Note: A electronic copy of the book The Equestrian Flexion is now available for download see: www.ratamill.com/training/flexions-the-book/
Up until recent years I broke in all Rata Mill horses to saddle or harness. Through the years many young people have helped with this work. I will build a special page on people connected with Rata Mill sometime in the future.
While nowadays young stock are sold as handled, but not broken to ride, training remains of particular interest to me: to the extent I have written a book which is now in draft form. It now needs photos and full publication. Publication will not occur until this is done. I may have to break in a suitable horse to achieve this, which is fine as the book covers the building of a solid foundation in the green horse.
Essentially, on the ground handling follows traditional station techniques. Whereas, under saddle it is more akin to classical dressage. I don’t like hard horses. This book is about training for softness. It is not written as a promotion or to make money. It is simply a record of what I have learnt that will survive after I leave this planet. It will be controversial in many quarters. Too bad, it is a system that works, be it extremely difficult to master. It is not a new system. Some (but not many) classical trainers will identify immediately and I am certain some trainers have used it right throughout history. However it remains very rare – my motivation to record it.
The following is a brief intruduction to the technique which is based utulising the 'Flexion'. I will include some extract of the book that desribes an authentic flexion. The rest will come when the book is completed with photographs.
Yep - thats me on Ash, 1993.
I had only just had wee glimpses of the technique at this point. The big breakthroughs were to come several years later. Here Ash is probably collecting as part of an upward transition. There is much in the photo that I would not be satisfied with today. She is gripping the bit, rather than flex the jaw - displayiing some tension.
Verity Larsen on Lisbon 2002
Here is very much the same state. What shows, in spite of what many would call a pretty frame, is the hollowness in the back. A very experienced trainer once said to me she watches the angle between the top of the rump and the saddle cantle. If we look as Lisbon the angle is quite acute in relation to horizontal. . When the horse is correctly engaged this angle will significantly reduce. The back rounds upwards and the rider finds herself sitting further forward in the saddle. This head neck carriage should only be maintained very briefly until the basics are established. Continuing on in the above frame will achieve very little. I will discuss these basics down further.
Note that we only ever use a snaffle with loose nose band
Carpenter @ 5 yrs
Better, but still not ideal. The difference is that Carpenter has stretched down a bit more up front and has less tension. The back remains hollow. What should happen now is that the rider gives with the hands, ride foreword a little, inviting the horse to fully carry himself. If he doesn't we come back to walk, get it right then go back to upward transition in trot asking for self carriage. 80% of our training at this stage should be with the neck relaxed and near as possible to horizontal in front of the whither. The collected frame is used very sparingly. When the basics are right, collection is easy, on very soft rein contact. If we look at Verty's arms there is some strain showing. The rein contact is still far too strong. But, it is not Verity doing the pulling, it is Carpenter. We need to set him up to stop this. Holding with a very stable boundary is an essential part of training for softness - especially when re-training older horses. Strong holding hands (when necessary) do not make hard mouths, rubbery pulling hands do. 'Hands of steel within gloves of velvet'. The velvet part is knowing when to give.
This photo epitomises everything I don’t like about contemporary training. In the book I term it ‘grinding’. Many horses are trained hour after hour in this frame at rapid forward tempo. Here Carpenter is barrelling forward having lost all his balance and is pulling on the rider. Most trainers simply ride forward more rapidly or try small circles and half halts without reducing tempo. It is never going to work. The horse will always remain strong on the rein – he cannot help but be. When this situation occurs we must immediately come back to walk, get it right, then back to short intervals of trot inviting balance and self carriage. This training does NOT destroy impulsion or extension later on. It enhances them.
Should Carpenter be a very strong forward horse being trained in this frame, with many riders, pretty soon out comes the draw rains – a sure sign the trainer simply does not understand the horse. If we look at Carpenters neck profile he is flexed some way behind the pole yet the neck in front of the whither is at an erect angle. We must get him to stretch down in front of the whither. Unless the trainer is a real expert draw rains simply bend the neck more half way along, and shortening it, while the erect angle in front of the whither remains the same. Useless. With very talented trainers draw reins may be used in a constructive manner but only when the entire horse is being ridden correctly. I personally do not see any need to use them. What is mystifying about flexions to many riders is that the horse drops his head and neck as a response to giving with the hands, not holding or pulling the head and neck down. The horse follows the bit down. This giving with the hands with the right timeing in response to a mouth flexion is the single most difficult thing to teach.
While this example is not perfect it demonstrates the single most important exercise in the training of a young horse. I call it the 'stretch walk'. The Europeans have a name for it which I will try to track down. Here Carpenter is performing duties as a police horse in Hamilton city. He has probably been on the beat for a couple of hours, has relaxed and started to stretch down voluntarily. In this case I would like to see Leanne give some more with the hands asking him to stretch down even further. She is holding him up a little. Ideally we want the highest part of the neck to be below the level of the whither without losing the curvature of the neck or flex at the pole. Note that this is NOT work on a loose rein. When in this state the horse will move off the leg with the lightest touch and rein back with ease. When the horse is tense it is very difficult to achieve. It requires a calm mind, which means work, ideally hacking the same route every day. When tense the horse will stretch so far then think ‘bugger this’ then either pop above the bit or sometimes plunge the head downwards. If Leanne were to now go into trot Carpenter would be extremely light, maintaining tempo without speeding up on no rain contact i.e. carrying himself 100%. Note that the ears are back. He is listening to the rider.
