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Sometimes I think bend is one of those "strive but never arrive" efforts of horse riding. It truly is one of those "conceptual" aspects, aside from just being a skill. You know the one - just when you think you know it all, you discover that there's so much more to it. Then you start all over as if you're still a beginner...
There is a good exercise you can always revert to which will help you establish, keep, and ultimately feel a true "through the body bend." Not the one that just pulls the horse's head and neck into the turn or circle, but one that helps him bend through the rib cage and step deeper underneath the body with his inside hind leg. The one that improves balance, releases tension and increases lateral suppleness.
You can use this exercise with a young or uneducated horse, a novice rider, or even a seasoned horse/rider going through stiffness at a higher level of movement. It's just basic and biomechanically easy to produce. It's called a leg yield on a circle, but I think of it as a "drift out" because I find that gives me a clear mental image to keep in mind.
- Ride a circle - but place it in an area where you can have room to the outside.
- Squeeze with your inside leg at the girth. Make sure you're sitting on your inside seat bone - but let the horse "escape" a little to the outside.
- Your outside leg is behind the girth to keep the hip from swinging out.
- Your inside rein is slightly open and your outside rein is on the neck - as in, a "neck rein."
- Your body is turned slightly into the turn as well - from the seat all the way up. This helps to keep you balanced on top of the horse's movement.
- Then encourage your horse to step out on the circle. Let him drift out a little, all the while getting him to step away from your inside leg and rein, and step into your outside leg and rein.
If you do it well, you'll find that your outside rein "naturally" lands on the horse's neck. That is, you don't have to place it there with a pulling or active rein. Suddenly, there's a neck rein - because the horse actually stepped out and bent through the body.
That outside rein can now control the direction of your movement (as in, the horse steps away from it into the turn), the amount of drift (as in, don't let the horse just drift on out till he hits the rail) and the balance (as in, half-halt if needed to slow the legs down and keep them underneath the horse).
I've written about this and other exercises in more detail in the posts below. If bend is something you're working on, there's lots of ideas there. Let me know if this helps you find a better bend in the comments below.
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Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success
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4 Steps To Help Your Horse Through A Turn: I’m sure you’ve seen it before – there are many situations where a horse turns too abruptly, unbalancing himself and also the rider. Most often, the rider hangs on but other times, she might be unseated, losing balance, stirrups and/or seat.
Why you Don't Want To Pull On The Inside Rein - And What To Do Instead: There is one other consequence to pulling on that inside rein that has little to do with turning.
What Bend Really Means: Although it's not possible for the horse to actually bend his spine (the way you see in drawings showing a horse along an arc of a circle), the horse can bring both his hind end and his front end "in" (toward the inside of the circle).
What Is A Neck Bend? And What To Do About It: Have you seen a horse doing the neck bend? Maybe you do it unintentionally, thinking that it "feels right".
Bend: How To Drift Out On Purpose: There is a time that it is perfectly fine, or almost advisable, for you to allow the horse to drift to the outside, seemingly contradicting all rational reasoning.
"Inside Leg To Outside Rein" - The Cheat Sheet: To gain a true understanding, and to begin to train your body, you may need more information in order to develop the ability to make it all happen in one movement. So let's break it down.