Question: “I stopped flexing my horse after receiving some criticism. Where did flexing come from and why does everyone do it? Did Ray Hunt or Tom ever use it? And, to your mind, what is bad about it?””
Martin: “This is a very good topic that I am very adamant about. I’m glad you asked this and I will attempt to address your comments and questions. This is a very key element in my opinion of good horsemanship. And what I mean by that is— good horsemanship should be universal, without any limits to discipline, speed, accuracy.
I will address your issue and questions individually.
1. Receiving criticism.
Anytime you get outside the box and do your own thinking, some people may be threatened by that and will likely criticize you. People will try to influence you with their ideas or, worse yet, their interpretation of someone else’s ideas that they may or may not have a good understanding of. It’s easy to be a follower, you can always defend yourself by saying, “this is what the leader told me.” A follower needs a leader to get somewhere, but a leader doesn’t need followers to get somewhere. People will follow a trend, but somebody has to set the trend.
Personally I try to take criticism openly and analyze it and see if I can learn from it, and if I can’t find it has merit I take it as a compliment that the person feels threatened that I may be ahead of them and they’re trying to pull me down. I don’t make that my problem, change what you can change and if you can’t change it don’t worry about it. Some people you can’t please, some people you don’t need to please.
2. Where it came from (or where they got it ) and why does everybody do it?
This is a better question for them, I don’t try to second-guess people.
3. Did Ray Hunt or Tom Dorrance use it?
Yes, Ray and Tom used it. But what I don’t hear much about is something else they also talked about a lot and that is getting your horse straight. Not just holding them straight, but to where their body goes straight wherever you point them, even with a loose rein.
The last thing I want to do is pass on Ray or Tom’s ideas like I have them figured out. They never endorsed me or anyone else for that matter as having their understanding or presentation, that is not something that can be given to somebody anyway. And they definitely did not approve of people profiting by using their name. I worked around them both enough to know that their knowledge base was greater than mine and I wouldn’t begin to assume that I have it figured out. What I have learned about horses has been confirmed through feel an observation of the horse.
4. What is bad about it?
It’s not all bad if you want to block the shoulder and disengage the hind end. It’s not all good either— they can have their nose on your stirrup and still have the hindquarters engaged.
It’s not uncommon for the horse to get their head past the point where they can stay balanced and panic from it. When the horse’s parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is activated, they are not very alert, energetic, or athletic. Basically, they’re in their comfort zone.
When the horse’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, learning is more intense, they have higher energy, and they are more athletic. They can be in the panic mode, or, just on the high alert—there is a difference. Bad things can happen in the panic mode, but good things can happen on the high alert, like high-performance maneuvers and higher learning.
The problem is more inexperienced horse people don’t realize the difference and they can easily get in trouble activating the sympathetic nervous system. Without correct preparation, the horse is out of their comfort zone and this can causes some people to be out of their comfort zone.
There are plenty of clinicians that have helped people keep their horse in the comfort zone. And if you can stay in the bubble of a protected quiet world, that’s fine. But if something unpredictable happens and the horse gets scared, they have no experience and confidence handling things out of their comfort zone and they are likely to lose control and bad things can happen.
There are really two parts to this: First, “feeling” when the horse is positioned to maintain their balance, or when their balance is compromised. The second is the “timing” we offer with our hands in relation to what the feet are doing. We can have one without the other, but quite often they are both working against the horse.
There’s nothing bad about flexing if the horse can maintain a feel with the inside rein without having to hold them from over flexing with the outside rein while they’re moving. In other words, you can lead with the inside rein without having to hold or push into the neck with the outside rein. When the inside hand stops the nose should stop, then we have the horses pointed and we can push with an outside leg to move the feet, not the outside rein.
Leading with the inside rein maintains lightness whereas pressure from the outside rein is going to create pressure on the inside rein and the horses becomes heavy and possibly even counter bent in order to move the shoulder.
When a horses head gets about 45° to the side, or the head is past the point of the shoulder, they get out of balance which makes the front end heavy. As they maneuver laterally one way with the shoulder, the hip is usually stepping out the opposite way, or disengaging to maintain their balance. In order for the horse to load his hind end, they have to be straighter so they can lift and lighten their shoulders, and as a result they get softer in our hands.
In order for a horse to brace or resist us we have to give him something to brace against or resist. This can be a very deep subject because it is the basis of good horsemanship in my opinion. But in short, if you have life in the horse’s feet, you can have timing with the feet. If you have timing with the feet, you can have a soft feel. If you can maintain this, you won’t have a dull resistant horse. All the good horseman I grew up around referred to pull and slack, or timing with the feet.
I see some people pulling steady on the reins, which creates resistance and braces. Then they try to fix the horse. The horse isn’t the problem, if they understood horses they would know that the horses first means of defense is flight, or getting away from pressure, their second means of defense is fight, or going against pressure. In other words, if they can’t get away they go against it.
“Eliminate the cause, the problem goes away”.
What I see is that, for the most part, they are treating the symptom and not addressing the cause. The horse becomes dull and resistant, so they flex them to get them soft and supple. Then the way they over-bend and position the horse, and the steady feel of their hands makes them dull and resistant, so they have to flex them again and they keep going back-and-forth.
What I saw with Tom, Ray, and all the other good horseman that I learned from is that they did not have to soften their horses because they never made them heavy. But in my observation, when Ray started giving clinics, he had to teach people what they needed to maintain a soft feel with their horse to help them get along. But I see that as bringing the horse to the person’s level instead of bringing the person to the horse’s level. The latter takes more work and commitment than what some people may be willing to assume, or have the time and volume of horses to learn. But they have every right to ride their horses the way they see fit and I respect that, I sincerely hope they find pleasure in them.
I have my own science project going on and it may not fit a lot of people, but that doesn’t concern me. I am looking for confirmation from the horse and stealing what I can from whoever I can to bring back to my science lab.