Carpenter was exported to Japan where he became a very successful dressage and SJ:dressage combination event horse.
I particularly love this photo. Many people would write it off as a ‘bog trotter’ carrying an ordinarily old rider. I see it very differently. It is by far and away the best example I refer to as the, ‘Stretch Walk’ I have ever come across. It also displays a special mental state in the horse which leads to supreme lightness. This is the mental state we must search for. It is only achieved through routine work. In my book I emphasise the importance of hacking, ideally on a roads or lanes. The horse in the photo probably does hours of work, hacking and carrying his master to market. The dress of the rider and the sheep he is carrying suggests that he is either going to, or coming home from market, or a neighbour’s property. This horse knows a lot of work.
Where this horse’s frame is superior to the Rata Mill horses shown above is that he is stretching down further. He is working 100 % for the rider.
Degree of flex at the pole (this is NOT walk on a loose rein)
Amount of stretch in the upper neck muscle (this is what they resist in the early stages)
Lightness of the rein and hand contact
Ear position. The right ear is slighty more back. In this state the horses ear will respond to the lightest rein signal on the same side
Eye contact with the path
Relaxed nature of the rider’s leg. He does not need to push the horse. He can control with the seat
Snaffle with no nose band. He does not need one
This is a very good horseman. He is communicating with his fingertips. The state of the horse allows this. I would bet every horse on my farm that this horse could straight into superb collected trot on a very soft rein contact. He will flex in the mouth. Note the posture of the rider: very relaxed from the hips down, yet regal in the upper body. He is looking up and feeling down. He is bareback. This combination could ride dressage. I was told recently by a contempory dressage rider that she and many modern riders ride through the knees. WHAT? When everyting is set up right we ride through the seat. The knee anchor is a symptum of strong rein contact.
A very good modern Scandinavian dressage trainer once said, “The horse should not be asked to collect during his first 12 months of training”. If, within the first 12 months, you can produce the state and frame shown in this photo, you are half way there. We need do nothing else. I discuss ways of encouraging this in the book.
The book covers techniques to develop this exercise and discusses how this leads to lightness in all other paces, including halt and rein-back.
Now compare the angle of the back behind the saddle with all the Rata Mill horses above. On Nicole Gigor's Lusitano mare, Bailarina, it is near horizontal.
Here the horse has rounded the back upwards under the rider and is carrying herself behind. This is not to do with the breed or conformation. It is about training. There is no point in asking for shortening up front until this is achieved. It is achieved through teaching the horse to stretch down on a long neck without losing bend at the pole, backed up with correct upward transitions. The main pivot point is directly in front of the whither. Again we see a rider controlling through the seat, not the legs. The legs are only a signal medium: on - then off. Aside from this, to my eye, the above state is still not ideal. There remains a degree of tension.
Some book Extracts
Learning is not a gradual process
Growing up on a New Zealand sheep farm in the 1950’s and 60’s one had constant exposure to the typical Shepherd’s hack of the era. These tough hill horses carried sick sheep, took the kids to school and competed at Sunday’s pony club. Each farmer was fiercely proud of his horse and considered it the best in the district. But for kids there was always 2 problems; the horses were invariably hard-headed and hard mouthed. Sheds were all full of ‘mouthing gear’ of every contraption imaginable. Any problem in the horse’s mouth was the result of the ‘mouthing’ during breaking-in. This invariably meant the horse was tied back with side reins and a bit for a 'critical length of time' such that that the lips were ‘slightly rubbed’. The degree of abrasion on the lips was the key to the making of the mouth, which dictated the degree of softness in the horse throughout his lifetime. Although I didn’t know it at the time this was the first of many fallacies I were to be confronted with throughout my training career.
My hooning on horses stopped at 16 when I was deeply involved in rugby until age 21. While driving one day to coaching of a boy's team I saw a farmer riding on the hills. Then it struck me: “ this is was what I wanted to do”. Looking around the district I found a young unbroken gelding and embarked on a wonderful journey of no end. By age 40 I was producing 6 horses/ year from a breeding program which produced a traditional New Zealand horse that proved to be very consistent in competition show jumping. In spite of the leaning towards jumping a great love of soft horses drove me to relentlessly to confront the mysteries of the mouth. I wanted to ride on my fingertips.
The journey was largely a lonely one. While taking my share of lessons, these taught me little. Horses were to become my teachers. Having always started with completely natural horses, never being touched by any trainer, I was able to observe and learn. By age 50 I had trained over 150 horses to a level capable of competition. Each one of those horses had something to teach me. They all felt slightly different and although I might ride a horse 10 years after it left the farm had never forgotten its’ feel.
