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What is the Difference Between Bend and Flexion?

What is the Difference Between Bend and Flexion dressage

Have you been asked to both bend and flex your horse?

Do you understand the difference between the two terms?

If not, then keep reading and we’ll help you out!


When most people talk about bend, they describe it as ‘the horse’s spine being uniformly curved to align to the arc of a circle or turn’.

Although this is a great way to visualize the concept of bend, it has actually been proven to be physically impossible, as the spine is actually too inflexible to do this.

We now understand that the illusion of the horse’s ability to conform to circles and turns is created by different parts of the horse, namely:

1. The cervical spine (the neck)

This part of the horse has great flexibility and can easily be positioned to conform to the arc of any circle or turn.

2. Thoracic vertebrae (the middle section of the horse’s spine – the bit you sit on)

This part of the horse is highly inflexible, and cannot in reality bend.

However, by stimulating your horse’s intercostal muscles (the ones between the ribs) to contract (by applying your inside leg) your horse is able to pull the ribs on the inside of the curve closer together, and spread the ones on the outside further apart, creating what we call ‘bend in the body’.

3. The lumbar region and pelvis (the hind end)

This part of the horse is also largely inflexible; the loin area has some degree of flexibility, but from the sarco-iliac joint back, the pelvis is a solid structure which no capacity for bend until you reach the tail.

In this section, bend is created from the sacro-iliac joint (where the spine meets the pelvis), and by the horse abducting the inside hind leg inward (towards the middle of the circle or turn) and forwards from the hip joint – a ball and socket arrangement that allows movement in multiple dimensions.


There are two distinct uses of the term ‘flexion’:

Longitudinal flexion

This is the rounding of the top line – the lifting and arching upward of the back and neck to create the round outline required for an efficient and healthy posture in which a horse may carry a rider’s weight on his back without damaging his body.

This includes flexion at the poll, such that the horse’s face is carried on or near the vertical.

Lateral flexion

This is the turning of the head to either left or right at the poll alone, i.e. the head turns to the side without any bend in the neck.

This is achievable because the atlas joint (the first joint where the horse’s neck and skull join) is able to move in both a longitudinal and a lateral manner.

Bending and flexion

So when you are asked to bend your horse, you will be trying to achieve all the components described above, including lateral flexion of the poll so that your horse’s head is slightly turned to the side according to the degree of bend you have in the entire length of his body.

You cannot bend your horse without flexion.

You can, however, flex your horse without bending:

  • longitudinal flexion does not (necessarily) involve bend,
  • you may flex your horse (turn just the head) without bending his body – this can be both a suppling request (when you ask him to relax his jaw in response to a small half halt on the bit) and as a preparation before circles, turns or a lateral movement.

In conclusion

There is a distinct difference in bending your horse to meet the demands of a circle or turn, and asking your horse for flexion – either left or right, or over his topline.

Now when your trainer suggests you ask your horse for some ‘inside flexion’, you’ll know exactly what they mean.

If this article has helped you out, or if you have any questions, hints or tips that you’d like to share with us, please let us know in the comments box below.

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  1. Thank you for breaking down the mechanics of how the body works in flexion and bend . I needed clarity on this as I sometimes allow flexion become neck bend without realizing it ! Thank you for this clear and concise article .

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