Flexion: The “What’s,” “Why’s,” and “Wherefore’s”
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Feb 01, 2023
By Ralph Moses—3 Star Parelli Professional
Pat Parelli tells us that a horse has four systems: Rapport, Respect, Impulsion and Flexion. These four systems can be pictured as a pyramid with Rapport at the bottom of the pyramid, building through Respect and Impulsion, and ending with Flexion at its peak. There’s a lot that can be said about a horse’s flexion system, and some of it gets very deep into understanding the biomechanics of how a horse moves.
To begin, there are four types of flexion: Vertical, Lateral, Latitudinal and Longitudinal.
Vertical Flexion can be described most simply as going from the horse’s nose backwards through the poll to the second vertebrae. It is often called the “headset” and that the horse’s nose is perpendicular to the ground. Many novice riders confuse the vertical headset with collection (more on this later).
Lateral Flexion goes from the horse’s poll through the neck to the point of the shoulder. When we practice “neutral lateral flexion,” we are ideally asking our horse to tip its nose and bend through the neck.
Latitudinal Flexion goes from the point of the shoulder through the horse’s ribs to the point of the hip. This flexion is not obvious, but is helpful for getting leads and lead changes (again, more on this later.)
Longitudinal Flexion can best be viewed as an arc going from the horse’s nose, over its back, to the tail. A horse with appropriate longitudinal flexion will have a “good banana” shape through its body, that is, the ends of the banana will be lower than the middle.
All too often, riders and trainers start asking a horse for Flexion before the horse is ready. They’re often looking for the “headset,” thinking that this will give them “collection,” but this fails to take into account the appropriate flexions that will be needed for a particular movement.
Examples of Where the Correct Flexion is Needed
1) To get the correct lead at a canter, it helps to have Latitudinal flexion, i.e., flexion from the shoulder through the ribs to the hip. Specifically, to get a left lead, a horse needs to move its barrel to the right so that its left hind leg can reach up and under.
You can experience this yourself by sitting in a chair and locking your elbows on your sides. Then, reach slightly forward with your left hand and push your ribs to the right. What you will probably feel is that the left side of your body will go forward and open up.
You will also feel your right hip weighting or pushing down into the saddle. It is this combination of getting the ribs out of the way and weighting your horse’s right hind foot that causes the horse to push off on that right hind and pick up the left lead.
This may seem a little confusing at first, but it’s pretty simple once you understand it. You just need to do in your body what you want your horse to do in its body.
2) Longitudinal flexion brings up a horse’s power.
Some horses are “A” framed, others are “V” framed. An “A” framed horse typically has its front legs out in front of itself and its hind legs out behind whereas a “V” framed horse is the opposite—its legs are too far under it.
An “A” framed horse will often have trouble getting its leads, will sometimes feel like it’s running away, or will feel like it’s going downhill.
A “V” framed horse will often have a rough or bouncy trot, feel tight, or have poor forward impulsion.
“Collection,” the goal of many Dressage riders, should begin in a horse’s hindquarters and flow forward and out the front of the horse. Using longitudinal flexion helps get that collection.
Again, you can experience this yourself by sitting in a chair, then rounding your back, sucking your belly button in towards your backbone. Essentially, you’re doing a “crunch” in your core (abdominal) muscles.
So, in very simple terms, when you’re asking your horse to collect, that is to “power up,” you’re asking for longitudinal flexion such that your horse is doing a “crunch” in its abdominal muscles.
When riding, you will feel your horse round and lift its back ever so slightly. Then you will feel your horse rock back slightly onto its hindquarters. Once again, do in your body what you want your horse to do in its body.
How Do You Develop Flexion in Your Horse?
Pat gives us a surprisingly simple answer: “The better your horse goes backwards and sideways, the better it does everything else.”
Sideways develops the flexibility and suppleness for lateral and latitudinal flexions.
Besides neutral lateral flexion, other tools and techniques that help with these flexions include leg yields, haunches in/shoulders in and the Weave and Spiraling Bull’s Eye Parelli Patterns.
Backing helps develop the vertical and longitudinal flexions. Some of the tools found in the Parelli Program that can help here include Soft Feel and the Nine Step Backup for vertical flexion and the Fluid Rein for longitudinal flexion.
When developing flexion in your horse, go slow and take the time it takes, because your horse must learn to balance itself anew while stretching muscles and tendons—not too much different than when we begin a new exercise program.
Flexion is at the top of the pyramid of a horse’s four systems. Your horse must first know and understand that you are trying to help him (Rapport), then he must try to do what you are asking (Respect). Finally, he must be moving appropriately—not too fast, not too slow (Impulsion)—but at the speed necessary for the technique you are teaching. And then you can embark on the journey of refining your Flexion. Remember, the Parelli Levels Program is your blueprint for building these important systems in your horse!
Learn more about Flexion in the January 2023 Issue of the Savvy Times, found inside the Parelli Community.