We all know our horses can bend at the poll and raise their head and neck up and down, but what about being soft and having side to side bend? That is where lateral work comes in. This is when using the rings on the sides of the surcingle helps as it exaggerates the cues a bit, making it easy for the horse to understand what you're asking for. With green horses and sometimes with rehab horses, you want to exaggerate the cues now and then, to make it crystal clear for the horse, what you are asking them. Rehabs- may have gotten confused and just finally blew up. Green horses- are a clean slate. You want to help them move along in their training, not confuse them.
I start all of my work with softening exercises. Bending to the left, bending to the right, walking around in circles both directions to see where the horse is at, both physically and mentally. If I ask for a circle to the right with just a tug of the rein, do they readily give, bend thru the body and make the turn or are they resistant, raise their head, hollow their back and fight it? This will show both under saddle and in the lines.
If the horse raises their head, hollows out their back and stiffens up, it's not a big deal. Just push them forward with a cluck, kiss, 'walk on', raised hand or whatever you use and wait for things to smooth out. Keep them walking and talk to them as you let the horse to relax. As their head comes back down where it belongs, praise them, but keep them moving. Gently tug the rein again and ask for the turn. By roughly the third or fourth turn, the horse should get the idea that you aren't going to be yanking around on the reins and beating them up in the face when you ask them to turn. Some horses pick it up in nothing flat, others it might take a while to sink in, but as long as you are consistent, they will eventually get it.
At first I ask for large circles, with only a slight amount of bend, but as the horse warms up and starts to really soften, I ask for smaller circles, tighter turns and more bend. Sometimes the horse may be fine with the larger circles but as you tighten the circles up, you find they are stiff and not as giving. This is okay because now you know what you need to work on. You need to help the horse loosen things up which will allow them to move more freely. Once the horse is loose and relaxed, you will be able to see a big difference in the way they move and how they carry themselves.
Horses may also be one sided too. This can change by the day, since they may wake up on the wrong side of the stall, stiff on the left and cranky to boot. We have our days, they have theirs and sometimes you just have to work thru it. If the horse is stiff or sore, as they loosen up things should feel better and their mood will improve. Doesn't yours when your body gets sorted out and stops hurting?
Softening work is also a good way to warm up as well as cool out your horse. As the horse warms up and the muscles relax, they will move more freely and easily. Once the horse is done working, cooling out at a walk, working on bending and softness- the muscles stretch more easily while they are warm. Stretching after a workout helps us improve our flexibility as well as helps keep the muscles loose, so why not apply the same idea to the horses? A lot of what works for us, works for them and a lot of what works for them, works for us as well.
If your horse just doesn't seem to relax and soften up on one side or the other, or even both, go ahead and stop them. No use in making things worse with no hope of improvement. I often found my pony would be stiff on one side and sometimes he was just stiff, muscularly sore or just being a twit and didn't feel like cooperating. Whenever you can rule out pain as the main issue and the reason behind your horse not cooperating, you want to do it. If Kat is/was having a bad day and not bending to one side or the other, I would do some stretches with him to see if it was a physical block first.
Stand at your horses side and ask them to bend their neck around to that side. If they have no problem doing it or holding it there for a few seconds, it's likely they are not in pain or even really stiff, they are just being stubborn, crabby and don't feel like it today. This gives you a good indication of whether you need to be a little forgiving on that side or get after them a little and let them know you're not putting up with their behavior. If the horse is typically soft on that side and has stiffened up over a length of time, don't expect to fix it all in one day. It didn't get this way overnight, you aren't going to fix it in one shot either.