Neck flexing and other stretching exercises.
Do we need it?


    Decent riding horses accept the bit by relaxing the jaw and not by yielding to it in the neck and head. That is why in riding we are talking about a supple jaw. The jaw gives, not the neck or the head, because if the neck or head gives in, the horse is off balance due to it. When the jaw gives the horse flexes at the poll. Please remember through out reading this article that the head and neck serve the horse primarily for balance, and the more you interfere with it via the reins the more you will offset the horse's balance and his natural (inbred) movement. 
    When riders in the past emphasized a supple neck it was because when the horse is not supple in the jaw the neck gets stiff from the inappropriate response to the bit when yielding in the neck thus stiffing up the neck muscles from the prolonged flexing. This is why the incompetent riders find the necessity for the rollkur and other stretching exercises, because due to their poor hands the horse responds to the bit incorrectly and stiffens up its jaw and eventually its neck due to all that flexing. 
    In addition to this, they often speak of letting the horse to stretch his neck with its head lowered. In reality the main reason for letting the horse extend his neck with low set head is for letting the horse rest his hind quarters by reducing the carrying weight that was added to it by riding in higher collection. (A simple balance of bio-mechanics. They do it in the nature the same way, just watch them when sleeping or resting while standing). If the horse does this because it wants to stretch its neck, it is because it was cramped up in the prolonged unnatural flex.
     On the other hand, the flex at the poll comes gradually in relevance to the level of collection, which is also very slowly and gradually developed thorough systematic riding and conditioning. Hence such horses never get sore or stiff in any parts of their bodies and have no need for some "stretching exercise".
    Now you may get the picture of the “genius minds” of dressage “riders”, as it all falls into pieces like a child's puzzle. Since they are concerned with this flexed neck and desired head set they not only invent the rollkur but they get it done much easier by tightening various nosebands, which will prevent the horse to respond in the jaw, since it is permanently fixed (tied) to the upper jaw. Hence, the poor animal has nothing left but to flex at the neck if it wants to get away from the nuisance caused by the rider’s brutal hands via the bit. 
    This is why I call this brutal, somewhat to the horse, but what is really brutal is the justification of such nonsense, in other words a brutal stupidity.

This is what many youngsters do to refuse the bit when first time ridden at walk. Now tell me how does this help the horse to move like the one in the pick below? 
This will teach your horse to go on the forehand, which is obvious from this pic. Once when the horse learns to go on the forehand, it becomes difficult to correct, because horses learn form this how not to use their hind quarters and how to get away from the bit. 
Horses prefer to go on the forehand, because they save energy. However they do not know the consequences of such going, which is the overuse of the front legs, which they do not feel because of the front legs fixed supportive structure. They will only feel the pain after it is too late and the leg is injured.

   Here is the ironic part of the whole rollkur nonsense, which will testify to a simple fact, that most dressage riders of today, as well as, of the past failed to become riders first. One learns primarily from the horse and not from theories. 
    The competitive dressage in the past, as well as today, had attracted predominantly faint-hearted people since it is obviously the safest way to ride horses, or better said one rarely falls of a dressage horse. Ask your self just how many young horses these riders have started. Hardly any, since that could be dangerous sometimes, not to mention that any theories or reading books are useless in remount training. They more likely leave this to some one else, wouldn’t you say? 
    If these folks would have any experience with young horses, they would have noticed that many youngsters, when ridden for the first time, respond to the bit exactly in this form. They yield to the bit, just as in the rollkur. I had horses stick their noses on my boot when pulling on one rein, on the first day, since they had no clue what was happening.
    Now one has to teach the horse to take the bit, accept it and go with it. In other words what the young horse did was yielded to the bit, which means he refused it.
    A common problem in youngsters is, that they refuse the pressure of the bit by yielding to it in a form of flexing their necks too much (usually to one side). When going straight the head goes down too much, the neck over flexes downward, especially noticeable when trying to stop the horse by pulling on the reins during the walk. When making a turn they over flex the neck to the side, often keeping going straight.  
   Of course the dressage folks have no clue, because their experience in other disciplines is for most part none existent.

     There is much inaccuracy about riding in the old riding books and in the modern ones even more. The bending and flexing in the spine and neck is one of them, but people riding in slower speeds will never become aware of this. 
    In a simple example, if your horse flexes at the center or throughout the neck it will bulge out the neck outward and when running in the turn the horse will inevitably run out of the turn or go extremely wide. 

