Flexions or How does the horse learn?
By Melanie Bulmahn, master instructor of the Ecole de Légèreté
I am standing next to or in front of my horse in the riding hall, he is wearing a bridle, I have the snaffle bit in my hand and I’m doing flexions.
The other people in the stable almost never ask any interesting questions about the schooling concept, why this is done or for what purpose – because who is doing flexions in a normal German riding stable is mostly ignored, smiled at or even met with hostility.
If someone asks – what rarely happens – it is superficial questions. Whether the horse is sick or too young or too old to ride. Unfortunately, there is no nice exchange. And I’m not the only Légèreté rider in this case.
Meanwhile, a part of the equestrian world has got used to the fact that we sometimes stand next to the horse or do flexions from the saddle. And there are actually a few who try it out for themselves when they think that no one is watching.
But despite getting used to it and without getting any useful information from the one performing the flexions, people express their opinion: “It looks strange. The poor horse, one should leave the mouth alone” (and a short time later the horse is lunged with side reins...). “Not effective enough, one should ride instead. The horse must go forward, not remain standing.” “Bending the neck at a halt is breaking the back.” And so on.
I will not waste any more time on relating what “stand-still riders” are confronted with in riding halls or on analysing it. I’ll leave that to the stable gossip.
Here, I’d like to talk about facts.
Let’s start with the horse himself. Let’s put ourselves in the position of the horse, without humanising him. – Wait a minute. Is that even possible? That’s where the first known problem begins. There are many truths about the horse. Many truths that fill many books...
To stick to the facts, I’ll only write about the horse’s learning behaviour. Because if we want to school horses, we should at least know how they learn. If we have trust, understanding and communication, nothing stands in our way.
On this issue, I’d like to refer to the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES). The ISES constitution is based on that of the International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE), and they acknowledge ISAE and its aims in inspiring the formation of ISES. The mission of ISES is to promote and encourage the application of objective research and advanced practice, which will ultimately improve the welfare of horses in their associations with humans. This also includes the learning behaviour of the horses.
ISES has established corresponding ethical training principles – principles on how to treat horses, how they are able to understand us and learn from us.
The Ecole de Légèreté takes its inspiration from the riding masters mainly of the French tradition who contributed to the equestrian philosophy of lightness, which means that it excludes any use of force or coercive artificial aids. Through ISES, I know that the principles of the Ecole de Légèreté are in line with the latest findings on horse behaviour. The riding philosophy of Légèreté thus builds a bridge from the old riding masters to the present time with its high-tech scientific means.
The principle “Hand without legs, legs without hand”, implemented by François Baucher (1796–1873), emphasises the importance of separating the aids. Horses are not able to multitask. They can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Depending on their temperament, level of schooling and individual character, however, they can “switch” back and forth more or less quickly.
ISES writes: “Because of the large number of responses required in horse training, (especially under saddle), it is important that all signals are as clear and as different as possible to enable the horse to discriminate them. This is important in order to avoid confusing the horse, which can result in undesired behaviours and stress.”
This results in the fifth training principle of ISES, “Elicit responses on at a time”:
“Does your training demonstrate that individual cues/signals are separated in time from each other? Giving the horse multiple signals at the same time can result in a reduction in responding of any required behaviour. This is because the horse is unable to process two or more signals concurrently as both compete for the horse’s attention. Especially the use of opposite signals (such as acceleration and deceleration) at the same time should be avoided. In the early stages of training, signals should be well separated, however eventually they can be given closer together.”
“Welfare implications: The use of opposite signals at the same time can confuse the horse, through weakening the trained link between signal and behaviour/response, and quickly lead to stress and consequently responses that compromise horse performance and welfare, and rider safety.”
In short, modern horse science also recommends the principle “Hand without legs, legs without hand”.
Even then François Baucher wrote: “By avoiding the simultaneous use of the hand and the legs, the horse will more clearly understand what we want from him and the rider will be obliged to be more careful in the use of his aids because all of the mistakes he makes will be seen fully and straight away.”
If we combine the separation of the aids with the “shaping” also recommended by ISES, flexions are the ethically correct way to explain the bit to the horse and to make it literally palatable to him: “Shaping is a term used in behavioural psychology and understood by animal trainers of many different species. It is about targeting and rewarding responses, then step by step adding more refinement towards the ultimate desired response. A dolphin cannot learn to do two backwards somersaults in tandem with another unless he is first rewarded for just poking his nose out of water. Poor use of shaping can lead to confusion and responses that compromise equine understanding and performance.”
Let’s move from theory to practice. Why should we make the bit palatable to the horse?
First of all, I cannot expect the horse to know what the snaffle bit in his mouth means. I cannot expect him to do what I want him to do without resistance and without worrying. He just wasn’t born with a bit in his mouth. Just as there is no built-in button in the horse’s flanks for going forward, there is no built-in button in his mouth for the desired reaction to the bit!
Every horse reacts to the bit according to his individuality and temperament. These include rolling the neck, lying on the bit, pulling on the bit, shaking his head, yawning, freezing, running backwards, rearing, chewing... The list of reactions is long.
And the riders’ reactions to the horse’s reactions are just as different. Some people take the bit out again and ride bitless, analysing that the horse doesn’t like the bit. Others close the horse’s mouth with a tight noseband so he doesn’t learn any nonsense. Others let the side reins do the work of making the horse yield, and some think that time and habituation alone will solve the problem.
