How many times have you had the remark, “Could have more bend,” on your dressage test sheet?
A lack of supple bend is a common fault that judges will mark down because bending is crucial to your horse’s progression in the dressage scales of training.
Without the ability to bend your horse correctly, you will not be able to ride accurate circles, turns, or corners, or position your horse for lateral movements.
So, in this article, we’re going to look at why you need to bend your horse, what defines a correct bend, the impact of poll flexion on your horse’s ability to bend, how your horse creates the illusion of bending, and the aids you need to apply to bend your horse correctly.
Why do you need to bend your horse?
If you try to negotiate a circle or corner without bending your horse, then your horse’s body will remain straight, and he will need to lean inwards in order to make the turn.
Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Leaning (Motorbiking)
Leaning around circles, corners, and turns presents several problems.
- Your horse will overly stress his joints and ligaments on the inside, which can cause strain and/or injury. (Remember that when being ridden, your horse is also carrying the added weight of his tack and you.)
- Your horse will be unable to engage his hind legs underneath him and will, therefore, be on his forehand.
- True collection will not be possible, again, because your horse cannot engage his hind legs.
- Your horse will find smaller circles and tighter turns difficult.
- Your horse will be unable to work through to the contact.
- Your horse will be unable to perform and be positioned for lateral movements, such as shoulder-in, travers, and half-pass.
- More than likely, the tempo will be rushed and inconsistent.
- It will make the dressage arena feel much smaller and more difficult to negotiate.
- In extreme cases, especially if you are riding on slippery or uneven ground, your horse can fall over onto his side.
Furthermore, this isn’t just a problem for the discipline of dressage. If you go showjumping, being unable to bend your horse will make him unbalanced around turns, and he will most likely fall inwards through the corners of the arena, leaving you with less space to prepare for the next fence and less chance for your horse to see it. This can result in a pole down, a stop, or a runout.
The big point is that you do not want your horse to lean around corners. Instead, you want your horse to stay upright, and your horse can only stay upright if you ask him to bend correctly.
Bending and poll flexion
What is correct bend?
If your horse is bending correctly, his longitudinal axis will be in line with the curved line you are negotiating. So, when viewed from above, your horse’s spine would align with the curved track.
Your horse’s bending ability is also referred to as your horse’s lateral suppleness, i.e., his side-to-side dexterity.
What is poll flexion?
Poll flexion refers to the angle of your horse’s head from his poll.
- Lateral poll flexion is movement at the poll from side to side.
- Longitudinal poll flexion is movement at the poll up and down.
This means you could ask your horse to move in a straight line but with lateral and/or longitudinal flexion at the poll.
You cannot bend your horse without flexion, but you can flex your horse without bending.
Interestingly, the longitudinal flexion you ask for at your horse’s poll impacts his ability to laterally flex at his poll and bend through his body.
- If your horse’s head is extended up, with no longitudinal flexion at the poll, and he is looking at the stars, then he will not be able to laterally flex at his poll, and the amount of bend he will be able to produce through his body will be reduced.
- If your horse’s head is over-flexed (behind the vertical), with too much longitudinal flexion at the poll, again, he will not be able to laterally flex at his poll and, instead, will twist and tilt his head. The amount of bend your horse will be able to produce through his body will also be reduced.
Therefore, for your horse to be able to bend correctly through his body, it’s essential that the angle of his poll isn’t over-flexed (behind the vertical) or over-extended (star-gazing) and that it is in the mid-range, i.e., with your horse’s nose carried a little bit out and in front of the vertical.
How to tell if your horse is not bending correctly
If your horse is not bending uniformly and correctly, one or more of the following things will happen when you try to ride a circle or turn.
- Your horse will fall in or out through his shoulder.
- Your horse will swing his quarters out.
- Your horse’s hind feet will cross over rather than staying on one track.
- Your horse will lean inwards.
Why is your horse not bending correctly?
If your horse is not bending correctly, provided that there are no physical issues, then it’s usually down to one of two reasons:
Reason 1 – You are not aiding your horse correctly.
If you are unsure how to aid your horse correctly, please see below.
Reason 2 – Your horse does not yet have the required lateral suppleness in his body for the degree of bend you require.
If your horse lacks lateral suppleness, there are a few telltale signs.
- Your horse will become tense and resistant when riding circles or performing lateral movements.
- Your horse will find an exercise easy on one rein but difficult on the other.
- Your horse will not be able to maintain the positioning for lateral movements.
- Your horse will not be able to sufficiently cross his legs during lateral movements.
Improving lateral suppleness
Any exercise that requires your horse to bend will help to improve his lateral suppleness. This includes circles, corners, turns, and all lateral movements, providing you aid and bend your horse correctly (see below).
That being said, remember that the smaller the circle diameter, the more difficult it is for your horse. Where 20-meter circles can be ridden on novice horses at the beginning of their career, 6-meter circles should only be ridden on advanced horses with high levels of balance, engagement, suppleness, and collection.
