Grounded in the Saddle

Part 5. Give to the Bit (Vertical Flexion)

Once your horse is giving laterally to the bit freely and softly, you can start asking for vertical flexion.

Sitting quietly, take up the reins until you have a good soft contact. If there is no response, rock the bit gently side to side, and hold pressure. To rock the bit side to side, your need only alternately squeeze your hands on the reins. You are looking for the head to drop and break at the poll (the neck immediately behind the ears). In this way the horse takes the pressure off of the bit himself.

The first time you try this it may take a while for him to figure it out. Most horses tend to raise their heads at first; just hold steady soft pressure and wait. He will eventually try lowering his head and breaking at the poll. Note: it is perfectly possible for a horse to lower his head and NOT take the pressure off of the bit. This doesn’t count. Continue to hold steady pressure until you feel the reins begin to go slack, THEN release immediately. Remember, timing is everything. As soon as you feel the pressure slacken even a little, give him a giant release by pitching the reins away. Just toss them up on his neck and let the horse relax before you gather up the reins and ask again. Repeat this exercise, building slowly. Ask him to hold this collected position for a little longer each time he masters it. Eventually you want the horse to give vertically every time you pick up on the reins.

When he is calm and confident with vertical flexion at a standstill, ask for it at the walk. You will need to keep your leg on him when you pick up on the reins or he will think you are asking for a stop. When he flexes and puts slack in the rein, release all pressure and praise him. At first you will ask for just one or two steps. You can build slowly from there. Note: vertical flexion is the beginning of collection, and moving in this collected frame takes a lot of strength. He may be physically unable to do so for very long at the beginning, so be patient and build on this slowly.

Once you’re happy with his response at the walk, move on to the trot, and eventually the canter. Be sure to give him rest breaks. This is very hard work for your horse.