How Does Bending Improve Straightness?

Recently I`ve been working a lot on flexion and improving my rider`s awareness of the straightness of their horse`s body.

Yesterday there was a scattering of snow on the ground so I took the opportunity to focus her attention on her walk work. After stretching her horse on a long rein and moving the walk on, and bringing it back with her seat she picked up the contact and started riding a twenty metre circle.

On the circle I asked her to think about where her horse`s legs were. The hind legs and the forelegs, in relation to his spine and head and neck. Initially I wanted her to assess if the inside hind leg was following the track of the inside foreleg, and not to the inside or outside. I then asked her to think about the relationship between his head and his forelegs/shoulder. The head should be central, and not to one side or the other.

Now I talked to my client about the bend in her horse`s body. When you teach someone the basics they very often have to be able to see their results in order to learn the aids and theory. This can lead to horses bending too much in front of the saddle, which is what the rider can see. I explained to my client that she needs to think about the bend her horse has on the circle in terms of the horse`s whole body. The bend of the horse`s body starts at the inside hindleg and curves up through the rib cage and through the shoulders, neck and poll. The bend should be uniform through the body, which meant that she needed to think about having less neck bend and feeling her horse`s barrel flex slightly more.

Once my client had established this feeling and the correct degree of bend I asked her to ride counter flexion for half of the circle, before straightening up and riding with correct flexion around the circle. Now, counter flexion is often achieved by people opening the outside rein and bending their horse`s neck to the outside, whilst the rest of the body continues bending to the inside. However, I asked my rider to think about the counter bend coming from the outside hind leg, curving up to the poll, and to think about her body position and weight distribution. Then, the horse started to flex to the outside and his walk slowed as he concentrated on keeping his balance.

Upon returning to correct flexion my rider had to adjust her seat, and allow her outside hip to release forwards, thus allowing the horse to flex through his rib cage and create a uniform bend through his body. After riding a few transitions from counter to true flexion my rider started to feel that she could position her horse`s body, and influence every element of it so that he was straight. Now, I don`t mean straight as a ruler, but I mean straight on the curve of the circle – moving on two tracks with a uniform bend, rather than with an over bend in the neck, and the outside shoulder falling out, causing the ribs to be inflexible and the hindlegs to trail behind the front legs.

Once my rider had practised this on both reins she found she had a very consistent and even contact and the walk was very balanced and correct. The tracks made in the snowy arena showed that her circle was incredibly round. We rode the same exercise in trot, and the first trot was very nice – the horse was taking the contact forwards, working over his back, and stepping under with his inside hind leg to create a uniform bend through his body. Soon the counter flexion was ridden in the same rhythm as the true flexion, with a smooth transition between the two.

With the feeling that she could position her horse easily I asked my rider to try alternating between shoulder-in and travers on the circle. In shoulder in, the hind legs should continue around the original circle, and the forehand come into the inner track. With her heightened awareness of his limb distribution this was easily achieved. In the travers, it is the forelegs which stay on the original circle and the hindquarters come onto the inner track. Again, this was ridden in walk and trot before finishing off with some lovely, straight work from both horse and rider.

The snow gave us the opportunity to focus on the slow work, which often gets overlooked, and when my rider thought about uniformly bending and suppling her horse in both directions on the same rein his muscles stretched and warmed up evenly, which produced a straight horse.

In the horses that I school I have also been working on counter flexion whilst warming them up to help loosen them up evenly and creating a more symmetrical horse. I read an article a couple of weeks ago which described how a horse`s stiffness may not be due to muscle stiffness on the “stiff side” but rather the difficulty in lengthening the muscles on the opposing side have. This makes perfect sense, so I have been taking this on board when I feel a horse is stiffer on one rein. Riding counter flexion on the good rein helps to stretch the stiffer muscles more gently than struggling to maintain correct bend on the stiffer rein. Once the horse has warmed up with counter flexion they will find the stiff rein much easier.

Counter flexion is also very beneficial for improving the canter, but I`ll explain how I`ve been using that for another horse, another time.