Riding through a bend is something you will have to do every time you get in the saddle, whether it be the 4 corners of your arena or just the route you take to get from point A to point B. It therefore makes good sense to work on your ability to navigate those bends successfully, without losing balance, rhythm, energy and focus each time you encounter a bend.
Riding a bend correctly will result in your horse having an equal bend throughout his body, resulting in the energy continuously being directed where you want it to go; forwards, and not out being lost anywhere along the arc from tail to poll.
A good way of ‘seeing’ this equal bend, so you can visualize using your aids, is to think of a whip or stick being held at each end with your two hands. Now, imagine closing your hands closer together… If you use equal pressure from both hands on each side and gently ‘feel’ to make sure you are balancing that pressure and not overexerting the whip, the whip will have an equal bend all the way through.
Now (without snapping your whip!) imagine what would happen if you pushed too hard or too much with one hand or the other, or try to force or ‘fix’ the bend; the whip would snap, leaving you with two straight lines with a break in the middle. This is similar to what happens to the line from poll to tail on your horses back; often by applying too much of one or the other aid (usually hand), the result is a straight line from poll to withers and then another straight line from withers to tail, with a ‘break’ at the withers or shoulder where all the energy has fallen out of.
Riding your horse correctly around a bend requires a balance of aids from you, which will allow your horse to navigate the bend to the best of his ability. You cannot force him and you cannot fix him. Your job as the rider to is guide him around the bend so he remains in balance and moving forward.
When you horse rounds the bend correctly, his inside back hoof will stay on the track created by his inside front hoof, and the same applies to the outside legs, almost like train tracks, remaining parallel to each other around a turn or bend.
In order for this to happen the horse must lengthen or stretch of one side (the outside) of the body, rather than a shortening of the inside. Your aids will ask him to do this, however before we can discuss the aids, we must first become clear on the terms Inside and Outside with relation to riding and bending.
Often when we are learning what is the inside leg or what is the outside rein, the instructor will use the analogy of a circle or the arena wall itself to demonstrate and when you are initially learning to ride, this generally holds true.
However, as you begin to ride more complex movements, such as counter canter or leg yielding, the issue of inside and outside changes from where you are in the arena or what shape you are riding, to what way your horse is bending.
This is the true meaning of inside and outside, the inside being the leg, hand and seat on the concave side of the horse, depending on which direction or way he is bent. The outside being the opposite of the above on the convex side of the horse.
So once you have decided which way you are going to bend your horse, begin by shifting your inside seat bone slightly more forward than your outside seat bone. In doing so, you will feel that your inside seatbone is now a little more ‘weighted’ as well. Make sure you are not leaning towards the inside with your upper body; this will have the opposite effect and ‘push’ your weight to the outside of the saddle.
Your inside leg is applied on or at the girth. This will help you continue to create forward energy and gives your horse something to bend around, rather than falling in and sideways. In fact I have found it helpful to get my riders to think of their inside leg as a pole that their horse must bend around. It helps visualise the bend, but it also helps to ensure that they are using their outside leg aid as well.
When riding on a bend, your outside leg will move back slightly in order to control the hind quarters and, in particular, make sure they don’t swing out around the bend. This is often evident on circles and when it happens the horse is no longer following the ‘train tracks’ that his front legs are creating.
Your inside hand is used to indicate to your horse that you are asking for the turn, using a combination of arm, hand, wrist and fingers. Very often riders will use only their inside hand to turn, and just like the whip analogy we spoke of earlier, using too much pressure from one aid will result in the ‘break’ of the arc and the energy falling out. The use of the inside hand is very subtle and can be thought of as more of an indicator, rather than what actually bends your horse.
Finally, your outside hand prevents your horse from over bending and helps to hold the forward energy created by your inside leg together. Unfortunately a lot of riders forget about their outside hand when turning, however it is vitally important in holding everything together as you and your horse navigate a turn or bend.
I suggest beginning by practicing first in halt. Adjust your position to where you would if you were to ask for a bend while riding. Notice how easy it is for you to move in and out of this. Keep in mind that the movement should be fluid and that if you are having to really struggle to ‘hold’ something, you may in fact be over doing it. You are only making small subtle movements that your horse will pick up on and respond accordingly.
Once you are clear about how to ask your horse to bend one way or the other, you can ask for walk and whether you choose to walk large around the arena or begin to ride some different school figures, begin assessing how your horse bends and how you are using your aids to ask him and then ride him through the bend.
Notice if you are perhaps dropping your inside shoulder? Or maybe you are completely forgetting about your outside hand or leg. Keep working on this in walk until it becomes second nature to you to ‘bend’ your horse around each and every turn, rather than use your inside hand to drag him around!
From there you can begin to work in trot, where you may find that your horse falls in around the corners, or that the hind quarters are more likely to swing out rather than following the front end. Notice it and then, begin by correcting your position and aids. See what effect this has on your horse and work from there.
Keep in mind that your horse may experience some stiffness on one side compared to the other. If you experience this, create a plan for your ride that will incorporate a slight increase of work on that side, however slight is the key word here. This will, with correct training, be corrected over time with consistent, correct riding and work.