Monday, April 12, 2010

Bending and Flexing

Every once in a while another blogger writes a post that keeps drifting back into my mind throughout the week. This time credit is due to Grey Horse Matters for writing a post about un-learning. In her post she talks about horse training techniques that she was taught by "experts" that she no longer agrees with, and has had to teach herself to no longer perform them. One such technique includes bending and flexing your horse. Here is one of the items in her bulleted list of what she had to un-learn:

Pulling a horses head around with the reins and pinning it to his side, because this is the way you taught a horse to bend - (I’ve also seen them tied head to tail and left in a stall overnight to “limber them up”)

I do love learning from Clinton Anderson, but this is one technique I've seen him do repeatedly in his RFD TV show, Clinton Anderson's Downunder Horsemanship, that leads me to change the channel or turn off the TV. It actually pains me to see him yank a horse's head around and force it to touch its side with its nose all in the name of making the horse more flexible. It doesn't look anything like our slow-moving, gentle yoga or Pilates moves that we as humans use to help us become more flexible. It looks like punishment, especially when there is a bit in the mouth.

I have pictures of me practicing this technique on Gabbrielle from the ground last year, but I pulled slowly and gently on a lead rope attached to a halter, and released as soon a she gave me some slack. When I see Clinton Anderson on horseback snatching up a horse's head and yanking it around with a rein, and then yanking it right back because the horse didn't hold its nose to its side long enough, I get frustrated. I like just about everything else he teaches, but the reality is that our horses don't need help in developing flexibility.

You've seen my photos of my horses itching themselves. If there's a reason for it, they can crank their own neck around to their barrel to scratch an itch. If I lean across my horses' backs and I happen to have some treats in my pocket, they have no problem craning their necks to sniff at my pocket. If I'm riding my horses and they want to tell me to get off, they simply turn their heads and poke my foot with their noses. I suspect that if a horse isn't that flexible, it may have a neck or back problem that should be addressed by a chiropractor and not its trainer hauling its head around.

I've also seen clinicians at shows tie a rein to a certain part of a saddle to encourage a horse to bend at the barrel, and watched as the horse spun in circles helplessly while the clinician continued on with his/her lecture.

If there is another reason for all this bending and flexing beside increasing flexibility, I'll consider it, but only in a slower, more gentle movement, and without making a horse feel trapped. It's been a while since I've seen these clinicians at shows and read their books, so if you know of a good reason to practice these techniques, let me know.


fernvalley01 said...

I agree with the gentle pull and release , not yank and hold as well. I think that as horse people we take all the info in work it around in our heads and keep what works for us then ditch the rest. Comparing it to your own body helps some as well ,you know how it feels when you turn yor head too foar too fast and or for too long so...

Katharine Swan said...

I completely agree with you about this needing to be gentle, NM! I do this with Panama sometimes, and after a couple of gentle pulls, he usually puts his nose all the way around and sniffs my boot. (I think he thinks that's the purpose of the exercise.) But I wouldn't ever force him or yank on his face to get him to do it.

JeniQ said...

I too had to un-learn the grab the head and yank to flank to "limber up" the horse.

I realized - recently actually - that bend and flex comes with conditioning, training, and balance.

However, the very last thing I do no matter what type of riding or ground work I do is carrot/treat stretches. completely hands free -

1. to the right

2. to the left

3. out and down

Grey Horse Matters said...

I'm not a big fan of natural horsemanship gurus so I rarely watch them and would never fork over any money for their special gizmos. I think they take advantage of horse people who don't have access to good training for themselves or don't know how to train their horses properly and are looking for answers and a quick fix.

What I've learned over the years is that there is no quick fix to any problem. Everything that pertains to training any horse takes knowledge, patience and time.

I'm glad you liked my post, this is a good thought provoker too.

Breathe said...

I do this with Cibolo - he now offers it when he feels the pull.

And weirdly, it seems to relax him. I'm not sure if it's because he was trained to to this (it's a lyons thing too) or what. But I have to say, it works.

That said I start with a steady pull, but as I said, now all I have to do is signal and he brings his head around himself and sighs. He even holds it for a head pet.

I'm going to ask about it at the clinic. I was against it initially, but as I've worked through our issues, this has been a tool I used.

