg.  Make sure you read your horse! You can tell when the horse has reached his limit, both in height and in amount of time, and that is when you release the leg. Always let go gently too; do not drop the leg.  Some horses really love this stretch and will lean into it.  If their eye is soft, it feels good.  I have a mare that I taught these stretches to when she was a weanling, and to this day, I will catch her stretching on her own, front legs straight out in front of her, leaning way back like a cat, with her elbows nearly in the dirt.

[Pictured above: Skooter and Judith, gentle stretch of the front legs.]

Skooter - cupping the hind legThe hind legs are trickier.  You do not want to stress the stifle or hock, so your goal is to keep the foot low toward the ground.  Pick the hind foot up as if to clean it, and then move your hands so that your inside hand is holding the cannon bone, and your outside hand is cupping the fetlock and pastern. 

GENTLY pull the leg straight out, away from the body.  On horses that I know really well, and trust, I might come around behind the horse, facing their rear end, and gently pull the leg back.  Do not pull the horse's leg out, away from its body, as you are pulling back – it must be straight back  At first, your horse may try to draw his feet back under himself, but if you are gentle and persistent, he will hold the position a bit longer every time.  Some horses like this position a lot and will stretch the leg way out, pointing the toe. It is fantastic if you can get your horse to do this, and if you stick with it, one day your horse may surprise you with a really nice toe point!

Here's a good stretch/strength training exercise for the back.  Stand with your chest facing your horse's ribcage, put your hands under the middle of your horse's belly, and vigorously scratch him.  Use your fingernails and move front and back.  You want your horse to lift and suck up his belly, using his back muscles.  When you stop scratching, you will see the horse's top line visibly relax and let down.  Doing this a few times a day is like doing crunches or Pilates; it is very good for the core.

Skooter - tail stretchThe last stretch is for the tail.  Again, you must be mindful of your horse's training level and trustworthiness.  Gently pick up the horse's tail at the dock and lift it, smoothing the hair comfortably, and rubbing the underside of the dock so as to relax your horse.  Slide your hands down the tail until you are just holding hair, and GENTLY pull the tail.  Watch your horse's ears!  Most horses will be understandably worried the first couple times; their head will be up, with their ears to the side, as in “what are you doing?”  If your horse has severe pain in his hips, croup, or tail, he could pin his ears and kick you, so be mindful of body language.  Almost always, the horse realizes that it feels good, and will first just relax and allow you to pull, but will then really get into it, leaning away from you to enhance the stretch.  I have had horses that enjoyed this so much that I could lean my entire body weight on their tails, and their body language was relaxed, chewing afterward.  I have an Arabian gelding (who happens to have high tail carriage) that loves this, and I often hear little pops in his dock when I do it.  Maybe popping his tail feels as good as cracking my knuckles!

[Pictured above: Skooter and Judith, gentle stretch of the tail. Skooter LOVED this and really leaned into it!] 

Stretching under saddle: Let's move on to bending while you are riding your horse.  First, we need to state that bending should be done in a direct pull snaffle, the plainer the better, to start with.  I usually use a nose band to encourage the horse to keep its mouth closed, but this piece of equipment is only an aid and isn't necessary unless the horse is trying to get away from the bit pressure by gaping his mouth.  NEVER use a really tight nose band.  If you have to crank down the nose band to keep your horse's mouth closed, you have a bitting issue that needs to be addressed.  Have your horse's teeth examined, make sure that the bridle fits properly, that the bit is the correct size and type, and if the problem persists, examine if you are pulling on the horse's mouth unnecessarily to balance yourself.  Another piece of equipment that I usually use is a training fork type martingale, but again, I use it fairly loose so that I do not rely on it to force my horse into an unnatural frame.  The snaffle/nose band/martingale combination is fairly standard for training horses in either Western or English, so use what is appropriate to your discipline.

Bending a horse is nothing new, and techniques vary widely.  Some dressage purists do not believe in bending, and straighten their horse's frame with leg pressure only while moving forward.  Obviously, this point of view doesn't hurt the horse at all, but it certainly can cause training to take much longer, and make life much more difficult for rider.  As long as bending is done with gentleness and respect, it is my opinion that it is a great tool to help horses advance.

