Dressage is made up of simple elements that are tested with greater and greater difficulty as the horse and rider partnership moves up the levels. Today we will be discussing one of these elements: the bending line, created by you, the rider. You cannot escape the bending line – it begins immediately in Introductory Level Test A with the twenty meter circle. You will then progress from twenty meter circles to fifteen, to ten, to voltes and then finally pirouettes. Lateral work such as the shoulder in, haunches in and half pass have their foundation in this as well. Some of these movements are asked for at walk, some at trot and some at canter. But even if you decided to never ride a formal test in your life, the bending line is inescapable, with the corners of the ring forcing you to create at least four of them at each pass.
Naturally very few horses create a bending line in the manner of which we will speak. From an evolutionary standpoint they have learned that flexing outward while galloping in a curved line away from whatever would like to eat them heightens their chances of not ending up in that creature’s stomach. Think about it, when was the last time your horse spooked toward the thing that was scaring him or her? It is that mentality that leads the horse to naturally want to bend outward along a line of travel. But for us to create that supple and gymnasticized partner then we must teach them to bend with the line of travel. To be clear, when I say bend I am not referencing only the head and neck. I am speaking of shaping the horse’s body to the curved line of your choosing.
First we must ask, how is the horse shaped when it is properly traveling on a curved line? Well, a picture is worth a thousand words and in that spirit I have taken pen to paper and drawn that Mona Lisa of an illustration to the left to help explain. All quadruped animals must move in the same way to allow for the bend through their bodies, be it human babies, cats, horses or you crawling on the ground looking for that contact lens. It is your shoulders which indicate the direction of movement while your ribs yield and hips angle to accommodate. If you were crawling in a small circle, you would feel your shoulders turning more and your ribs angling in the direction of the turn more. Behind all of that your legs would still be moving left and right, without criss-crossing. Give it a go! Your family most likely thinks you’re crazy anyway! These rules apply with horses as well. That is why in the judging manual it is frowned upon to see a horse crossing his legs behind when moving on a circle. That horse is not on a correct bending line, rather the rider is pushing that horse’s haunches outward, fishtailing them if you will, and artificially creating that crossing leg. Think about it, when have you seen a crawling baby cross its legs while turning? It must obey the same mechanics as its horsey friends until it learns how to walk and forgets all about its times as a four legged creature.
As I stated at the beginning, the horse is shaped in the bending line by you, the rider. And this is the beauty of true riding, one of the many things that makes me so passionate about this sport and horses themselves. The beauty of the bending line is that your body creates the effect that you wish your horse to mirror! Take a look at my drawing once again. Notice the red diagonal lines that indicate the horses hip angle and shoulder angle. In order to shape the horse on a curved line, your hips must match the angle of travel you wish your horse to create, and your shoulders must indicate where you expect your horse to go next. You have heard the old trope of “inside leg at the girth, outside leg behind the girth” – well this is true but it begins with the hips. Along a curved line your inside hip and leg are toward the girth while the outside leg and hip move slightly behind the girth to regulate the haunch. I say slightly because if you are a good student then you might go out to the ring tomorrow and start trying to ‘walk like an Egyptian (wayyy ooooo wayyy oooo)’.
YOUR shoulders regulate the horse’s shoulders, YOUR inside hip at the girth regulates the horse’s rib cage flexion, allowing the horse’s inside hip to come forward and YOUR outside hip regulates the horse’s outside hip and leg to prevent it from swinging outward. Isn’t that spectacular? Isn’t that amazing?! This is true of all movements to a certain extent and why true understanding and harmony is possible between a horse and rider partnership “speaking” the same language as it were.
In the front of this mechanism is the head and neck, which are maintained in a steady contact. Of course you would like your horse to bend his head and next in the direction of travel as well, and to do so you simply take the amount of bend required on the inside rein while giving that same amount on the outside rein with equal contact in both reins. The outside rein is the regulating rein in that it must decide how much to allow (aka allow equal to what the inside took). Too little and the horse is counter flexed, too much and the outside shoulder will suddenly head out in search of its spirit animal. That is also the reason that it is important, when creating bend, to never travel with the horse’s head beyond its shoulder.You will then be sure to lose the outside shoulder as a horse can bend his neck at extreme angles without ever having to change the body itself. Some of you may know the feeling of pulling hard on the inside rein to turn a horse and watching, bewildered, as the horse’s head turns right while its body continues to gallop merrily onward. All movements, even movements at Grand Prix at extreme angles, will never ask for bend beyond the horse’s shoulders. You must always keep your horse’s head between its two shoulders and then ride the shoulders and haunches into that lovely curved shape. The best part comes when the horse is truly yielding from your inside hip and respecting your outside hip, you will be able to drop the inside rein and have bend maintain itself all off of your seat. This bending mechanism is the source of that old dressage trope ‘inside leg to outside rein’.
That is the way to turn a horse.