The important breakthroughs came suddenly. These were memorable through a combination of feel and revelation. I can still remember exactly where and when the 2 most important occurred – they being so profound. On both occasions I had the strong feeling that these discoveries were extremely important, but it was many years before I could fully implement and bring them to full maturity. Only then did I fully realise just how important they were. The first revelation came on my very first horse which drove me to reflect; “the mouth is 90% mind and 10% hind legs". This was very early in my training career but it was to be 15 years later that I could really utilise these principles. After 35 years of training I still believe that revelation to be true.
The second revelation related to straightness. I knew my horses were not straight and also battled with this problem for 15 years before finally resolving it. Likewise, I can return to the exact spot where it came to me through a sense of feel that straightness relies on lateral control of the hind legs. That day I returned home and said to my wife; “the Gods have sent me a gift” Again, an instinct was telling me this revelation was extremely profound but years of more trial an error were to pass until I could fully utilise the power of this fact.
My training techniques have evolved markedly over the years and will no doubt continue to do so. They have become more subtle with few of the extreme exercises I utilised in the early years. I had always read as much material as possible on horse training. However, I remain of the view that reading has little value except to reinforce ones personal experience: "now I know what he was talking about!" I therefore must concede that to most readers of this book the information herein is of little use. Some readers may try the exercises I advocate a few times, then give them up for something less mysterious that provides them with a product in which they are reasonable satisfied.
There is no one particular book to which I could identify, but rather snippets from several. However, gradually I was to realise that I had stumbled into the ancient world of classical dressage and the essential state in the horse which opens the door to straightness and lightness: the flexion. On realising this I started to study the comparative techniques of contemporary vs. classical training. It became apparent that many talented trainers use classical techniques and that both disciplines when developed to the ultimate goal end up in the same place - but only when executed by those rare trainers who have talent and sensitivity to recognise and develop true lightness.
Parts of this book will be devoted to comparing contemporary and classical training techniques. This process is important as one of the objectives of this study is to be practical to the extent that some trainers with enquiring minds may benefit from such a study. I have always suffered from a passion to know “why?” However, this comparison will evolve largely around one aspect; the flexion. So, why the flexion?
The flexion is the essential ingredient to true softness in the horse. No horse or rider can execute the advanced exercises in advanced dressage correctly without using flexions. The paths to developing flexions are completely different within the 2 training systems. Correct classical training begins to develop flexions from day 1. Contemporary training develops flexions gradually over a matter of time - sometimes years and sometimes never, depending on the quality of training. For many trainers flexions a purely incidental. I am glad to observe that some talented trainers use a hybrid system based on both approaches.
What is a flexion?
A flexion is a movement in the mouth accompanied with activation of the back and hind leg muscles. The 3 are inseparable. Should any one or two of these components occur without the remainder there is no full flexion. The three are connected by the nervous system of the horse which - logically- is connected to the brain. Flexions are a major phenomenon for the horse, which is strongly affected by their activation. The strength of the flexion lies in its association with the unlocking and engagement of the hocks such that the horse balances and carries himself. This provides true lightness such that that he is able to perform any movement, or transition, with an extremely light rain contact. A horse performing perfect passage, piaffe, or pirouette is moving on a succession of flexions. Note how light the rein contact is in photos of the old masters performing piaffe. In these cases the rider is just performing one flexion after another with subtle adjustments of the rein and seat aids. Leg aids are not necessary.
Unfortunately the term ‘flexion’ like many others within equestrian training has been misunderstood and misused. It is most commonly used primarily to describe a bend, yet is anything but. It is also used in veterinary science to describe a clinical test to ‘ascertain if there is any injury or defect in the hind leg joints’. This test is little better than witchcraft and will blessedly die over time.
The general public are understandably becoming very confused over the term flexion as even quite advanced trainers while proclaiming that they know what a flexion is are misinterpreting it.
A nice summary written by Jean Claude Racinet on the historical importance of the flexion can be seen at https://horsesforlife.com/RacinetFlexionsoftheJaw This article through its length and complexity once again shows just how profound and evasive is the flexion, 3 important points come out of the article;
· The flexion is an elusive state
· The early masters fully appreciated its power
· Most riders can never learn it or will not use it once they know of its existence
Is this training technique applicable to other disciplines? Yes, absolutely. If we go to this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBZbBOtlD2c we see Rata Mill Vetorri jumping, rider Stephanie Anderson. Vetorri is a ¼ Clydesdale who I sold unbroken at around age 3. He looked to have an ideal eventing conformation.
Clearly Stephanie and other trainers have done an awful lot of schooling and many jump trainers (especially showhunter) will consider his rhythm and control between the jumps as being of a very good standard. He also has a very good hind action. The round action of the front legs at canter suggests he should have a clean front action as well.
But, over the jumps he has a real problem: he is hollow with no parabola. I am picking that once the height gets up he will start taking rails. This is where the basic exercises relating to stretching the back and getting the neck to stretch down and long are so important. Vittorri is middle aged now and it could be too late to rectify the problem, but not impossible. However he can still compete to a high standard in eventing, providing a decent dressage phase can be put together.
However, congratulations to Stephanie for training a happy horse. At the end of the day this is the most important factor.