But it is quite normal for horses to try different things. Because of the tendency of animals to trial a raft of responses, Dr. Andrew McLean conducted trials involving 50 young horses (thoroughbreds and European warmbloods) that were habituated to the rider on top but naive to any aids. The horses showed different reactions to the leg pressure. Walking backwards, walking sideways, doing nothing, looking aside, etc. Only 12 percent of the horses went forward. This shows us that going forward on leg pressure is a learned behaviour.
By the way, it is thus not difficult to understand how incorrect responses can be accidentally reinforced in early training.
So how do I make myself understood to the horse in such a way that I am effective and fair to him? That he quickly understands which reaction is desired?
The first step in the Légèreté’s training plan is the education to the hand and leg aids. This includes the strict separation of hand and leg aids, which – as we now know – is a must for the horse to understand us.
The flexions explain the bit to the horse. However, this does not mean that they only make sense for young horses. Because the education to the aids and the refinement of the aids are always present and not only important at the beginning of the schooling.
During the flexions, the horse concentrates only on the bit. In this way, we teach the horse to understand the snaffle, to loosen and to relax. To accept to comply with the aids, and to learn to stay in constant light contact with the hand, to put the balancing rod that is his neck at the disposition of the rider and even to shift his balance backwards.
By separating hand and leg aids, I minimise the possibility of my horse receiving unclear or opposite signals or even being distracted. The hand becomes predictable for the horse, he learns exactly how to differentiate the various signals. When standing still without the rider, he cannot accidentally misunderstand anything, because no other impressions due to the forward movement can distract him. I thus act according to the learning behaviour of my horse. If the horse knows what I want, he will do it. “The horse does one of two things. He does what he thinks he’s supposed to do, or he does what he thinks he needs to do to survive.” (Ray Hunt)
How is it possible that flexions seem so exotic today? After all, the flexions were not invented by Philippe Karl and are not something completely new! And François Baucher wasn’t the only one to use them. Let’s look at the German Army Riding Regulations H.Dv.12:
“Yielding of the jaw and bending in hand”:
It has the advantage that it can already be done before the horse has learned to carry the weight of the rider and before it obeys the leg aids.
The rider is standing in front of the horse (…).”
(H.Dv.12 Reitvorschrift 1934)
Did I read that right? Flexions in the German Riding Regulations? Oh, yes!
On the German Wikipedia, you can read about H.Dv.12: “The riding regulations H.Dv.12 deal with the training of horses and riders for use in cavalry units. After the Second World War, many of the training rules were incorporated into modern horse training according to the guidelines of the German Equestrian Federation (FN). H.Dv.12 is based on a new version of riding instructions from 1882, which summarised the knowledge gathered in cavalry training since the 18th century. These riding instructions were revised in 1912 and 1926 and again in 1937 as Army Regulations 12.”
The H.Dv.12 thus summarised the guidelines of the German cavalry and influenced the guidelines of the German FN and the international equestrian federation FEI. It was a small book, so it only summed up the most important things. And a description of how to perform the flexions made up one part of it. It also emphasised that the horse should yield first in the lower jaw and not in the neck. The flexions were so important that they were still mentioned after four revisions.
Then how can it be that something that has been practiced for centuries has become exotic in the common equestrian sport?
By the way, flexions were already practiced in the 16th century, in the Renaissance, which suggests that they are much older and could date back to antiquity.
I would like to introduce Friedrich von Krane (1812–1874). He was a German colonel in the cavalry and a contemporary witness. His book “Anleitung zur Ausbildung der Cavallerieremonten” (“Instructions on the training of young cavalry horses”) contains incredible knowledge. He wrote for example: “The asking rein aid acts directly on the lower jaw, so these muscles are the first to resist. (…) A lot of resistance which is thought to come from the neck and other parts of the body, is based on the chewing muscles. Overcoming this first disobedience against the bit is one of the first and most important parts of the work of dressage.”
From this sentence, the attentive reader will understand immediately that even at that time, there were already “poll riders” and “mouth riders”.
Friedrich von Krane described the yielding of the lower jaw very precisely. He lived at a time when it was being discussed whether it would make sense to introduce the lateral flexions into the cavalry. As he wrote in his book, the majority was convinced that the flexions would be too difficult for the cavalrymen because their level of training was too low!
I must mention here that until the beginning of the 20th century, riding was reserved for the nobility and cavalry. At that time, the art of riding was then passed on to the common man, to a wider mass.
As we know today, the lateral flexions were not adopted by modern equestrian sport. And the reason for this was to make the training of the horse simpler for the rider!
The schooling of the flexions and the yielding of the jaw thus gradually disappeared.
To simplify horse training.
Please read again: to simplify horse training.
Who benefits from this? Obviously not the horse!
You can imagine everything else ...
I for my part will continue to stand in front of or next to my horse with the snaffle bit in my hand, knowing full well that the education to the bit begins with flexions. I will maintain the separation of the aids and explain to my horse in small steps (shaping) what I want. I consciously choose the classical, intelligent form of schooling and not the simplified one – for the horse’s benefit.
To finish with the words of Philippe Karl:
“In a well-thought-out approach to dressage that respects the horse, the schooling of the horse must start by the ‘cession de machoire’ (jaw yielding).”
Philippe Karl, “Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage”
Andrew Mc Lean, “Academic Horse Training” and “Equitation Science”
H.Dv.12 Reitvorschrift 1934
International Society for Equitation Science (ISES, equitationscience.com)
Friedrich von Krane, „Anleitung zur Ausbildung der Cavallerieremonten“