THE BEND, THE BEND THE BEND!!!
Everyone talks about 'the bend.' Even when you first start to ride the teacher will shout things like:
"bend him around your inside leg"
"bend him on the circle"
"bend him to the inside"
...What do they mean?!
...Why do we need to bend the horse?
...And how do we do this bend thing?!
Every day when I work in-hand or ride I am looking at the horse and feeling what is going on beneath me. I notice quite a lot of things including the bend, which is pretty major! There are a lot of aspects to working the horse with the bend, things like how much bend, whether you're riding on the stiff or hollow side of the horse, how naturally flexible or over-flexible your horse is, how advanced he is in the work, how attentive he happens to be in that moment, how responsive he is to the aids of seat, leg and hand, which gait he is in, what equestrian discipline, art or sport are you aspiring to, etc etc etc...
Where do I start with this Big Bendy subject?
Well for sure many people will tell you different things about the bend; it is one of those areas of riding and training that is ripe for different opinions and confusion. So all I'm doing here is sharing a few thoughts, ideas and things I've found out as a result of my years of exploration with horses... PLEASE READ WHAT FOLLOWS SLOWLY, it is relatively simple but may sound confusing!
1. I guess what I realise with my own horses and what I see on my clinics is that the bend is truly key to good work from the horse. When the bend is just right things really work well. When the bend isn't quite right or lacking, then things don't work so well. Simple. If there is either too much or insufficient bend in the horse in any part of his length he won't be 'through,' he will be blocked somewhere in his movement or in the sense of being connected with you as the rider. If the horse has too much bend in any part of him (most often felt in the neck on his hollow side) he will be falling out of balance as he moves and not collecting but, rather flopping on his forehand. If he has the right amount of bend he will be more balanced, responsive to all of the aids and light.
2. 'Stiff' and 'hollow' sides is a slight over simplification of the horse's anatomy but suffice to say, when you ride the majority of horses they 'feel' stiffer in the left side (their 'stiff' side) and in the left rein than they do on the right, where they bend too easily to the right and that is their 'hollow' side. So with maybe 80% of horses it feels easier to get a bend on the right than the left. That doesn't mean the right is easier - actually in some ways its harder to get good work on the hollow side because of the fact the horse does bend so easily that he disconnects his back end and shoulders and folds up in the middle. If you think about it, if the horse doesn't bend easily to the left, it is likely because his right side is contracted and doesn't release, lengthen and stretch very easily... I hope this isn't getting too complicated... Please think about it because this is all VERY important at every level of riding/training.
3. Anatomically, horses can bend way more in the neck than in the ribs or spine, the same as us. And they have a way longer neck than us too! So when someone yells across the arena "bend him around your inside leg" what the hell do they mean?! This is where it gets interesting to me. Firstly, lets dismiss the misleading myth that if you press hard or squeeze this 600kg animal in the middle of his ribcage with your puny lower leg then it will make him 'bend his body around your inside leg!" Unless you are Arnold SchwarzeneggerX10 that is not likely to happen. What I am finding more and more is that the horse is responsive to a 'placing' of the inside leg in different positions along his side, especially very forward at the girth and that bending occurs easily and in different places in his body depending specifically where the rider's leg is placed. This 'placing' of a light leg is accompanied by a release in the rider's inside hip joint which seems to facilitate the seat in assisting the horse to bend more easily. This ease of bending, by placing the released leg in different areas of the horse's sides to get different bend results, is also dependent upon...
4. ...the position of the hands/reins in facilitating the bend. Since we Homo Sapiens do most things very effectively with our hands, the first unconscious action when seeking a bend is likely to be pulling backwards on the rein on the side we want the horse to bend. Unfortunately that results in a backward contraction of the horse's neck and jaw on the side which is receiving the rein pressure. It doesn't necessarily help to get a good bend. It can work better if the contact on the inside rein doesn't increase but that the inside rein has an 'inviting' quality and remains in a direct rein or even slightly open rein position where it is a little way out sideways from the horse's neck (see my book How to Create The Perfect Riding Horse for pictures of rein positions if this is not clear to you)... The OUTSIDE rein also plays a vital role: in order for the horse to bend to the inside (e.g. to the left) the outside rein (e.g. right rein) needs to agree and allow the horse to bend by giving towards the horse's mouth, whilst at the same time still maintaining its job of 'supporting' the outside shoulder and guiding the horse through turns and circles... All this takes some practise and observation, not least because horse's are alive and every moment of every day in different gaits and situations the rider's responses need to adapt to the requirements of the moment... It sounds a bit challenging, but if you're turning the front wheel of a bicycle without both handlebars agreeing you'd probably not make the turn, so its not new to you or rocket science really! Except that the horse is alive and unevenly made in his body on the left and right and a bicycle is not!
5. Sometimes increasing the amount of bend in the horse for the purposes of unlocking the horse or for stages of training is really worthwhile. If you are riding around and the horse feels stiff, hard, heavy, locked up or unresponsive then increasing the amount of lateral bend temporarily until you feel the 'sweet spot' will likely be a great help. It can be a trap to always try to ride every day as though it is the 'finished article' or that you're in a dressage test. In the early stages of most riding sessions I do it is highly likely I will ask the horse for more bend than at the end of the session when things are all loosened up and the horse is moving on a magic carpet of WD40 lubricant!
6. People are often surprised by how much bend a horse may need (especially on one side more then the other) in order to get a really light balanced feel.
7. a) Sometimes it helps to work with an outside bend...
b) Sometimes it helps to stay with the same bend for a while until the horse 'finds himself' in that balance...
c) Sometimes it helps to change the bend often to keep the horse even more in tune with his moment to moment balance (although it is a bit more advanced).
There is lots more I could say about all of this, and there is lots more and different stuff that other teachers may say, but suffice to say if we get the bend 'correct' on the horse things generally go MUCH better... Now hand me the Equine WD40, it might help my body be more bendy too!