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Question Category: Riding Skills

I rode the “easy going, chubby” dun in your clinic at Double K Stables in Somerset PA in August. I came away with so much good information that was so easy for me to understand and want to thank you for that. I’ve taken lessons off and on for the past 10 years and never understood heels down and shoulders back – but I do now!! My horse also thanks you. I am still not understanding “bending” though. I like to ride western – and I do understand that there shouldn’t be any difference regarding what kind of saddle or bit you use – except that both of the instructors at our barn teach English with so much contact on the bit that I just can’t or maybe don’t want to get it. Can you help me out with this? I will tell you that I had a lesson yesterday and the instructor finally got on Duke to see what I was feeling and she said that he bends like a board! He’s 15 and has never really been asked to do much more than go straight down the trail.

Thanks, KC


KC, Glad to hear you enjoyed the clinic and got something out of it. Bending is not really that complicated of a theory. If you imagine a line that goes from your horse’s poll (right between his ears) all the way to his tail, this is the line that we refer to in bending or arcing; the line of your horse’s spine. When your horse is turning, that line should be arced exactly in the same curve as the turn or circle that you’re on. The smaller the circle, the more this line is bending or arcing. In order to bend correctly, your horse’s nose must be pointed into the turn and his inside shoulder must be lifted as his ribcage flexes toward the outside of the circle. If you’re sitting up straight in a chair and slowly turn your head and look up and over your shoulder, you should feel that your inside shoulder elevates slightly and your torso swivels. This is the same thing that happens to your horse’s shoulders, the inside shoulder elevates and the outside shoulder drops slightly. If your horse does not arc his turn, then he drops his shoulder and leans into the turn just like what happens when you turn a bicycle. We don’t want him to do this when we are riding because he is too top heavy with our weight up on top and when he drops his shoulder and leans into the turn, he will rush through the turn in order to maintain his balance. That is a very uncomfortable and out of balance turn. Now let’s look at how to encourage your horse to arc his turns. The first thing to consider is your position. What I see most people do when they want your horse to turn is to pull down and back on the inside rein and the rider drops her inside shoulder and leans into the turn. All of those things contribute to make your horse drops his shoulder (his body will always mimic yours), brace his neck (like a board) and resist arcing or bending. Instead, make sure that you’re sitting very tall, centered over your horse’s spine and that you turn your eyes, shoulders and arms together, lifting slightly up on the inside rein and not pulling on the outside rein. Your weight should naturally shift to your outside seat bone when your horse arcs in his back. If you lean into the turn, you’re blocking your horse from lifting his inside shoulder and preventing him from bending. Your horse will never bend as long as there’s a brace in his neck. When your horse’s neck feels like there’s a metal rod running down each side of his neck, he is bracing in defense of his mouth. This comes from riding with too much contact, not enough feel in your hands and from pulling on both reins at the same time. To get rid of the brace in a horse’s neck is difficult to explain in writing, but you need to work on not pulling on both reins at the same time and learn to lift up on the reins rather than pulling back. Pulling back on the reins interferes with your horse’s forward motion. When I am working to get rid of the brace in a horse’s neck, I will make my outside rein totally loose, then reach forward and lift up on the inside rein in a gentle pulsating motion like gigging a fishing line. I know from experience that most riders have a great deal of difficulty not pulling back on the rein because it’s so programmed into them, but you want to gently and rhythmically pluck up on the rein, with your hand out to the side. You do not want to take a steady pull on the rein, which is what causes the brace. When you gig the reins, there’s an instantaneous release and your horse needs that. Continue gigging until your horse’s nose comes in and he bends way back in his neck by his withers. Then release and rub him on the neck. Again, lifting up on the rein is the secret to getting a horse to bend in his neck and shoulder, not pulling back. Also, make sure that your outside rein is not interfering with your horse’s effort to bend. I cannot expect him to flex his nose to one side if when he does, the outside reins hits his mouth. Later on, when both you and your horse are better trained, you may begin to use the outside rein again to support your horse in the turn, but for now, it will only frustrate your horse and create more brace in his neck. Many bracing problems are caused by too much contact on the outside rein; think about how little sense it would make to a horse trying to bend, to have you pull on the outside rein when he does. Although I grew up riding English with a strong classical training, I am not a big believer in riding on contact all of the time. I do not think that green horses or green riders should be ridden on contact. Both need to learn to balance themselves first without the support or interference of the reins. Contact should not be used until it can be soft and meaningful contact and that take a lot of time to develop. Therefore, all of the work that I detailed above should be done on a loose rein so that your horse is very relaxed in his neck and body. My guess is that the brace in your horse’s neck came from the contact; it’s his best defense mechanism to protect his mouth from confusing or meaningless contact. Your weight and legs are also very important in bending, although it’s probably your hands that have caused the problem. There are some articles on my website about how to use all of your aids together in the turn, but basically, as you swivel your body in the turn, looking with your eyes and opening with your shoulders, that swivel should go all the way into your seat. When it does, your inside leg will naturally move forward toward the girth while your outside leg will drop back and down as your weight shifts into the outside stirrup. The inside leg is known as the bending leg and it helps keep your horse’s shoulder elevated and give your horse a point to arc around. The outside leg gives your horse direction (he moves away from pressure) and keeps your horse’s hip and ribcage in place. I hope this helps you get a better understanding of bending and how to accomplish it. My videos on the principles of riding explain bending and how you accomplish it quite well. They also have exercises for you to do on the ground to help you get a better understanding of the balance and feel of the turn and how you use your aids correctly.
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician