Bending and Suppleness- The Eternal Challenge

How do we make the horse more supple? Ah, the eternal challenge.

After all, if the horse is not supple and soft to our aids, then he cannot respond lightly. If he is not flexible, then he cannot soften over and through his topline and respond quickly, softly, and beautifully to our requests for more advanced work (lateral work, collection, and the type).

This is why those basics are so important. This is why you must school the basics everyday.

My trainer will check in with me periodically throughout our sessions to ask me: Can you bend him both ways? Can you deepen his bend? If yes, then he is ready to perform the next challenge of our ride, if no, then we need to work our basics more.

So, I came up with a fun exercise the other day to work towards improving our basic bend. This is a bit of a more advanced exercise, but, if you are at a very basic level, this is a great exercise to strive towards when trying to improve the “bend-ability” of your lovely dance partner. I liked this exercise because it stemmed from difficulties with bending deeply enough in our canter work (big surprise, if you read our last post!… or not.) If you cannot perform a movement at the walk, then you cannot perform it at the trot… if you cannot perform a movement at the trot, then you cannot perform it at the canter… you get the idea.

Well, Aragorn happens to be quite flexible (MOST of the time) at our walk and trot. But, we still struggle with correct bend at the canter. Like I said in my last post, I believe this to be more a strength issue than anything else. But, the way to strengthen the muscles needed to maintain a more balanced, correct, and collected canter with nice bend and effective half halt responses, is to work the trot: lots of changes in bend, changing the gait (shorten and lengthen stride, stretching at the trot and collecting at the trot, transitions between gaits, etc.), riding figures, directional changes, hill work, etc.

Well, we were having some troubles with the canter the other day and Aragorn was actually getting quite upset with the work and I was becoming frustrated with him. So, I backed off to work the trot and focus on some bending and counter-bend at the trot (I am not a proponent of pushing through when there is already major frustration; I want my horse to be HAPPY to do the work!) and I came up with this fun exercise below. By the end of the ride, he was bending softly and easily to both directions and able to bend as deeply as I wanted him to, and we finished on a positively wonderful note!


Here’s how I rode this exercise (see my roughly drawn diagram below):

  1. Start tracking right, establishing a good forward freely moving walk or trot (I started at the trot and, if you and your dance partner feel comfortable beginning this exercise at the trot, then go ahead and do so!). Your horse should feel a bit “swingy” through the back and hips at the walk and through the hips and shoulders at the trot, and your contact should be even between both reins. Your inside (right) leg should be softly at the girth with your outside leg just behind the girth. Your inside rein asking for a clear inside bend with a gently sponging of the rein as needed, with your outside rein controlling the shoulder and preventing over-bend with a clear, consistent contact.
  2. Use the corner between C and M to deepen your bend. Actually seek to over-bend a bit through the corner and establish a good connection or just reaffirm your connection as you prepare to change across the short diagonal.
  3. Change rein M to E maintaining a right directional bend the entire way. So, keep your aids consistent and employ the use of a clear inside-leg-to-outside-rein connection (right leg to left rein). Take your time with this, after all, most likely, you’ve ridden this figure with a change of bend over the centerline to a left bend in the past, but you don’t want to do that here!
  4. Maintain a counter-bend (right bend) E to K. Be sure to keep that clear connection from your right leg to left rein. If your horse attempts to change his bend to the left, open up your right rein and remind him with a firm inside calf at the girth that you want him bent to the right!
  5. At K, change to a left bend, the correct bend for this direction. You’re going to want to be clear in your half halts and take your time in adjusting your aids to be sure there is no confusion to the horse. If, at first, you are struggling with changing the bend, slow down! Even halt, if you have to, and ask for a change of bend at the halt and then walk on from there.
  6. Ride K-A-F on a left bend and use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend. Mentally prepare yourself and prepare your horse for the second half of this exercise as you approach F. Use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend and reaffirm your connection like you did in step 2 above. You should have a nice connection from your new inside leg (left leg) to your new outside rein (right rein).
  7. Change rein F to E maintaining a left directional bend the entire way. Again, keep your aids consistent and employ the use of a clear inside-leg-to-outside-rein connection (left leg to right rein). Remember: don’t change bend as you cross over the centerline keep your left directional bend!
  8. Maintain a counter-bend (left bend) E to H. Remember: if your horse attempts to change his bend to the right, open up your left rein and remind him with a firm inside leg at the girth that you want him bent to the left!
  9. At H, change to a right bend, the correct bend for this direction. Again, be clear with your half halts to balance, soften and prepare your horse for the bend change! It’s okay to halt or slow down to change the bend, but coming to the corner between H and C will really help your horse want to naturally change the bend.
bending exercise
1. Start tracking right, establishing a good forward freely moving walk or trot. 2. Use the corner between C and M to deepen your bend. 3. Change rein M to E maintaining a right directional bend the entire way. 4. Maintain a counter-bend (right bend) E to K.  5. At K, change to a left bend, the correct bend for this direction. 6. Ride K-A-F on a left bend and use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend. 7. Change rein F to E maintaining a left directional bend the entire way. 8. Maintain a counter-bend (left bend) E to H. 9. At H, change to a right bend, the correct bend for this direction.

Aragorn’s take on this exercise: he loved it! It was not too hard, so he did not become frustrated, but it was not too easy as it kept his interest and he had to stay quite focused on me to see which way he should be bending. After riding this through just 3-4 times at the trot, he was much more balanced, he became quite soft to my aids, and he was softly chewing the bit and slobbering up a storm! We finished up our ride with lots of circles and figure-eights in a stretchy trot and we finished our ride feeling quite successful. Such a difference from the tense, frustrated horse I had during our canter work that day.


So, as this exercise becomes easier and easier here are some ideas for increasing the challenge:

  1. Try it at the canter! That change of bend at K and H will become quite difficult if you don’t use your half halts effectively to truly balance and deepen your level of collection. As the rider, you will really need to sit into your horse as deep as you can get while maintaining that softness through your seat and hands to allow the horse to swing through his topline to come through a change of bend nicely.
  2. Add transitions at A, C, and even the centerline. If you’re doing the exercise at the trot, either walk or halt at each of those letters while maintaining a bend in the desired direction. If you’re walking, try halting at those letters being careful not to lose your bend. If doing this at the canter, you can really increase the challenge with a trot, walk, or halt transition.
  3. Add a 10 meter circle at A or C within the same gait.
  4. Add a 15 or 20 meter circle at A or C and do some lengthenings within the same gait, particularly as you come over the centerline near L or I. Just a stride or two can greatly improve your connection and balance.

So, try this exercise out and let me know how it went: What was easy? What did you struggle with? How did your horse feel? Did you feel a difference in the quality of your bend, in the lightness of your connection, in your horse’s way of going? Did you try a different variation of this exercise that you’d like to share? Please comment!

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