During your schooling sessions, you should always start by working on large circles until your horse’s muscles warm up and loosen before progressing to smaller circles and tighter turns.
If you struggle to maintain accuracy or experience any of the faults we covered earlier, the circle is probably too small for your horse’s current capabilities. Make the circle larger until your horse’s suppleness and balance improve.
A larger circle ridden accurately with the correct bend will deliver more benefits to your training than a smaller circle that is ridden poorly and is too difficult for your horse.
Lastly, remember to ride your horse equally on both reins. Although it may be tempting to focus on your horse’s stiffest side, that can present problems in that your horse’s muscles and joints on that side will become sore if you persist without giving him a break. In contrast, if you stick to working more on the easy side, the stiffer side will never improve.
The illusion of bending
When discussing bend, we often describe the desired result as your horse “bending uniformly through his body” and “his 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 bending, it’s not actually possible because your horse’s spine is not uniformly flexible.
To help explain this, we’re going to break the horse’s body down into three parts and explain how each moves to create the illusion of bend.
Part 1 – The cervical spine (Your horse’s neck)
This part of your horse is incredibly flexible and can be easily turned to the left or right. It can also be positioned to conform to the arc of any circle or turn.
For example, if you’re riding a 10-meter circle, you shouldn’t have any trouble positioning your horse’s neck to match the arc of the circle. However, sometimes the neck bends further than the rest of the body, creating an uneven bend.
Part 2 – The thoracic vertebrae (the saddle area)
This part of your horse’s spine runs from the withers to the saddle area and is not very flexible. However, you can create the illusion of bending by stimulating the intercostal muscles between your horse’s ribs.
By using your inside leg, you can encourage your horse to bring the ribs on the inside of his body closer together and spread the ribs on the outside further apart, and for the barrel of your horse’s ribs to swing to the outside, thus creating a bend.
This is why your inside leg is crucial in creating bend (see aids for bend below).
Part 3 – Lumbar
The final area we will discuss is your horse’s lumbar region and pelvis, which is the area behind the saddle. This part of your horse is not very flexible when bending sideways.
To create the illusion of bend, your horse’s hind legs play a crucial role. The inside hind leg has to step further underneath and carry more weight, while the outside hind leg has to reach further and push harder. These movements of the hind legs also impact the horse’s ribs and the bending of his spine.
When all three of these elements work together, it appears as though your horse is bending uniformly from nose to tail, but in reality, it is not physically possible for your horse’s spine to bend in such a way.
How to ask your horse to bend
When riding a circle, turn, or through corners, your aids should be as follows:
Inside leg at the girth.
This leg asks your horse to bend through his body, stimulating his intercostal muscles and encouraging him to shorten on the inside of his body and stretch on the outside of his body.
Your inside leg also creates forward impulsion, encouraging your horse’s inside hind leg to step further underneath his center of gravity.
Outside leg behind the girth
This leg guards your horse’s hindquarters. It prevents them from drifting outwards and keeps them on the curved line that you are following.
By coming behind the girth, it also allows your horse’s ribs to expand on the outside, thereby working alongside your inside leg.
Inside rein asks for a small amount of inside lateral flexion
This rein indicates the direction of bend and helps you to position your horse’s neck on the curved line.
Your inside rein should not be used to turn your horse! This will result in too much neck bend and your horse falling out through his outside shoulder.
Outside rein controls the outside shoulder
This rein helps to prevent too much neck bend, thereby helping you to control your horse’s outside shoulder, preventing him from falling out.
Your outside rein is also used to control your horse’s tempo (speed of the rhythm) and give balancing half-halts.
Related Read: How to Use Your Outside Rein
Head looking in the direction you want to go
Your head should be up and looking ahead and around the circle, turn, or corner you are negotiating.
More weight in your inside seat bone
You should have a little bit more weight in your inside seat bone and inside stirrup while remaining sat up straight; do not lean inwards.
This small weight shift frees the outside of your horse’s body, allowing it to expand, and encourages your horse’s inside hind leg to step under your weight.
Related Read: How to Use Your Seat and Weight Aids for Dressage
Shoulders matching the angle of your horse’s shoulders
Your shoulders should be turned from your waist to the inside to match the angle of your horse’s shoulders.
Hips matching the angle of your horse’s hips
This should happen automatically as you position your legs correctly, as per above.
Being able to bend your horse correctly around circles, through corners, and when negotiating turns, will not only get you good marks in a dressage test, but it is crucial for your horse’s progression.
Firstly, you need to understand how your horse creates bend through his body and how to apply your aids correctly. And secondly, you should ask your horse to bend equally and uniformly in both directions during every training session on circles and turns that are within his capabilities.
Over time, your horse will become more laterally supple, meaning that he will be able to produce more bend through his body, enabling you to ride small circles and tighter turns.