Anonymous said...

We have an older horse that had her head tied around a lot as a youngster, and the lasting effect is a horse that is limber as an overcooked noodle which she uses as a resistance. She's as wiggly and wobbly as they come and can quite easily gallop north while looking south!

Sydney said...

Ok I have to say I have seen clinton both live and have a couple books of his and he is one of the only clinicians I like. I do not follow him but he has a no nonsense approach to horsemanship. When/if you ever read his books he does not condone yanking the horses head around. He says to do it in smaller intervals until the horse understands and gives easily.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

I get tired of watching these head pull exercises too but I believe the whole point is for the horse to yield to the bit more than developing bendable necks. Of course, on their own, they're plenty supple, but have you ever ridden a horse that won't yield to the bit, that "freight trains" on, in spite of the rider pulling back? I think these head turns are teaching the horse that a rein pull, and if you'll notice the rein pressure gets softer and softer, or should be as the horse learns to yield, teaches the horse to submit to the pressure rather than resisting.

photogchic said...

Clinton teaches that the key to vertical flexion is lateral flexion. The flexing from side to side is also used in controlling the feet with a one rein stop. Flexing is teaching the horse to respond to the rein. The rough tug should evolve into just sliding your hand down to rein to get the flex.

I find that Clinton and Clintonites over flex their horses and tend to rely on flexing to solve every problem...that is my complaint with it, but I think it is a good suppling exercise to get your horse soft.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

How funny that I was just on Clinton's No Worries Club site last night watching his TV show videos. My friends Renee and Greg have the membership and invited me to check it out to get ideas on trailer loading techniques last week. And they worked, too, by the way :)

Clinton does do alot of flexing...probably more than is needed, but he never condones yanking the face, only a gentle pull and then he waits patiently for the horse to move in and finish the flex by touching the girth or fenders or it's side.

In all the shows and videos, I've not seen him yanking the horses' heads, just sliding his hand down the reins and softly pulling the horse's head until it gives....and then he releases quickly.
I also noticed how immediate the horse relaxes after each flex and becomes softer.

I had a very difficult time getting Baby Doll to do any flexing. She was stiff and unyielding and her neck was so long that it was impossible for her to bend enough to even grab a cookie from my hand while I was on her back. And this carried right over to her heaviness on the bridle. She was also thrown off balance when I used the one rein stop on her. She also refused to flex, soften and bend to the bridle and it caused so much trouble in our riding. And lots of sore shoulders, arms and back muscles for me!

Apache, on the other hand can reach all the way back around to my knee while I'm on her back so she can take a cookie from my hand.
And she is also much softer in the bridle and has more give being more supple.
I don't think the flexing with immediate release is bad at all. But I don't think tying a horse to it's saddle so it can't get any relief for long periods of time is humane or helpful.

We could all use more supple muscles, and stretching is a great way to accomplish that.
I also believe that for horses, flexing exercises keep their attention on you and not on the other horses in the field next door or on spooks across the road. It can also be a way to engage the horse's mind, if done carefully and thoughtfully.


sue said...

:o) it took me "forever" to figure out that photo!!! I had to look at it several times, step away, come back and see it again.. finally it clicked!!! just one of those silly things .....

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

All of these are very interesting and unique comments. I actually had begun a paragraph about using this technique for the purpose of giving to the bit, because that's actually my reason for using it in the past. However, I deleted it because I felt like I was headed off on a tangent and wanted to keep the post short.

Anyway, I found that once the horse does learn to give to the bit as soon as she feels the slightest pull, there's no need to keep doing this exercise repeatedly on a daily basis, which is what I've seen Clinton recommend. I have read his books, but they aren't fresh in my mind. He probably does say to pull gently and release, but that's not what I see on his shows. I suppose it's possible that the horse he's working with is just snapping its own head around, making it look like he's yanking it. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I like what Lisa said about the horse becoming visibly more relaxed after the exercise, but when I see Clinton do it in videos, his horse usually switches its tail in frustration (more than at flies). I think I'll make my next post about what kinds of techniques each of us use to relax our horses.

Katharine Swan said...

That will be a great post, NM. Looking forward to it! :o)