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Flexion, and Why It’s So Important - Pat Parelli

Pat Parelli has emphasized plenty of facets of the Parelli Program throughout the years. However, one thing has remained the same: he says that the development of horse and rider starts first with mental, then emotional, then physical changes. He says that these changes will be reflected in the horse’s respect (partnership qualities), impulsion (emotional balance), and flexion (physical body shape).

Though the majority of Levels 1, 2, and 3 address the mental and emotional aspects of our relationships with our horses, I would like to discuss the often-missed third element: flexion. First off, what is flexion? Why is it important in our training? What things constitute flexion, rather than a body position? And lastly, how does flexion relate to what we actually are doing with our horses?

What Is Flexion?

Flexion, in its simplest form, is the shape of the horse’s body, or even the tightening and loosening of parts of the body, such as the horse’s joints. There can be good flexion and bad flexion, but any shape of the body can be considered flexion.

When you started the program, or maybe even now, you may have seen your horse use very inefficient or negative forms of flexion. You may have heard this referred to as a “bad banana,” with the horse’s head high and its back hollow. You may see legs that move very straight and choppy. The horse may look to the outside of a circle. As you progress through the Four Savvys, you will want to achieve certain flexions that are beneficial. For example: a horse that lifts its withers and tucks its hindquarters in a back-up, a horse that follows the direction of the circle with its nose and spine, and a horse that is able to change his body shape into various forms of sideways.

For the basics of this article, I am going to divide flexion into three main categories: lateral flexion, longitudinal flexion, and flexion of the joints. Lateral flexion refers to the bending of the body in a right or left direction – hence the reason we call holding a horse’s bend in neutral lateral flexion. Longitudinal flexion refers to the length of the horse’s spine – from the horse’s nose, up over its poll, down its neck and withers, across its back, and down its hip to the back of the hind leg. Longitudinal flexion becomes very important for correct biomechanics, stretching, and power – especially as you start to understand higher-level theory such as the Game of Contact and the horse’s “self-carriage”. You should really start to pay attention to longitudinal flexion in Level 4 and beyond. Finally, flexion of the joints is exactly what it sounds like: the exact amount of contraction of the horse’s limbs.

Why is Flexion So Important to Our Training?

Good flexion is not just something you should strive for because it will help you pass your Level 4 foundation. If the horse uses its body with proper flexion, it will be healthier and more powerful. Also, it will be more comfortable and balanced, which will help it be a better and more cooperative partner.

A horse that uses its body in a negative way, such as with its head in the air, looking to the outside of a circle, and with a hollow back, will not just be tight and sore. Physically, this horse is in a position of stress, with adrenaline naturally coursing through its body and a constant strain on its internal organs and joints. The horse will be more distracted and fearful as well. Its balance will be constantly affected, its body weight will throw the limbs into unnatural and detrimental positions, and eventually stiffness and lameness will result. The horse’s whole health can be affected.

A horse that has been encouraged or taught to use proper flexion will be softer and more responsive to play with and ride. The horse can carry a rider’s weight much better and can carry its own body weight much more effectively, without twisting its limbs into painful positions. It will be able to bend its limbs effortlessly and use its hind legs for power and forward motion rather than its forehand.

A horse that uses good flexion shows that its human partner is aware of how it moves and has put the time and effort into helping it be healthier and more agile. And who among us doesn’t want that?

What Does Flexion Look Like?

Flexion looks very different than just a body position. For example: you can turn a horse’s head around to the right, but that doesn’t mean it has good lateral flexion to the right. You can have a horse put its head down and not have achieved longitudinal flexion. And just because a horse moves its legs doesn’t mean that it is flexing them!

Good lateral flexion does not involve just the head and neck. Physically, the horse’s spine does not bend side to side very well, so most of a horse’s lateral flexion comes from two places: the horse’s neck joints (from the back of the horse’s head to its withers) and from its low back and sacral-iliac joint (hips, basically). Lateral flexion also involves the horse moving its rib cage to the left or right so that the other two parts can come closer together (ribs out = neck and hips in). Whenever the horse turns or is on a circle, it should have its body on the arc of the turn.

