Have you ever heard your trainer say, “more bend, less bend, incorrect bend…nice bend”? Why do we make such a fuss about bend anyway? Regardless of discipline we want our horses to excel to the best of their ability. Bend affects every movement in all disciplines. We train daily (hmm…or we should), in order to bring out their full potential. The end result comes from the foundation behind it. In developing a horse we need to create straightness, which means a horse must be evenly balanced on both sides of his body. This aspect of balance allows the horse to perform evenly in both directions. Horses who have difficulty picking up a correct lead, have an uneven stride, or prefer to do spins, pirouettes, or even just travel more comfortably in one direction are often having difficulty in balance due to a lack of straightness in their body. Often I see horses going around an arena in one direction with their heads turned in the opposite direction. This is one example of incorrect bend that will cause a lack of imbalance in a horse and difficulty in certain movements.
Horses, like humans are born either left or right handed. If they are right handed it will mean the horse will be stronger on the ride side, but also stiffer on that side. The right handed horse will be softer (bend more easily), on the left side but weaker. Through careful development we can create an even left to right balance. This includes, many many schooling figures of various sizes, lateral work such as leg yields, traverse, renvers, shoulder in, half-pass and gentle manual manipulation of some of the pressure points where the horse holds tension such as the pole.
Sadly, I see a large number of misguided riders pulling their horses head around similar to the photo of Draoi above and holding it and even worse tying it there. Not only is this counter-productive, it also is painful. Pain should never be a part of any training. Draoi turned on his own to look behind him but adjusted his body to compensate and only held that position for seconds. Anything beyond a few seconds would be come painful. You can even try it with your own body. Turn your head as far as you can in either direction and HOLD it! You will quickly feel discomfort and eventually pain. When horses feel pain they initially brace against it in self-protection. So often these same riders pull the horse’s head further. If I can make one point for you to give some thought to in this post I would encourage you to study what true bending is. One of the problems with over bending is it tends to make the neck very wiggly but also disconnects the horse at the wither. It’s like riding two different horses. It does not give a horse the chance to develop the ability to bend through the body and use it’s back or undercarriage muscles. True bending must begin at the hindquarter, continue up the spine and ultimately through the neck. Creating flexibility in a horse means working with the whole body, not just the neck. Creating proper self-carriage means guiding the horse to it’s place of true balance then allowing that horse to carry itself without you holding it there. In doing so you allow the correct muscles and ligaments to develop and stretch. If your horse is gradually allowed to properly develop it’s body it will not be mentally or physically stressed during work.
It takes time to develop the feel of what’s happening under your seat. Learning the feel of straightness requires time and concentration. However, when your horse becomes straight there’s no feeling like it. It releases energy, adds a spring in the step, and a softness to the back. In another post I will talk about Longitudinal bend which is equally important in self carriage.
Below are examples of bending:
In the first photo, this horse with too much bend in the neck which in turn causes the shoulder and hindquarter to travel to the outside of the track. It appears that she pulling on the inside rein without enough guidance from outside leg and rein aids. Once she learns to guide the horse to follow her outside leg the hindquarter will move towards the direction she is going followed by the rib cage and then the neck. Continuing to pull the inside rein will make the shoulder fall out further and the cycle.
If we look at this next photo we can see a gently curve throughout the entire spine creating a true bend from head to tail. It is clear the rider is riding the horse from the hindquarter forward.
Keep in mind the goal here is to create a balanced, light horse in self-carriage enabling that horse to be the best athlete it can. Bending can be complicated. We have to teach the horse to “give” to our aid instead of holding or pulling against that. And, that my horse friends will be a post for another day!