    The mediocre rider learned this "neck flexing" to prevent the horse from falling in when in turn while riding in an arena. Just go and look, first the greenhorn solves the problem of falling in by pulling the horse’s head outwards. When he finally progresses to the point to use his legs, he "pushes" the horse out with the inside leg to get the horse out into the turn. Now he has to prevent the horse from going out, which he solves by turning the horse’s head inwards. Of course now he needs the outside leg to keep the hindquarters from falling out, which he accomplishes, and here we go, we have the horse flexed and bent like some spaghetti. Of course next day the fool notices that his horse is all stiff so he comes up with a solution, stretching exercises, what else? (In the turn we set the hunches and the horse does the rest. (see pic below) The horse should flex its neck at the base all on its own to balance itself and not because we caused it via the reins for god sake! Horses are lugging in or out because the hunches are not set relevant to the turn. One does not steer horses into a turn when riding, one rides them into the turn. Two completely different concepts)
    All the above greenhorn activities and solution to various riding problems come from reading books and various theories on riding, and because of the failure to understand what is happening at the moment. Further more the instructors add to this problem when trying to explain to someone how to ride a horse, which of course cannot be done, but the fool instructors do not know this, because they more likely got all their understanding of riding a horse from various sources other then their own experiences with horses.

     The horse’s neck should be fairly straight (relevant to the anatomy, see free horses) and it turns in the direction of going primarily at its base and not at the middle. In the turn, when leaning, the horse keeps its head perpendicular to the ground when viewed from the front. This is not the correct way, this is not how it supposed to be done, but this is what horses do if they are not forced into unnatural extremes. Your guidance must be the observation of their movement when free, and not some scientific theory or a riding book.
    Dressage people in their silly heads believe that in dressage the horse performs in extremes. Well, let me put it this way, if the horse could speak the language and you would tell him what you want, piaffe, passage or what ever, the horse would reply “no problem, a piece of cake”.
    There are no extreme movements in dressage once when the horse is fit to carry a rider, unless you are performing the work above the ground as in the Spanish Court style riding. The "on the ground" dressage is mainly about doing that what the horse does by nature via only a slight adjustment to gain the "artificial" balance to adjust the horse to the added weight of the rider (horses rarely do this on their own, but some do, consider yourself lucky if you have one of those). That is all there is to it, it is very simple for the horse once conditioned in hindquarters and back muscles, as well as, in the legs. 
    In other words, the only extremity in dressage is, that it is extremely simple for the horse but extremely difficult, or better said not feasible, for any mediocre professional rider, let alone an amateur. 
    Becoming a decent rider will also require some extreme adjustments on the part of the rider, as in developing seat, which is extremely demanding on the human being. The reality of today’s dressage is that the extremity has been thrown on to the horse to accommodate the rider that wishes to make things easy on himself when on the horse. 
    The evidence of this can be seen not only in dressage, but also in many other disciplines like the Western or English pleasures. I used to ask, when observing the riders in these pleasure classes, “Who’s pleasure are we talking about?” 

Is this horse collected? YES %100! Is this horse balanced? Yes, perfect! Does he have rounded back? Yes, but not because the neck and/or head is down, but because the hind legs are strongly set under and lowered at the joints. This is a natural collection, we just need a little more of the same when with the rider. No science or genius mind needed here!
This is how a horse should approach a jump and travel the entire jump course without being yanked on the mouth. But because the jump riders cannot ride either, and their horses travel with necks flexed and heads down, they need to yank on the horse's mouth to pick its head up and to collect it if they want to jump. That alone is the evidence why the flexing of the neck is undesirable, whether for dressage, jumping or any kind of riding.

    The rollkur is a result of greenhorns and extremely incompetent people infiltrating the dressage; that being the extremity for the horse in today's dressage world, which the animal must endure, and of course we need to stretch him for it (how grotesque?). In my younger days the majority of them were fools, just like today, but at least here and there one could see an actual rider riding dressage, while today I have yet to see a rider anywhere, let alone in dressage. In addition to this in those days they at least did not hurt horses during dressage, which we cannot say for the modern and more "advanced" generation, can we? 
    In order for someone to recognize a genuine rider he has to be one himself. A genuine rider is rider that has experience and expertise to ride in any discipline in any stage of the horse’s development and gets done what ever is required from him. The young horses are the best source of education in the second stage of a rider's development, because they are pure, not messed up by people, but one needs to be first a horseman to learn from it. To learn from a horse, one must first learn how to relate to one, which cannot be learned from riding alone, and definitely not from any books or theories.    

    The free running horse should serve as a model of a decent way of going to which the rider adjusts his riding, and not according to some theories or scientific facts to which the silly riders trying to adjust the horse when riding it. No theories, but life’s reality, which any genuine horseman see in the horse. 

     This horse (left photo) shows what rounded back and the engaging of the hind legs means . Please note, the flex of the neck to the side is at the base, not at the middle nor throughout the neck, because when horses flex in the middle or through out the whole neck, they do it due to incorrect response to the bit, and not because it is their nature.  
    The head turns into the direction of going, the nose leads the way (not the ears), and the poll is the highest part of the horse, not its neck. The same principles remain even for the high collection in the slow speeds.
    Should this horse be ridden by a decent rider it would look exactly like this, except with moderate flex at the poll. The point here is, that today’s riders cannot get this done!! When riding, the "trick" is in getting the horse to travel like this after your weight, when added to the horse, throws the horse off balance and out of sufficient collection, which then produces insufficient impulsion in a particular gait. Only the very fine riders can manage this by getting the horse to collect the needed extra energy to carry the added weight of the rider, which puts the horse closer to his natural balance.