So how does good lateral flexion relate to how we train? You should pay attention to which way your horse bends on turns and circles. You can be particular about body position in sideways maneuvers, which is how they gain different names. If the horse is turning or circling properly, it will be in a better position to carry its weight and will be soft and attentive to the direction. In the sideways, the bend will determine the arc of the movement (such as shoulders-in versus haunches in), and will determine if the horse will be building strength (such as in maneuvers such as half pass and shoulders-in) or flexibility (such as in leg yields and haunches in).

Good longitudinal flexion refers to the horse’s topline shape. A horse that has been taught to have this flexion will be more strongly muscled across the top of the neck, back, and hindquarters, and will have a tight belly. Its stride will be longer and smoother, too. Again, proper longitudinal flexion is not just about the head and neck. A horse can have its chin on the ground and not be stretching upward in its back. A horse cannot have this kind of flexion either if it is tense or tight in its back and hindquarters. Tension is often mentally or emotionally based, so again go back to respect or impulsion first before fixing a physical problem.

Another piece of flexion needs to be mentioned under longitudinal flexion. This is vertical flexion. Vertical flexion refers mostly to a “head set” but needs to be just one piece of longitudinal flexion, rather than one’s idea that it is the whole goal. Vertical flexion, when done properly, involves the first joint of the neck and skull. This point is called the poll and should be the highest point of the neck in collected movements. The horse should bend its neck at the poll and have the front of its face just in front of a vertical line, hence the name, “vertical flexion.”

Improper use of vertical flexion can result in the horse bending its neck at the fifth vertebrae, which results in a funny bulge at this area of the neck, approximately a third of the way down from the ears. The poll will be lower than this point. In extreme cases, the horse will have its head far behind vertical and thus has numerous airway and muscular problems from holding its head in this way. This is called “rollkur,” or in less extreme forms it is called “long and low.” The long and low position is not a stretch, as the horse’s head is far behind the vertical and breaks the line of a strong topline in the middle of the neck. An important note: Just because a horse’s head is slightly behind the vertical does not mean that it’s in a long and low position. Context is key!

Good longitudinal flexion is very important to the health of our riding horses. A horse with this kind of flexion will be able to support a rider’s weight with its uplifting back and it will not slam its forelimbs into the ground with every stride since the hind limbs reach forward and support the horse’s weight just under the withers. The horse that has a strong topline will be more evenly balanced and will not over-weight one leg versus the others. Also, a horse that uses its topline well will be more powerful and agile – and is often eye-catching in the field.

Lastly, flexion of the joints. a horse that flexes its joints appropriately will not be stiff or creaky. A horse that moves with its legs very rigidly or, in the very opposite, with high stepping overuse of its joints is not using its core body effectively. If you are achieving good flexion of the joints, your horse will reach forward equally with fore and hind limbs and can bend its legs appropriately for the moves it is being asked – from simple gait changes to things like slide stops and spins. It will be light on its feet and its movements will be smooth.

Good flexion in the joints will relate directly to good lateral and longitudinal flexion, and will alert you to improper use of either of the other two types of flexion, especially over time. For example: a horse using improper flexion may have one forelimb more regularly injured due to excess stress by overuse, or one stifle joint may be constantly more sore than the other.

So What Now?

Though the idea of learning about proper flexion can seem daunting, you will be greatly enriched by becoming more aware of it over time. Start small. See if you can ask your horse to lightly turn its head right or left in a turn. Could it lower its nose a little during a back-up? Can it start to use its body in a “good banana” position on the ground and later when you ride FreeStyle?

You will likely start to resolve flexion issues by dealing with respect and impulsion issues first. If your horse can’t be a calm and responsive partner, you should not worry yet about how it is physically moving. However, as you progress up the Levels, there is more and more information available for correct flexion. In Level 4 in all Four Savvys, you will be focusing on foundation for performance, which is where body position and shaping will be more important. Also, learn about correct saddle fitting and the Game of Contact (post-Level 4), which will introduce and expand your awareness of longitudinal flexion. There are also lots of ways to learn about your horse’s body and how it moves in books and videos from vets, massage therapists, advanced riders, and other horse lovers around the world. The main thing is to start being aware of flexion. You may not have the desire to compete with your horse, or maybe even ride – but your horse will thank you.

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