At a lope in the show ring, you encounter another rider having trouble on the rail. Keeping your horse’s slight inside bend, you move him smoothly off the rail. You float past the rider. Keeping your horse bent around your inside leg and looking to the inside, you ease him back to the rail without changing his cadence or form. Glancing over, you notice the judge watching you.
Riding through the woods after a spring rain, you decide the footing is better on the right side of a pine tree. Without interrupting his concentration on the muddy ground, you rein your horse’s nose to the right; his neck bends, and his body follows. As you move him past the tree, you direct his nose to the left, he bends his neck, and you continue on.
These moments of perfect communication are what riding is all about, and lateral neck suppling exercises can ensure they happen more often. The examples above are two of the many times when it is helpful to be able to move your horse’s body in a different direction than his neck is bent, or to turn his head and bend his neck without raising or stiffening his head and neck position.
The following suppling exercises help your horse bend laterally from the poll to the withers. Added benefits are a horse who is supple in his poll, relaxes his neck and back, and reaches farther under his body with his hind legs. His low head position will allow him to continue to concentrate on the footing, and he won’t raise his head when the judge might be watching.
For these exercises, use a jointed snaffle with no shanks. Ride with both hands on the reins and with light contact on the horse’s mouth. Start at a walk, moving clockwise around the arena. As you ride along the side of the arena, ask your horse to bend his neck slightly toward the rail. Use your left direct (toward your elbow) rein and ask for just enough bend so that you can see the bulge of his left eye. Your right hand feels the right side of his mouth, supporting and limiting his bend. You don’t want him to tilt his nose; he should keep his face vertical.
Be patient and persistent in achieving your goal. Hold your rein cue until you get the bend and the softening you want. His reward comes in the form of a release when he gives to your rein pressure. Reward closer approximations of the correct position, and then longer spans of time in the new position, until he consistently gives to your aids and responds smoothly for the duration you desire.
The next step is to ask your horse to bend his neck in the opposite direction, toward the middle of the arena. Without the benefit of the fence, he may misunderstand and try to turn inward. Keep him moving along the rail with the support of your inside leg at the back edge of the cinch and your outside rein as a guide. After he responds smoothly and bends to both the outside and the inside, change direction and work the other way.
To achieve the suppleness you need to pass the show-ring rider in the first paragraph, continue with the next part of the exercise: bend through the corners. Your horse is likely to be more supple to the left, so at first ask for a bend to the left on an arena corner to the right. Be careful to maintain the soft feel with both reins and both legs (the leg away from the bend encourages the horse to keep his cadence in the gait) even if he stiffens, slows, hollows his back, or speeds up. Going less deeply into the corner is easier (you may need to flatten the arc of the circle to make the exercise easier at first). If you have difficulty visualizing your horse looking one way and moving the other, ask for less bend at first. As he progresses, he will be able to bend through the turn softly and consistently.
Once you can get a consistently soft bend to either side in turns and corners, try large-diameter circles with a more pronounced bend to the inside than normal, then with a more pronounced bend to the outside.
As with most exercises, you’ll want to perfect your horse’s response at the walk before jogging. The jog should not present any new challenges, and you should find that the resulting suppleness also improves the way your horse moves at the jog. The lope will be a little more challenging, because the horse is naturally bent toward, and looks toward, the lead.
Consider the left lead. A more pronounced bend to the left will be relatively easy for the horse. Bending to the right may be confusing, and he may try to change leads. Keep your legs in left lead lope position, so he bends around your more forward left leg, and start on the straightaway. Begin with straightening from the left bend and progress to slight right bend. Progress to gradual curves or corners.
If you’ve practiced until the response is soft and automatic, you’ll find your horse more responsive to you while keeping his eyes on the trail and his head in a good working position. Now you can switch back to the curb bit. Fine tune your neck reining by using your index finger on the right rein for a right bend and your little finger on the left rein for a left bend, and you’ll have a more responsive horse.
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