Q: I am unclear. Can someone explain the best way to bend a horse?
—Leo Hutchinson of Carrolton, Texas
A: It’s important to understand the definition of “bend” before you actually try doing it. Many novice riders may think that to bend their horse means moving the horse’s neck and head solely from the reins. This is an incorrect assumption but an easy one to make.
Correct bending of a horse refers to the lateral curvature of the horse’s body from poll to tail. In a correct bend, the horse should bend along his whole body with his rib cage swinging outward and his jaw flexed in the direction he is moving. In an attempt to avoid bending, many horses will swing their haunches out when asked to bend, making it important for a rider to be prepared with a solid outside leg slightly back and on. This use of the outside aids, in turn, helps keep the haunches in alignment with the shoulders and the horse straight on the line he is traveling.
Using the correct aids to bend a horse, a rider should accomplish the following:
• Putting more weight on your inside seat bone and moving your inside hip slightly forward allows the horse to bend more easily. You want your horse’s ribcage to feel as if it is yielding away from the inside leg while your outside leg keeps his hips from swinging out.
• Lengthening your leg down and around the inside of your horse by relaxing the inner thigh and dropping weight into the heel will support the bend as well.
• Keeping the outside leg slightly back to wrap the hindquarters around the inside driving/supporting leg helps to avoid the haunches-out scenario described earlier.
• The outside rein will keep the horse’s shoulders straight with his hindquarters and the inside rein will keep his head, neck and jaw positioned correctly in a flexion to the inside.
• Yield the outside rein forward while you shorten the inside rein slightly to create flexion (only enough to see the horse’s inside eye) and allow the horse to be in the right rein contact. If you have overbent the neck, your horse will lose straightness and balance and fall over his outside shoulder, making it more difficult to turn. Use your wrist to ask the horse to follow the flexion and have the feeling that the outside rein is longer, even though the reins are the same.
As you use all of these aids together, your horse should stretch into the outside rein in an attempt to fill up that contact, lengthen the outside of his body and arc his neck toward the inside. If your horse does not stretch in this manner, he is not accepting the driving/supporting inside leg, which is the dominant aid that allows him to properly connect to the outside rein.
The rein contact should feel the same as it does when the horse is traveling in a straight line. If he is too heavy on the inside rein, soften your inside hand and use more inside leg and seat instead. You want the horse to take up more of the outside rein for a proper bend. If your horse is too heavy on the outside rein, it could indicate that his neck is overbent and he is falling through your outside aids and has lost straightness or that you are using too much inside leg and are pushing him out of balance.
The success of the proper bend relies solely on the rider’s ability to flex the horse around the inside leg and maintain the straightness of his shoulders and haunches with the outside aids.
Rita Brown is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist and is a graduate of the USDF “L” Education Program. She has a degree in animal science from the University of Massachusetts and is the head trainer at Longmeadow Farm in Scituate, Massachusetts (longmeadowdressage.com).