   Improperly ridden dressage horses sometime buck, because people round their backs via the head down, which is exactly what horses do when they buck. Head down, engaged back and disengaged hind legs is what a buck is (see clipart on the left).

The above is just some youngster trotting around, but the freedom of movement is noticeable. No forced flex at the neck, just casually looking around. Doesn't this look easy for the horse? Just take a picture or a video of your horse with and without you and then compare. That should teach you more than any instructor or book.

Which one looks closer to the natural going? This one or the one on the right? This is still far from being fine, which points out that the dressage was rarely well ridden even in the first half of last century, but nothing like the thing on the right. Difficult to accomplish for the rider, fairly easy on the horse, hence they did not break any horses down those days.

Now it is just getting worse. See, this looks close to toy horses but it hardly presents any form of freedom of movement. Doesn't this look difficult for the horse?
Requires hardly any skills, easier on the rider, tougher on the horse. Hence they break down so many of them these days.

    Sometimes I wonder, if the pictures or statues of horses from the past are depicting horses the way people would like them too look when ridden instead of the reality of those days. I guess it all depends on what the artist perceived as a "proud horse", that being a term of greenhorns and non-horsemen.

    If you find the need for some "stretching exercises" before riding, or if you ever notice that your horse is moving better after any stretch exercises then the horse is trying to tell you something, which is that you are cramping the horse up when you ride it, that is why it goes better after stretching the cramped up muscles from your previous day of abusive conduct on the horse. (Warming up a horse or doing stretch exercises are two completely different things).
    You will not learn this in dressage, or in any other ring riding, but you can learn this only (if you are a rider, not just jockey or exercise boy) there where the horse performs its natural extreme, the full run like in racing. In other words, for someone to have extensive experience and knowledge as a rider he needs to spend his lifetime collecting it in various disciplines and styles of riding, and not by getting stuck in one style or discipline spending most of the riding preparing a horse for some stupid horse show. A decent rider is first and for most versatile.

    Any decent rider does not want the horse to yield to the bit but wants the horse to accept it! There is a huge difference between these two! If you wish to be one with the horse, you cannot demand or expect the horse to yield in anything, because being one with the horse is about acceptance of one another (as they are) and cooperation, and it is not about dominance or trying to change the other. That is why we have bred various breeds of horses, to change their nature so we do not force them to move in an unnatural way. 
    The horse by nature adapts to its environment and most will try to do their best in adjusting to the rider. You must learn how to adjust to the horse, which is what mutual effort means, which will lead to the unity between the rider and the horse, hence one with the horse. Rest assure the horses are clearly aware of a rider that is helping them while riding them, of a rider that is aware and considerate of any difficulties that the horses encounter under him. They are also aware of the opposite.

    In conclusion, most people (about 98% percent of horse riding people) should stay away from trying to even collect the horse. They are better off just leaving the horse alone to find its own way to deal with the task or work at hand. It should not cause many problems to the horse if you select one suitable for chosen work and do no excessive work or other extremes with it. You will need at least 5000 hours of riding and about 100 horses before you can even attempt to balance and collect the horse. 
    Before the understanding of collection even dawn on me, I had some 500 horses behind me. I've done as much stupid stuff on horses, if not more, as these fools do these days. Yes, I have not only rode hundreds of horses, but I have also abused hundreds of horses, and I could not have ever learn anything if I would not have enough balls to see my erring ways (thank God for that). 
    There is no way that anyone can learn to ride horses without abusing them, that is why in the old days most professional riders where under a strict and constant supervision every day by the advanced riders for at least ten years to minimize the abuse of the horses. I’ve done most of the abuse after the ten years, in other words, I was the worst as a rider during the middle of my riding carrier that in total was about 40 years of professional life with horses.

    Remember, for the horse's sake, if you do not know what you are doing, the less you do on the horse while riding it the better off the horse is. Keep this for your guidance rather than some silly dream or a goal that you wish to achieve, and definitely stay away from books and any theories. Riding on a horse is a child's play if you learn to leave the horse alone. Most kids can do it, but people mess up their little heads when they start to give them lessons, hence we are where we are. If little kids wish to ride horses, leave them be, just look after them so they do not get hurt, don't do stupid and dangerous things with horses, and then wait till they mature enough to understand what is happening, before you try to teach them anything. The riding today is in shambles because the baby boom generation screwed up their children.
Should you actually wish to learn to ride a horse, not just riding on it, you will have to give your life to it, but let me assure you, there is no gold at the end of that rainbow. If you wish to be successful, famous or popular in the horse world you are on the wrong website.

Written by Ludvik K Stanek a.k.a Lee Stanek