To Bend or Not to Bend, that is the question.

This theme seems to have cropped up quite often lately. First, when I went to see Tim Stockdale, then with Erik, then Bettina Drummond and then it has cropped up again in lessons. Generally, you need to keep the neck straight - calm forward and straight are the key words for any horse. It is perfectly correct to ask your horse to "look in" and adjust his neck (with the reins) so that he does not look out but it is absolutely wrong to have the horse bend from the base of the neck and fall out through the shoulders which generally indicates too much bend in the neck. If a horse is "difficult to control" a bit more bend helps as long as it is deliberate and temporary. Likewise, if a horse has problems stepping through its back, sometimes some small circles or a bit of leg yield with a bit more bend will help him. However true gymnastic bending comes from the hindquarters which is something else entirely. Asking actively with the rein when the horse is against that rein is mostly pretty futile - measure your wrist, then measure your horse's neck - No contest! In fact the problem is not so much the heavy rein but rather the lighter empty rein and if you can encourage the horse to reach into the empty rein, especially when it is on the inside, the horse will automatically become softer on the heavier/stiffer rein. Of course, it goes without saying that the cause of this uneven feel in the rein is in the hindquarters so ultimately, that is where the correction should lie. The rein which feels stiff/hard/unyielding corresponds to the horse's stronger, or as Erik prefers to call it, "preferred" hind leg. The soft side where the rein feels light, soft, empty, loose corresponds with the horse's weaker, (less preferred) hind leg. Therefore, one needs to encourage the horse to use that leg a bit more. When he does, both reins will start to feel more even. If your right hand is your the preferred hand, you would probably be quite clumsy and somewhat reluctant to use the other "less preferred" left hand. It would be useless to keep saying "Don't use your right hand" unless you were also encouraged to practice with your left hand. Thus with the horse - by giving him nothing to argue with on the "preferred" side and driving actively on the "less preferred" side while riding calmly, forward and straight on simple school figures, he will automatically start using both hind legs evenly. This may not happen instantly but if the rider is consistent, it will happen quicker than you might imagine.

Bending either way then becomes easy and you can start with the real gymnastics of encouraging the horse to bend in his hindquarters - the hip, stifle and hock.

So, how do I bend the horse?

I love asking this question as most riders start talking about the leg because they don't want to pull the inside rein. Very noble if slightly misguided. You may, should, must use the reins to initiate a bend. You could have a fantastic inside leg but if the horse is gawking to the outside, it will be virtually useless, so first ask your horse to look to the inside. Do this by having both reins; hold the inside while slightly giving on the outside until the horse turns his head then, both reins even again, neutralise. By easing the outside rein forward the horse will give up/lengthen the outside of his body whereas actively pulling on the inside rein will result in him shortening the inside of his body - not very useful. (You can do this with your own head and neck. Starting from a straight head position, first draw one ear down to your shoulder and feel the effect. Then, after straightening again, try lengthening the opposite ear up to the sky and feel the difference) Then the position of the rider's seat and legs will confirm the bend. If you can't do this in halt without the horse moving it's whole body you are going to have a hard time doing it in the other gaits and you will find that the horse falls in or out depending on where his head is. This is where a little leg yield comes in handy so that the horse not only softens to the inside rein but also softens to the inside leg. I often find that riders seem to be struggling with the bend but in fact they are pulling on the outside rein to try to steer the horse into the corners thus making the horse look out and fall in more. The remedy is "bend in, squash out". As you become more adept with aligning your horse and influencing him through the seat and legs, the hand becomes a minor player in bending and the horse's neck becomes relatively straight as he becomes more able to bend in his ribs and hind quarters.

So when should I bend the horse and when should I keep him straight?

Difficult question! First, if your horse is looking to the outside, (and you are not deliberately counter bending him) you should ask him to look in and this is a rudimentary form of bending. If this results in him falling out through his outside shoulder, (circles and turns tend to drift outwards), you are probably bending his neck too much and he is probably bending from the withers rather than in the middle of his neck. In this case, you should straighten the neck, bend in the opposite direction until he becomes straight and his shoulders become steerable - this may feel like you are actively counter bending him. If he starts to fall in and make his turns and circles smaller than you had planned, then you need to bend a little more to the inside, "bend in, squash out" feeling. The same applies if he is straight but you feel like he is motor-biking around the corners and leaning in - bend him a little more and move him off the inside leg. This is why leg yielding is an essential exercise for both horse and rider. The horse has very little bend but moves away from the inside leg and guiding/steering becomes a little less hit or miss. If he is neither falling in or out and he is reaching evenly into both reins you can bend him as much as you like or as much as you are able to without losing control (steering) of the shoulders and the hindquarters. If smaller circles and more bend results in the horse's quarters or shoulders deviating from the circle line, you have asked more than the horse is capable of at that time. Make the exercise a little easier until he is more supple - 10m rather than 6m circles, shoulder fore rather than shoulder in.

Will bending get his head down?

Well yes, it will which is why so many people use the reins actively to "get the horse on the bit". Any manipulation with the head and neck is usually at the expense of another part of his anatomy (see Helen Davies report). A pleasing head carriage is only a very small piece of the jigsaw so having the head down, even if the reins feel light and soft and it looks quite pretty, is useless if you haven't got the whole horse. It is like putting new wall paper on a wall that has a huge crack in it. Erik is the only trainer I know that refuses to allow the riders to fiddle, wiggle, pull, milk, take and give, tweak, massage, call it what you will, to get the horse's head down. Every other trainer I have been to or seen will insist that the horse is "on the bit" irrespective of what the rest of the horse is doing and taking no account of the skill or lack of it, of the rider.

Having your horse in a "round outline" is the aim of all serious riders but having the head down is no guarantee that you have achieved this. A round horse that is truly on the bit always feels great to sit on whereas a horse that has had his head fiddled, wiggled, pulled, milked, tweaked, massaged into submission doesn't, but they can look very similar. When I first trained in Austria with John Lassetter on his beautiful Lippizanners I questioned why his pupils rode them in draw reins. His answer was that it would take far too long to teach the riders to ride the horse correctly on the bit so it was better for the horse?s backs if they were ridden in draw reins which prevented them from coming above the bit. He is right, it takes a long time to learn how to ride a horse correctly on the bit and it is impossible if the rider has not yet established a correct position! If you can't fulfil this basic requirement of a correct posture, you will be relying on your horse?s good nature to go well in spite of you rather than because of you.

(Watching Sally Tottle teach Alexander Technique many years ago convinced me that there is more to sitting correctly than just looking pretty. The horses, as if by magic, all started to carry themselves and go in a round outline without the riders even picking up the reins.)

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