There is the other end of the spectrum; some trainers will tie a horse's head to it's saddle, or even its tail, and leave the horse (unmounted) to its own devices for a period of time; sometimes a few minutes, sometimes hours, switching sides at some point.  I have come to believe that this practice is wrong, as it does not give the horse any reward or relief for giving to the pressure.  When the horse has his head tied to his tail, it hurts, and when he gives to that pain, he isn't rewarded by allowing him to return to a normal, comfortable position – he must continue to stand there until someone decides to let him out of it. Not a very good way to build a partnership with your animal if that is your aim.

In order to get their horse to bend, or “give its face” under saddle, some trainers and clinicians stand their horse still and pull the horse's head around toward the rider's leg, expecting the horse to stand and to not move their feet.  This isn't a bad technique, it is just incomplete if the aim is to get the horse to use its whole body while bending.  The horse should give its head whenever you ask it to, and if you want it to come around, while standing still, then your horse should comply.  However, we get so much more out of a full body bend, where we can incorporate the whole body in the stretch.

Skooter - small circle left bendEvery horse, no matter what discipline you ride, should be able to do a small bending circle.  This is how I would describe its execution:  if you want to do a bending circle to the left, take up on your left rein, allowing plenty of slack on your right rein so that there is no interference on that side.  Place your left forearm or wrist on your left hip, and leave it there – it is very important to not move your hand up and down or back and forth.  Start with your rein length short enough to turn the horse's head only so far as to see the horse's eye; as the horse improves, you will turn his head further, but the degree to which you turn your horse's head is not the immediate goal.  What you want is for that horse to wrap around your left leg, while continuing to move forward,  Using your left leg only, bump the horse's side, encouraging the horse to keep its front legs moving, and encouraging his ribcage to push out toward the right.  You want the horse's inside hind leg, in this case the left hind, to reach up under his belly and engage his inside hip.  You can help him do that by moving your left leg further back and bumping, by engaging your seat muscles, and by clucking. 

Skooter - small circle right bendTurn your horse around in this manner three or four times and then straighten out, riding on a loose rein and scratching your horse's neck to let him know you approve.  Then go the other way, taking care not to jerk your horse's head the opposite direction too quickly. When you first ask your horse to do this, they often aren't sure what you are asking.  They will try to stop their front feet (use more leg and cluck) or toss their head (this means you are going for too tight of a circle, so loosen up and ask for a more open arc).  Be patient, and work on it a little bit every day.  I do not usually use spurs when teaching this technique to my horses; it doesn't make sense to poke them, causing them to stiffen at the poke, if you want them to relax and give.  So try this technique without spurs, understanding that you will have to use your leg a bit more, but the end result will be a horse that isn't as resentful.  If you choose not to remove your spurs, at least try to use them as lightly as possible.  Also, I will often initially forgo backing up while I am teaching the horse to bend; I don't want to confuse them into backing out of the bend.  It must always be done moving forward.

Your goal is to have a horse that bends equally to both sides.  When I say equally, I mean, they should ideally be able to turn their head the same degree, use their shoulders in a similar manner, hold their head in a similar fashion both ways, push their ribcage out equally, and push up and under with their hind foot with similar scope.  The ideal bend is to have the horse's nose at about your knee or upper shin, using his whole neck without “laying his head down” which is when the horse turns the top of his head away from the bend, flattening his head horizontally, and resisting bending his neck.  In the ideal bend, the horse's angle of his head should be fairly vertical, so that the entire neck is bending, not just the head.  The ideal bend should be done without a lot of rein pressure; if you have gradually increased your horse's flexibility and given them a clear understanding of what you want them to do, you shouldn't have to pull on them very much to get them to wrap around.  Just take down on your rein, set your hand, and let your lightly bumping leg do the rest.  If they are pulling, loosen up your rein some and use more leg.  Always more leg combined with a steady, soft hand.

Achieving flexibility takes time, especially if your horse is stiff or has never had to bend before.  Keep in mind that it isn't just how far you can get the horse to bring his nose around; the best bend is one in which the horse's whole body is relaxed and balanced.  I would rather see a horse that moved slowly but kept his frame upright.  I would rather see a horse that didn't bend real far, but was quiet and happy than see one with his nose cranked around, head cock-eyed, mouth gaping open.

