The first step to engaging the hindquarters is having the ability to flex your horse. Yes, collection and engaging the hindquarters is driven from the withers back. However, you will never achieve that drive without having flexion mastered. Work on mastering the skill of flexion and you will be well on your way to having a horse that drives from behind with fully engaged hindquarters.
What Does it Mean to be Engaging the Hindquarters?
Engaging the hindquarters and having your horse collected is about more than just having a pretty headset. In fact, many people think they have their horse collected because he has tucked his chin. However, a tucked chin does not indicate collection or engaged hindquarters.
True collection is more about the back and about being soft. When the horse engages his hindquarters he will round his back, as well as become soft in the face. Once collected and engaging the hindquarters, the horse is kind of like a spring, ready to push off at any moment from his hind end.
This is the position needed to do most athletic moves correctly.
The First Step to Engaging the Hindquarters
Vertical flexion is the first step to engaging the hindquarters. Like I said above, a truly collected horse who is engaging the hindquarters will be like a spring that is compressed. If a horse is not correctly flexing vertically, all of the energy will just go up and over the bridle. The spring will never become compressed and the power from the hind end will be lost.
If a horse has not been taught vertical flexion correctly, the rider may incorrectly believe that they have collection and hindquarter engagement just because his head is tucked. However, in most cases, the hindquarters will be strung out, floating behind, rather than being actively engaged.
If you correctly teach your horse to flex vertically, which is relatively straight forward, you will be well on your way to developing a horse who knows how to engage the hindquarters.
Lateral Flexion is the Key to Vertical Flexion
If you have watched any of Clinton Anderson’s videos, you will have likely heard him say that lateral flexion is the key to vertical flexion. What does this mean? It means that your horse needs to be able to easily flex from side to side in order to flex vertically.
I have been surprised a few times myself by how this works. Clinton advocates working solely on lateral flexion until you have that mastered. Do not try to vertically flex your horse during this time. Once the lateral flexing is mastered, then you can move no to vertical flexing. I have done this with my horse. I have worked solely on lateral flexion and then tried to flex vertically for the first time. To my surprise it was relatively easy with very little resistance.
What Bit to Use
You can start this on the ground with your horse in a halter or you can begin under saddle. It will depend on a) how green your horse is and b) how stiff your horse is. A progression could look like this:
- Use a halter on the ground
- On the ground flexing with a snaffle bridle
- Flexion under saddle with a snaffle bridle
And, yes, it is preferable if you do this with a snaffle bit. You want the direct rein contact to do this flexing in the beginning. A shank bit will not give the same kind of cue that you would get with a snaffle. That being said, that doesn’t mean that you always have to do this with a snaffle. Once you have it mastered and your horse is soft, you can easily flex them in just about anything.
Confused about bits? Read my introduction to bits here.
Need a snaffle bridle set up? I recommend the following pieces of tack:
You should also be using split reins in the beginning (or an extremely long single rein). Your horse needs to be able to move freely from side to side.
For this, I will assume that you are under saddle but, for those of you who aren’t, the idea is pretty much the same from the ground. Begin at a standstill with your reins relatively loose. You should have no contact on the reins at this point.
Slide one hand down the rein and then pull the rein up towards your hip, making contact with your horse’s mouth. Pick a spot to flex him to and hold it there until the horse softens to the pressure by creating slight slack in the rein. It may be EXTREMELY discrete at first. However, at the slightest amount of softness, release the rein completely.
If your horse is extremely stiff, only ask for a bit of flexion in the beginning. Do not expect him to flex all the way to your boot in the beginning. You might only ask him to flex half a foot off of straight. That’s fine in the beginning. You will gradually build off of this as the horse gets better and better at it.
When you horse softens to the contact I want you to imagine having a hot potato in your hand. Drop that rein immediately. Make sure that all pressure is released and there is no contact on the horse’s mouth. This is how the horse will learn. He will begin to associate softness with a reward (the release). Yes, he may immediately swing his head back to straight when you release that rein but that will slowly change. As he gets softer and softer he will slow down bringing his head back to straight and will eventually even learn to keep his head flexed without the rein contact.
