Driving into the Hand & Flexions
Driving into the Hand & Flexions

Gregorio Billikopf
A Passion for Dressage

Beside lunging, there is other ground work that can be used to supple the horse's articulations and muscular system, and to teach the horse to respond to the aids when he is not encumbered with the weight of the rider. We will focus first on driving the horse into the hand, and then on flexions, exercises that will facilitate the progression of the dressage horse. Decarpentry, Baucher and Klimke are my main inspiration for this work.

Driving the horse into the hand

This exercise is somewhat like walking the horse on a lead line, but differs in that the rider is teaching the horse to move into the hand and leave no slack on the reins that he is holding. This exercise will help the rider teach the horse a number of movements while dismounted, and help create some of that so critical impulsion that is needed for dressage work, whether one is mounted or on the ground.

The rider first will first hold both reins in his hand (Figure 5-1 represents the snaffle bit in the horse's mouth, and the rider holding the reins close to the bit), and while standing on the near side (if the rider prefers to start on the left side of the horse, which is in no way a requirement), takes the reins close to the horse's bit and crosses them over (A-B), and holds the right hand over the reins as close to the bit as possible (C). The rider faces the same direction that the horse is facing. With the hand on the reins in this manner the rider takes the whip with the opposite hand (left) and asks the horse to move forward.

Figure 5-1. Holding the hand on the reins close to the bit

The rider will condition the horse to move forward every time that there is slack between his right hand and the bit. At first the rider may move his right hand on purpose forward, toward the bit, to obtain this slack. With the whip hand (left) the rider taps the horse lightly behind the girth area (Figure 5-2). The horse will move forward creating an increased contact with the bit. The rider stops using the whip and helps the horse to relax as soon as the reins become taut. After a few days of practicing for a few minutes each time, the horse should respond by paying careful attention to the rider's hands. In this way the rider has the horse between his hands and his whip (the whip represent the legs of the rider). With the whip, the rider pushes the horse into the bit from behind forward, thus maintaining an essential dressage principle.

Figure 5-2. Rider positioned to drive the horse into the reins (from near side)

This work is done mostly at the walk and trot (Figure 5-3), and potentially at a slow canter. When the horse is comfortable at the walk and trot then work on the ground on two tracks can begin (described in a later chapter).

Figure 5-3. Rider has horse between the whip and the hand at the trot

Once the rider masters the work of driving the horse onto the bit on the near side, he can repeat the exercise on the far side (right side of the horse).


The flexion exercises can be begun at the same time that the work of driving the horse into the hand, shown above. These exercises isolate the learning of the horse to one area, that of the head and neck, and if carried out correctly, will do much to help the horse understand what is required of him in terms of going on the bit, and carrying the head with more lightness. It can be considered as one more in-between stage, between the rider having contact with the reins and having the horse on the bit. Putting the horse on the bit is much more than achieving the position or look, but we shall say more about that later.

The objective of the first flexion will be to obtain the position and the contact of the horse being on the bit, while standing on the ground by the horse. Our description, once again, will be given as if the rider was working on the near side of the horse. The work begins after the reins are over the horse's neck, as if one was going to mount. Next, the rider will put his right forearm and hand over the neck of the horse (this will depend on how tall the horse is compared to the rider) as both face the same direction. With the right hand the rider establishes contact with the right side of the snaffle and with the left hand the rider establishes contact with the left side of the snaffle.

Figure 5-4. Flexion to bring the horse into the position of being on the bit

The rider slowly increases the pressure on the reins bilaterally (with both reins at the same time) and wait for several seconds without adding or subtracting any pressure, and asks the horse to yield. How much pressure? How many seconds? What does yield mean? I would suggest obtaining the equivalent pressure (same on both reins) so there is no slack, and then add a little bit more. Wait for as long as twenty seconds, even if that may seem eternal. If after twenty seconds this does not work at all, then drop the reins and start all over. If the rider can feel that the horse is pushing slightly against the reins, do not increase the pressure. Once a pressure level is established and no success is coming your way, do not increase the pressure, but start all over with a little more pressure than before. When the horse yields, or gives, even if just a little, so the head comes one notch toward the correct position, thus creating some slack on the reins, you have succeeded. Riders should never see-saw on the horse's mouth, no matter how gently. We said this was the case for a rider mounted, and lest there be any confusion, we repeat the admonition for work on the ground.

When the horse responds to the pressure of the reins by yielding with the head, the rider should stop, drop the reins, and greatly reward him. The rider will begin all over, obtain contact, and wait for the horse to yield. The horse may yield a little, and it may take several yields to achieve the full position desired. Over time the rewards can become more subtle, including a simple caress across the horse's neck while keeping rein contact. The rider will increase the length of time that he expects the horse to remain in the desired position.

After obtaining success, which would be anything over 7 seconds or so in a vertical position, a new exercise can be introduced to lighten the contact even further. This exercise consists of dropping the inside rein while holding the outside rein steady (Figure 5-5). The rider picks up the reins as before, but after two to four seconds in position, will drop the inside rein (the inside rein will be the side where the rider is standing on). Dropping the inside rein means loosing all contact and forming an arc with that rein for about three seconds or longer, and then obtaining contact with the hand where the rein was dropped. If the previous work was correct and not rushed, the horse will be more supple and soft in your hand after you have established contact with both reins for the second time than before you dropped the rein to begin with. After successfully completing this work then the rider lets both reins drop so the horse can rest his head. This exercise needs to be carried out on both sides of the horse, alternating reins.

Figure 5-5. Flexion and dropping the inside rein

The third flexion exercise we will describe here consists of turning the head. The head can be either turned (1) all the way so that it almost touches the horseís side, or (2) about half way there. In the latter, the head is kept from tilting (Figure 5-6). Once again, the object is to help the horse become lighter in the hands of the rider. The trainer achieves these exercises by asking with the reins for the horse to begin to turn his head. As the horse turns his head, the rider keeps contact with both reins. In the figure below the rider is standing on the far side, but as before, the exercise needs to be carried out on both sides.

Figure 5-6. Turn the head flexion


In this chapter we introduce two types of ground work, driving the horse into the hand, and flexions. The former helps teach the horse to move forward with impulsion toward the riderís hand, and put the horse between the hand and the whip. The rider will condition the horse to move forward every time that there is slack between his rein hand and the bit. With the whip, the rider pushes the horse into the bit from behind forward, thus maintaining an essential dressage principle. In later chapters we will talk about putting the horse between the hand and the leg.

The purpose of the flexion work is to help the horse understand the riderís hands and lighten his contact with the reins. Next chapter we will take advantage of this introductory work and speak of obtaining the correct position while mounted. The search for putting the horse on the bit is a long term one. Putting the horse on the bit, we said, is much more than achieving the position.

© 1999-2010 Gregorio Billikopf

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A Passion for Dressage
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19 May 2010