Once you have identified the bad way, work on it twice as much as the good way, as in, always start and finish your bending with the bad way.  When I warm a horse up, I generally walk the horse out for a few minutes, and then do a few bending circles, first the bad way, then the good way, and then back to the bad way, in a slow, relaxed manner, giving my horse lots of verbal encouragement, and stroking the neck to show them my approval, even if they only gave a little.  I then move on to my workout, and will do some more bending circles at the midpoint of the session, and again at the end.  Total time investment should really only be about ten to fifteen minutes per session.  Do not over-drill this; instead, have it as a long term goal that your horse will become more flexible over the course of several months.  Over that time, you will see your horse's sides become more even, and you will find that your 'feel' will increase as well, as you will have a more acute sense of where your horse's ribcage is, and when that hind foot really reaches up and under.

I have had success with this technique with both Western and English horses, and I feel that the benefits apply to both disciplines equally.  Every rider wants their horse to be more balanced left to right, we all want them to use their bodies more effectively, and we all want them to give to pressure and mold to the frame we want.  Being flexible allows a horse to reach further in its strides, take its leads more reliably, and collect up more easily.  And it is the gateway to lateral work.  How can you ask a horse to do an effective shoulder in if its ribcage is immovable or if he stiffly leans to one side?  How can a reining horse perform spins if its neck and shoulders are bound up?

There are some horses that get injured or just endure a lot of wear and tear who need more help to get loose.  This is where a good massage therapist comes into play.  Just like a serious dance student benefits from an occasional rubdown, so does your horse.  A competent massage therapist will identify where your horse's resistant areas are, and will help get those points to release.  They can also map these points on the body, and over time, can help you track how the horse is doing.  And horses LOVE massages.  It is a fantastic reward for working hard to please you.

A Success Story

Years ago, I assisted a customer of mine in purchasing a horse for her daughter.  We were given the heads up from my shoer that a fantastic 12 yr old Paint gelding named Bugsy was for sale.  We went to check him out, and he was everything that the little girl needed for her first horse.  He was quiet, tolerant, easy going, affectionate, brave, smooth to ride, and a good mover.  In addition, he was a gorgeous bay and white tobiano, and we all loved him immediately.  We snapped him up quick!

After we got Bugsy to our place, it became clear that he would need some physical rehabilitation to transition from his former job, that of being a roping horse, to being a young girl's riding horse, destined to go both English and Western.  After roping for his entire life, Bugsy's shoulders and neck were extremely tight.  When you went to bend him in a circle, he would turn his entire body around, keeping his whole body as straight as possible.  In addition, he had always been ridden in spurs, and was a very thick, muscular horse.  At first, I was very happy to just get a tiny bend from him.  He had a wonderful, pleasant personality so he wasn't really fighting us; he just couldn't do it comfortably.  He was, without a doubt, the stiffest horse I had ever ridden.

So we began the flexibility protocol with Bugsy; stretching on the ground before riding, which he and the little girl loved doing together, and stretching under saddle, adding bending circles at the beginning, middle and end of each ride.  We also got twice a month massages for him, which he loved and thrived on.  After about six to eight months, Bugsy was like a different horse.  Instead of carrying his head up, in a single, stiff position, he could drop his nose and collect.  He could canter easily on both leads.  He could be ridden in a plain snaffle, without spurs – anyone who has ever ridden a life-long roping horse knows how big this is!  And he went from barely being able to turn his head 45 degrees to being able to reach all the way back to the point of his hip to snag a bite of carrot.

He looked like a different horse too; he no longer had over-developed muscles on the underside of his neck.  Instead, the muscles over the top line of his neck became more developed, his back muscles more pronounced, and his hindquarters more engaged.  He looked rounder.  Over time, he became less of a roper and more of a dressage horse: flexible, balanced, engaged, springy, and light.  Doing this for him allowed him to have a second career as a much-loved kid's horse, giving him more longevity as a riding horse and preserving his soundness.  I am convinced that had he never been rehabbed, he would have continued to move in a stiff, upright stature, always bracing his back and shoulders for the pull of a rope,  with excess concussion on his legs, eventually facing an early retirement.  This horse showed me that any horse can benefit from learning to stretch, and, like a football player that learns ballet to become lighter on his feet, any horse can improve their physical scope by being more flexible.  It takes time and commitment, but it is worth every minute.

Copyright © 2012  Shannon Jones.  All rights reserved worldwide.