Friday, 27 February 2009

The "Teaching an Important Skill With Treats" Dilemma

Today there is a ton of information to be found about bending and flexing a horse; what it does for your horse and how it helps maintain suppleness, responsiveness, and become a better mount. But just how do you go about teaching a horse to flex? Well I can tell you one thing. If I see one more post on the Internet about teaching a horse to flex around by giving him treats I'm going to rip my hair out, bounce my Internet connection off Russian satellites and vaporize the person who wrote it.

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.

I prefer to teach this method in a round pen, especially if you are working with a greenie. They will more than likely attempt to move around quite a bit when you first start asking them to reach and you don't want to be bouncing off stall walls on your first day. After they get the hang of the exercise you can do it easily in a stall.

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!


Dena said...

I like reading what you write here.
It amazes how many people don't even think about flexion until they are on the horses back.
I pretty much quit wp when they started calling for the horses nose to be inches from the ground.
One judges mind at a time, I like that

Anonymous said...

I used to flex a lot. In the saddle with my old ones, and I wanted at least a 'habit' formed on the ground on my greenies so I could disengage their hips and calm a situation down if things got dicey.
On the ground, I love the idea of flexing. It's a great stretch for the horse. I actually JUST started stretching with treats, once a week, after my ride. I could just give him treats, but I'd rather do something productive. And I don't do it for the training, I just do it for the muscles. I can get his nose to stretch to his hips, between is front legs, and have him raise his back. I'm come from an athletic background, and I know how much I enjoyed stretching after a hard workout. And it's partially on that note that I don't flex them from the saddle so much any more.
I'm not talking about not making my horses bend--they both bend a lot, all the time, constantly. But I have stopped pulling their heads almost to my knee as I ride. I just don't see the value in it like I used to. It's that same idea--'Low is good? Then lower must be better!' 'Stretching is good? Overstretching must be better!'
I see that a lot of western pleasure horses have 'disconnected' their neck from the rest of their body. They can move it left, right, up, and down with NO change in their back. If my horse's head is down, I want his back to come up. If I bend him left, I want his back to curve in the same direction, softly. I think with the overbending that WP trainers are known to do in the saddle, it teaches the horse to be VERY soft in the head and neck area. And I won't lie--it's a great feeling when the horse puts his head where ever you ask him to, immediately. But is the head and neck what get's the horse to collect?
They have to be soft in the back, in the hips, the hocks. And when the neck moves, I want the rest of the body to react. I find that by riding this way, I can't ask my horse's to bend their heads at a 90 degree angle (whilst moving), because they're not super bend-o-maniacs. But what I gained are lighter steps, and more correct bending where the back follows. Worth it? For me, yes.

A very debatable subject, for sure though!

smottical said...

I am intrigued by this concept, as it's something I haven't heard about before. I tried it with my filly last weekend with a regular halter and lead. Luckily for me, she catches on fast and barely gave me any resistance or dancing around at all. I am interested to see if it will improve her long-reining. We just started doing this, and she could definitely use some improvement in the steering department.

ColtysHeart said...

Amen! I just had this discussion with a new student last night. Her new horse refuses to turn left when mounted. I suggested that instead of getting in a pulling contest, she start on the ground with suppling exercises. Repetition, repetition in the key. They asked about using a treat to get him to bend. I said then you are just teaching him a new trick, not teaching him to give and soften up. They looked at me sorta wide eyed, but I think they got the point. On an unrelated note. I love your blog! I am the reluctant leader of a 4H horse club. I have trained horses for years (typical backyard trainer) but not for any particular discipline. My 4H kids wanted to show so I said "Why not". I didn't have a clue! We have been muddling through and I have been doing a ton of research and asking questions. We even had two kids make it to state in showmanship and halter last year. Your blog is so insightful and helpful. In reading your detailed posts, I have learned some things that could really give the kids a chance at success. It is now required reading for the older kids. HAHA. Anyway thank you and keep up the good work.