There are a lot of things we do in horsemanship that could be considered double-edged swords. That is, when done properly they can be extremely beneficial, when done poorly they can be quite harmful. It has been my experience over the years that lateral flexion is most certainly one of these.
In theory, lateral flexion (asking the horse to willingly turn their head and neck from side to side) is a great way to help develop suppleness, responsiveness, balance and even straightness in our horses. And when done properly, it can, and will do all of these. The problem is, often times it isn’t done properly.
But before we go any farther, we should probably point the mechanics of what lateral flexion is, beginning with the horse’s physical structure. First, like almost all other mammals, horses have seven vertebrae in their neck. These vertebrae all function in roughly the same manner as they do in all other mammals. But for our purposes, and the purpose of discussion, we want to start by focusing on just the first two vertebrae in the horse’s neck, C1 and C2, as well as the joints between them.
C1 (the atlas) actually has two primary functions. It allows for the creation of both vertical movement (nodding up and down) and lateral movement of the skull (taking the cheek to the shoulder). C2, (the axis) allows for rotation of the skull. In the human this is would appear as us shaking our head “no.” In the horse it is the rotational movement of the nose upward and sideways, as if the horse was cocking it’s head to one side or the other.
Many folks who practice lateral flexion with their horses aren’t really aware of how these joints work, and so often times they end up teaching and performing the movement incorrectly. In true lateral flexion, we are trying to primarily engage the lateral motion of C1, leaving C2 in a sort of neutral position throughout the movement.
Put simply, what this does is allow the horse to turn their head in the direction we are asking, with their eyes staying level to the ground – the way they would if they were turning on their own. However, many people who think, or have been taught that achieving lateral flexion is little more than turning the horse’s head from side to side overlook this subtly and so will often times end up engaging both C1 and C2. What this does is cause the horse to flex laterally, but it also inadvertently causes the rotation of the skull at the same time.
This type of lateral flexion mixed with the rotation of the skull ends up creating almost exactly the opposite of what we are trying to achieve in the first place, which is suppleness, responsiveness, balance and straightness. Instead, the horse often ends up out of balance throughout the entire movement due to trying to compensate for the rotation, or upward and sideways movement of their nose, as they are being asked to move their head.
Another common problem with lateral flexion is that, even when done correctly, quite often it is simply practiced too much. Now I realize there are folks out there who teach lateral flexion who say that lateral flexion can never be done too much. Others will tell us to practice lateral flexion for hours at a time, and still others who will tell us that one should never even think about riding their horse without first making sure the horse flexes laterally at least twenty five or thirty times in each direction.
Even though there are some who will tell us that flexion can never be done too much, the truth is, horses will often say something different. Over the years we have run into hundreds of horses that show obvious signs of being over flexed. These signs include the inability for the horse to walk a straight line while being ridden, the inability to follow their own nose in a turn, or stop when asked, and some are even unable to stand quietly with a rider on their back without feeling like they need to mindlessly turn their head from side to side, even though they aren’t being asked to do so. Many over flexed horses will simply stand with their head turned and their nose all the way around to the rider’s boot. When the rider asks the horse to straighten their head, the horse often just turns and puts their nose on the other boot.
In cases like these, lateral flexion has been done to the point where the action itself has become little more than a default movement for the horse. In other words, the horse will laterally flex themselves regardless of the situation or circumstances they are in, and whether or not they are even being asked. When asking them to turn while under saddle, the horse may turn their head but continue going straight. Another thing that happens when the horse is over flexed like this is the joint at C1 actually becomes hyper mobile, causing the horse to literally lose the connection between his head and the rest of his body while being ridden. There are a number of serious issues with a horse losing this connection – for both rider and horse – not the least of which is a total loss of overall control. But even more concerning is that losing this control can, and usually is, quite difficult and very time consuming to correct.
Still, understanding proper lateral flexion is an important part of a horse’s education, whether we’re talking about a young horse that’s just starting out, or an older horse whose education has somehow gotten off track. Even with that, however, I am not usually one to spend too much time working on lateral flexion in the way that a lot of folks might. That is, I’m not one to sit on the horse’s back and flex the horse from side to side, over and over, for extended periods of time, especially once the horse understands what’s being asked of him and is able to do it consistently.
I prefer to practice things like this with a sort of as we go attitude or mentality. Meaning, rather than getting on my horse and saying to myself “Okay, now we’re going to do some lateral flexion,” I’m more likely to spend time on it while I’m going about whatever business I’m doing with my horse on that particular day. If I’m clinicing, for instance, I might ask my horse to flex laterally while I’m turning him as we get ready to move from one place to another. If I’m on the ground and we go through a gate, I might send my horse past me through the gate and then ask him to flex when I bring him back to me as I close the gate. For me, putting a purpose behind the exercise eliminates the drilling aspect of it, which in turn allows the horse to stay mentally and emotionally engaged in the process.
I understand there are folks out there that feel differently about this, folks who feel that the road to perfection is through lengthy, nearly non-stop repetition of exercises like lateral flexion. And for them, perhaps that is the key to perfect behavior and flawless responses in a horse. After all, there is no question that many horses, when given no other option, will most certainly repeat behavior that has been relentlessly drilled into them.
But there is always a cost for a quest of perfection through mechanical repetition. Usually, the cost is that we end up losing the essence and personality of the horse. And at least for me, that is a cost that seems a bit too high to pay.
I think its safe to say that most serious horse folks are looking for a relationship with their horse in which the horse can not only perform consistently and with the least amount of stress, but as we move them in that direction, the inside of the horse doesn’t get lost in the process. To that end, I think it is the serious horse person’s responsibility to be mindful of not only what things we do with our horses, but also how we do those things. To that end, when working with our horses I believe we should constantly be asking ourselves this one question: Am I doing this with my horse, or am I doing this to my horse?
And for those of us who find ourselves spending a lot of time and effort on things like lateral flexion, that may be as good a place as any to start posing the question .