The ability of a horse to bend depends on his suppleness and flexibility.
Although we often think about a horse bending from poll to tail, this actually does not happen evenly along the horse’s spine as the neck bends more easily than the thoracic spine, where the apparent bend is actually caused by a slight rotation of the rib cage.
Bending our horse is of vital importance, as basically correct bending leads to straightness, impulsion and ultimately collection. Bending is the equivalent of a Pilates workout for your horse. It helps mobilize his ribcage and spine and improves suppleness in his shoulders, torso, hips and hind legs! It is really the first thing we should teach our horse. We can work on our horse’s bending on the lunge, with groundwork, either on-line or in-hand or under saddle.
To improve our horse’s bend we can work on curved lines (circles, voltes, figures of 8, loops and serpentines) and lateral movements. For the curved line to be beneficial to the horse, our horse needs to align himself on the curve. For example, if you were riding a 20m circle you need to be able to have a mental image of your horse’s spine conforming to the line of the circle. This means we have to be particular as to where our horse places his feet, riding imprecise circles is of no gymnastic benefit to the horse.
If we are riding on a circle to our horse’s hollow side, the chances are our horse will either lose his outside front leg outwards or his haunches will fall in. In either case one of his legs leaves the line of the circle and it is our responsibility to be aware of this and bring the leg back in to line. If we are riding a circle to our horse’s stiffer side we will probably find that it is the inside front leg or the outside hind leg that we lose.
The better your horse can bend the better the quality of the circle is, but the more precisely you ride the circle the better your horse’s bend becomes. This is where marking out an arena with carefully measured gateways (cones) at each of the quadrants really works. You can use the gateways to check if you are on the correct line, or falling out or in.
To be able to bend properly your horse will need to bend and flex his inside hind leg under his centre of mass. If he cannot do this then he will become progressively more and more crooked, so you have to look at how you can help teach your horse to do this and this is where lateral work really helps.
The more easily your horse can bend, the easier he will find lateral movements. Equally lateral movements improve your horse’s bend, so introducing them fairly early on into your horse’s training makes sense. If you only ever ride on a single track your horse will over time, become stiffer and stiffer.
Lateral movements can basically be divided into two categories, side stepping and bending against the direction of travel and side stepping and bending in the direction of travel. The former, is for most horses, the easier movement to begin with. But not all horses have read the manual – so if your horse finds side stepping and bending in the direction of travel easier, start with that.
Enlarging the circle, leg yield, turn on the forehand in motion, shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in and full pass against the direction of travel are all exercises that combine side stepping and bending against the movement of travel .
Haunches-in, renvers, half pass, turn on the haunches, passade, pirouettes and full pass with bend in the direction of travel are all exercises that combine side stepping and bending in the direction of travel.
The rein aid can also be used to check out any resistances or problems with your horse’s bend. The rein aid not only influences the poll, throat lash and neck but others parts of his body too. By timing the rein bending aid into a specific leg you can check out where a blockage is occurring. Try targeting the bending rein aid when the inside front leg is on the ground, link this with a stirrup step and analyse if there was any resistance. If there was, the problem could well be in the pectoral muscles or the shoulder. Next check out the inside hind leg by applying the bending rein aid and a stirrup step when the inside hind leg is on the ground. Any resistance here could be caused by a problem with the croup, hip or oblique muscles.