Why I Rarely (If Ever) "Flex" A Horse, Part 2: "Softness"
Yesterday we talked about why flexing for “flexibility” is not a good thing. Today I would like to talk about why it actually ruins good softness in a horse.
Flexing teaches a horse to turn his nose so far that he takes slack out of the rein when you pick it up. Many people like this - it feels like the horse is “soft” to your cues. The problem is, the horse is actually overreacting beyond where the cue is. In order to achieve this, the horse HAS to overbend in his neck and send his spinous processes to the outside. You can feel this in the way your hip will feel like it drops to the outside upon the curl of the horse’s neck.
As you can imagine, this causes the horse to avoid contact - it’s what he’s been taught! This makes it infinitely more confusing for him when you begin asking for soft communication and conversation through the reins, and he only knows how to quickly move his nose out of their way. This is what I call “noodle neck syndrome”, in which the horse just flings his head in the direction of the rein lift as quickly as possible. Why this is a terrible position for movement will be discussed in depth tomorrow, but I just want to note for today that lateral flexing is not the only way to teach softness. Saying you have to teach softness through lateral flexing is throwing the baby out with the bath water. At its core, lateral flexing is simply negative reinforcement. An aversive rein aid is added, the horse gives, the rein aid is removed. The problem is, it has been taken to an extreme. I suspect it is taught in this manner because it is easy for people with poor timing to learn how to release at the end of a big and obvious movement like flexing. The thing is, it doesn’t need to be taken to this extreme to have the horse be soft and responsive. If you are sticking with negative reinforcement, even just closing the ring finger, then releasing when the horse gives a few inches will create a soft horse who yields to pressure. You can even back that off farther and use targeting to teach a yield with minimal to no real negative reinforcement at all.
True softness is not contained in extremes. It is contained in the delicate detail work of millimeters. I want my horses to have control over their responses to my requests down to the millimeter, rather than always resorting to the extreme they can offer because it’s the only way they find relief. There’s no need to ask a horse to go to an extreme in movement just to prove to yourself he’s soft, when you’re using identical reinforcement to a response encompassing a few inches. Thoughts? I’d love to hear them!