Flexion and bend are sometimes mixed up and I often see riders trying to achieve flexion and bend the wrong way.
Why do you need flexion and bend?
Flexion and bend are good gymnastic exercises, and help to put your horse in balance and to straighten him. Also in lateral movements and for example collection you them. Flexion and bend are really part of the basic principles of horses’ training. The easier your horse does it, the finer he can perform exercises.
What is flexion?
Flexion is a bend of the horse’s neck just behind his ears. If your horse is flexed on the left rein, then as rider you can partly see his left eye and left nostril. The neck and the body of the horse are not bent. Your horse is moving on one track. This means that his back hooves are on the same track than his front hooves. So he walks nicely on one track with two traces. If your horse can nicely flex on both sides, he is then loose in his body.
Half-pass to the left
Half-pass to the right
What is bending?
There are three different types of bend. If your instructor is talking about bend, he usually means lateral bending.
Lateral bend is the bend of the entire spine of the horse to the left or right. Your horse can not bend everywhere as much. You can imagine that in the sacrum (made up of five fused vertebrae at his pelvis, just before his tail) bending is not possible. While at the cervical vertebrae (7 vertebrae, just like in humans) a high degree of bending is possible. Yet with bending we strive to bend the horse equally along the whole length. So the bend should follow a smooth line from his ears to his tail when looking at your horse from above. Bending therefore always includes flexion, while flexion does not necessarily include bending.
Upward bend is the bend that your horse is taking from behind his hindquarters up to his neck. The more advanced your horse is, the more he can bend upward. Your horse then moves ‘uphill’. His hindquarters drop, lightening the forehand, and your horse will come up from the withers, the poll being the highest point.
Bend in the joints is the third type of bend. This is mainly about the bend of the hind leg joints. The more the joints of the hind leg bend, the more the hindquarters drop, and the more weight the hindquarters will take over from the forehand. Bend in the joints is closely linked to the upward bent your horse is showing. Bend in the joints is needed for collection, for example for collected trot, passage and piaffe.
It is important to loosen both sides of the horse in the training. Flexion and bend should therefore go easily on both sides. Your horse has naturally, like you, a preferred side. Some horses bend more easily to the left, and other horses more easily to the right. Usually, the easy side for bending is the same as the easy side for flexing. But not always! Some horses exhibit a so-called ,S’ bend in the spine. As a rider you won’t always notice it, so it is important to let a good instructor look at it and guide you through the training.
In the picture here below you see a horse that is not straight. His hind legs do not exactly follow the track of his front legs. The hindquarters are placed slightly to the inside. This horse is not straight.
Horse is not straight
Horse tilts his head
If your horse tilts his head while riding, he can’t bend of flex. When het tilts his head, his nose may well be flexed but his neck end up showing the wrong way. The tilting of the head is a serious technical riding mistake that you can easily correct with proper guidance. This is to be solved by adjusting the rider’s riding technique.
How to ride with flexion?
You (usually) ask flexion by asking the horse with your inside hand to loosen his neck and jaw joint. If you do this well your horse will supple and flex. He won’t resist but will smoothly follow your (always staying) supple hand. Your horse flexes to the inside at the connection between head and neck.
How to ask your horse to bend?
The bend is obtained by an increased engagement of the horse’s inside hind leg. Thus your horse needs to be in front of your leg to be able to bend. By requesting more activity and further engagement of the inside hind leg, your horse will bend around your inside leg. Bending always includes a flexion that must be equal to the bending of the entire body.
Bending young horses
Young horses can learn to bend with simpler exercises like riding a big circle. The larger the circle, the less bending is asked. By decreasing the circle’s size, you are increasing the bend in the horse’s body.
Bending advanced horses
You can ask already more advanced horses to bend by using exercises like shoulder-in. To perform this exercise you will need first to activate the inside hind leg before bringing the shoulders to the inside in order to ensure lateral bending. Exercises that require a high degree of lateral, upward and joint bending are half-pass or a (work) pirouette for example.
The most common mistake is the confusion arising between flexion and bend.
Here an example to illustrate it: a young horse cantering has yet little balance on the circle. The rider feels that the horse is leaning to the inside instead of bending. The rider tries to bend the horse by doing half-halts with the inside rein.
The horse is going straight through the turn without bending
The solution: Bending is asked with your inside leg, flexion is asked with your inside rein. It therefore makes no sense to pull on the inside rein to remediate the improper balance of a young horse. Use your inside leg as a support point for your horse, do not lean out but help your horse to balance himself by working yourself at your balance and independent seat. Try to balance your horse on the circle in walk and trot and then try again in canter. Use the canter in your training as well but for example stay first on the main track and try from time to time on a large circle.
In short; flexion and bend are training concepts that are often confused. You need to use bend and flexion to supple and straighten your horse. Also in more advanced exercises like a higher degree of collection and lateral movements, flexion and bend are indispensable.
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