I was reading some articles lately that said "just bend your horse to the inside, but not too much." So I started to wonder if it wouldn’t be great if there were this magic beeper that went off when you had just the right amount of bend.
I know for example that in the right canter I have a tendency to ask for too much bend and end up blocking Batialo’s inside shoulder. On the other hand if I don’t ask enough bend in the right canter, then I feel him stiffen and become crooked. Added to all this is the fact that the amount of bend you need on one rein, is not necessarily, and typically not, the same amount that you need on the other rein, so that magic beeper would need to also know its left and right!
German trainer Jan Bemelmans explained that bending is a gymnastic exercise that helps set up the boundaries to have your horse in equal balance.
“If you bend too much it will be painful for your horse and he will go on the defence," said Bemelmans. "On the other hand, if you don't bend at all, nothing special will happen, but there will also be no gymnastic benefit.”
So how do we know how much bend is the right amount? Jan advises that the right amount of bending is a question of experience and we must always remember that bending is nothing without straightness, and vice versa.
“You feel first the straightness, you feel which is the crooked and with is the stiff side of each horse, and then you bend a bit more the stiff side to bring your horse in balance," he said.
The key thing to remember, though, is that the work on straightness is a never ending journey, that must be thought about and corrected every day. “Always thinking about "scala Der ausbildung “, that bending and straightness should always go together," Bemelmans added.
Kyra Kyrkland explained that the true purpose of bending is to make the horse equally supple and in balance to the right and to the left.
“First of all you have to know what bending is,” said Kyra. “Bending means lateral bending through the whole body of the horse. If you draw a centerline through the neck and vertebra, that should equal the line you ride on. Hndlegs follow the same track as the front legs both on straight lines and on curved lines, except in work on two tracks of course. So the bending of the horse depends on how much bend there is on the line. For example a 10 m circle demands less bending than a 6 m circle.”
When riders are not aware of the true meaning of bending, Kyra notes that a frequent fault is seen where the neck bends too much while the body stays straight.
“Also an important thing to remember is that flexion is different from bending, as flexion happens only in the neck while the body stays straight. As a loosening and relaxing exercise in training, a rider can bend and stretch the neck more, while the body remains straight, helping to create a more supple horse, and set up the gymnastic potential for true bending in the exercises," Kyrklund stated.
Kyra added that too much or too little bend is equally bad, and typically occurs because the horse is weaker one way and stronger the other way.
“People often tend to "work" the harder (stronger) side more, to get them "loose" on that side instead of working on getting a better connection on the weak side. For example, If I am stronger in my right leg I don’t go to the gym to work on my right leg, instead I try to make my left leg stronger.”
In order to tell whether or not the rider is applying bend in the right way and to the right degree, Kyra looks at the track that the hind and front legs are taking and see if they follow each other. She also inspects the bend of the neck, searching for that "centerline" through the neck and the back, that has to equal the bent line. Kyra is then very quick to tell the rider when it is right.
“In that way they learn to feel what the body and legs of the horse are doing," she said.
If you feel that you do not have the correct amount of bend, there are a few things to look out for as a rider, that may be limiting your capacity to achieve that link between bending and straightness.
Classical dressage trainer Sylvia Loch says the horse cannot possibly bend correctly unless your inside leg is in the correct place, i.e. at the girth, and that you are allowing your weight to drop down your inside seat bone so the horse is encouraged to bend into it.
“One has to make sure that ones student does not use their inside hand in a backward way to ask for bend. Flexion on the other hand must be obtained through a very light, asking inside rein, which once achieved should result in the horse being lighter on that rein generally," Loch explained.
Bending is the whole body curve that you create around your inside leg, while flexion is the subtle loosening in the neck.
Very simply put: bending is achieved through the gymnastic work of the body of the horse, that must focus on working the stiffer or weaker side of the horse, and when used to the right degree will help to correct the natural crookedness and thus achieve straightness. Flexion is the relaxation of the neck, through the subtle and elastic rein aid, that must know when to ask and when to release, in order to reach suppleness.