Now, there are many methods a person can use to teach a horse to bend and flex. Standing at the shoulder or hip, and enticing fluffy with a treat, is NOT one of those methods. Whether you choose to believe so or not; when you teach a horse to bend or flex to get a treat, the horse is not learning to give. His only motivation is food and it creates an annoying habit. Some people may say "well I only do it so the horse stretches". I DON'T CARE. If you want to teach your horse to stretch, he might as well learn to give to pressure and learn something useful. He already knows how to eat. If you teach a horse to bend and flex the correct way, sans treats, the horse will become supple, soft in the face, and you will have better control over that body part in the saddle. Now, I am not against giving treats when you have completed the exercises and are about to put the horse away; I just can't stand it when people give treats to try to "teach" them an important skill.
Now... Onward to the written demonstration.
As I said before there are a myriad of ways to teach a horse to bend and flex around. However, the method I'm about to describe is what works for me and several others, including some clinicians. It is not a "quick" method by any means. It takes time, patience, and dedication to get this skill mastered. When I say mastered, I mean mastered. I want to be able to lift with the slightest pressure of a finger to get my horse to reach around, and I want an immediate response. If the horse lags, he needs to have more time devoted to the skill. You can NEVER do this too much. The key to vertical flexion is LATERAL flexion. If this method is taught properly there should be no reason to use draw reins, tie downs, huge bits, or any other gimmick on the market.
This method works in a progression of "steps". As I said before, it takes time. Furthermore, you need to be precise in your timing of the "release"; otherwise, your horse is not going to learn to do this the correct way and he will always rely on you to "pull" him around. The horse needs to think it's HIS idea to reach around.
Tools you will need: I find it much easier to use a simple rope halter and 10 or 12 foot lead to start teaching this exercise. The halter will need to be adjusted so that it is a little lower on the bridge of the nose. Do not put the halter so low to where the nose piece is sitting on the cartilage or the nostrils. In this photo the halter is adjusted correctly. However, I like to adjust the halter about an inch lower; not on the cartilage and not on the nostrils, but just low enough to where I have some leverage.
Begin on the left side of the horse standing at his flank area. If you stand at his shoulder you will be in his way. I generally keep about 4 feet of slack in the lead rope and I drape the excess over the horse's hip or my shoulder. Standing at the flank area, I slide my hand down the lead rope about half way, and with one solid pull place my hand on the middle of the horse's back; yet on the same side that I'm standing. Do not cross your hand over the back and do not pull the rope towards yourself first. It needs to be one smooth motion up to the middle of the horse's back. At this point your horse (especially the greenies) will probably go "WTF" and dance around. Do not release the tension on the rope and do not move your hand. Be patient and wait for the horse to give. In the beginning stage, such as this, we are just looking for as much "give" as the horse is willing to give. If he only gives 2 inches... release the rope immediately like it just gave you a 3rd degree burn. Repeat this process, asking for just a little more give each time. Be sure to be IMMEDIATE with the release. The release is the reward. Now let's get a little more technical. Keep in mind, not all horses are going to figure this out right away. It's a slow process. Some advance to being able to give to the cinch area in a day; other's may take a few days. Regardless, your horse is not solid in this skill until you can put barely any pressure on the lead, he gives immediately, holds, and responds to the release. The idea is to get him as light as possible in the face to where it takes barely any pressure from you.
When your horse finally figures out you want him to give, you progress gradually until the horse can actually touch the cinch area. A give to the shoulder is not good enough at this point. He needs to be able to reach around and touch almost behind where the cinch goes. A common mistake people make is sliding their hand too far down the rope and asking for the give. If your hand is too far down the rope, when you ask for the give the horse will not be able to give anymore because the tension is too tight. A general rule of thumb is to only tighten the rope to where he has to give 3/4 of the way. The last quarter he must have enough slack in the rope so he can give the rest of the way by himself. Likewise, some people do not slide their hand far enough down the rope. When this occurs, the horse will have no pressure and he's not going to give. Just remember the 3/4 rule. Sometimes it helps to place a piece of duct tape on the rope so you can visually see the ideal place to slide your hand to. Then, you will never be too short or too long.
I generally do this exercise 100-150 times each time I work the horse; whether it's a finished horse or a greenie. Ten times on one side, ten on the other, alternating sides until they have done the desired number of repetitions and are nice and soft. You cannot do this exercise too much. As a general rule of thumb, I will use work this exercise in the rope halter and lead for about two weeks before advancing them to doing the exercise in a snaffle. (That's two weeks at 6 days per week for you slackers out there)! You are not going to advance as quickly if you cannot devote the time. Therefore, it may take some of you longer before you can teach this in a snaffle. And for those of you sitting there going "my horse bends just fine in a bit now"; if you can't do it with slight pressure from one finger I'm sorry but he's not as light in the mouth or face as he could be.
I challenge my readers that don't already use this method to try it every day for two weeks and let me know how it goes. I will post the next step to this method which combines disengaging the hip and bending around in two weeks. From there we will progress to using this method with a bit. I want to hear your success stories!