When you are initially teaching this, work on one side first. Do all of your flexing to one side. Once you are done on that side, move on to the other side. Clinton explains that it is kind of like teaching two horses. You teach Leftie and then you have to teach Rightie. Regardless of how good Leftie is at flexing, Rightie may still need a lot of work.
Eventually you can flex from side to side but in the beginning it is important to do one side at a time. Additionally, one side may need more work than the other if one side needs to be a bit more stiff.
Once your horse is freely flexing from side to side you can take the next step, which is vertical flexion. Initially, you will want to start with just a bit of vertical flexion while still doing mostly lateral flexion. Gradually, you can build on this.
Again, start at a standstill with reins loose. Pick up the reins in both hands not yet making contact with either rein. What you do next will be a sequence of movements that will happen simultaneously. Make contact with one rein and then the other, applying equal pressure to both reins. Feel free to plant your hands on your thighs with your reins in hands.
Like with lateral flexion you will only ask for a little bit of flexion in the beginning. Once you get that and the horse softens, release your hands like you are holding a hot potato. Release all tension so that you are not making contact on the horse’s mouth.
The biggest problem that people run into here is that their horse will back up when pressure is applied to both reins like this. If this is the case for you, don’t worry. We can easily fix that. When you apply pressure on the reins, first make sure that you aren’t asking for too much too quickly. If your horse still backs up, keep the pressure on his mouth. A horse will only back up so far before getting tired of backing up or backing into a fence. Maintain the pressure until you get even the slightest bit of softness.
Do not release prior to the horse softening. If you do that, you are actually rewarding stiffness, which is the opposite of what we want to do.
Q: What if my horse leans on the bit and doesn’t soften, even after holding it for a good amount of time?
A: If you have a particularly stubborn horse or one that is really stiff, they may brace on the bit pressure. In fact, some may even lean into it, rather than softening. This can be super frustrating because you may end up sitting there forever without the horse softening. If you are running into this road block, I encourage you to bump the horse a bit with your rein. Don’t do anything aggressive. We just want to make it uncomfortable for the horse. Try a pulsing bumping movement if they really persist.
Q: How long should I work on flexing each ride?
A: How long you work on flexing during each ride will really depend on your horse. For those who are just starting, you might spend an entire session just working on flexing. While this sounds super boring and unproductive, this is actually really important to do when starting. Remember, this is the first step to engaging the hindquarters. We want to get each step mastered.
For me, I might catch my horse and flex him using the halter. Then I will gently warm up my horse and then stop and do some flexing. I’ll will then go do a bit of work. Once I stop to let my horse catch his wind, I will do flexing then.
Regardless of how much time you spend on flexion, the key is to end on a good note. Always end with your horse softening to the pressure. That being said, you don’t want to work on it so long that your horse gets frustrated.
Listen to your horse and work on it accordingly.
Q: My horse snaps his head back every time I release the reins. How can I get him to maintain the flexion?
A: As we build on our progression to engaging the hindquarters we will eventually want our horse to maintain his flexion. However, in the beginning, we don’t really care. The steady flexion will come with time as your horse increases his softness.
That being said, you will need to work on keeping the flexion for a long time. Once your horse is super soft, you can begin to ask your horse to hold it longer. In this case, we will get rid of the hot potato. Ask your horse to flex. When he softens, rather than throwing him the reins, hold it for a slightly longer time. Then you can release.
Q: What is the second step in engaging the hindquarters?
A: Good question! Stay tuned for a future article that will detail the next steps in engaging the hindquarters and achieving collection.
Finish Line Thoughts
Regardless of whether you are a barrel racer, a hunter jumper, or a reining competitor, engaging the hindquarters is critical. Not only does it help your horse to perform more athletically, but it will also ensure that your horse will stay sound longer. While flexing seems ridiculously simple, it is the first key step to engaging the hindquarters. Practice it often and you will be well on your way to a rounded horse that can do just about anything with power and ease.
And remember, it’s always a #gooddaytoride.
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