“Bend your horse around your inside leg”. I'm sure you have heard this countless times, just as I have. What your instructor has asked of you is to bend your horse evenly from nose to tail around your inside leg.
Overall bend in the horse is explained as follows, according to official theory:
“The term 'overall bend' is used when a horse is bent throughout its whole longitudinal axis, the whole length of its spine.” (The Principles of Riding, page 88).
On the same page the explanation continues:
“A rider must avoid asking for too much bend of the head and the neck and must focus on correct costal flexion around his inside leg”.
There is, however, one major point missing in the official theory and that is the anatomy of the horse's spine. As explained in Twisted Truths Of Modern Dressage by Philippe Karl, most parts of the horse's spine have a very limited capacity for lateral bending. Specifically:
- the five sacral vertebrae are welded together (the sacrum) = no lateral bending
- the parts of the spine that make up the withers are strongly linked together by supra-spinal ligaments connecting the spinal apophyses, and also each vertebra are linked to the sternum via the sternal ribs = no lateral bending
There are few examples of photos showing a bird's eye view of horses performing a circle, volte or lateral movements in which, according to the official theory, the horse should have an equal overall bend from nose to tail. There are, however, photos of Harry Boldt, a German dressage rider and Olympic gold medal winner in the 60's and 70's, showing shoulder in where you can clearly see that the horse's spine is straight between the tail and the withers. Only the neck is bent, creating the movement we call shoulder in (photo from www.artisticdressage.com).
So what can I as a rider know for sure when riding a horse on a circle?
- I can know in what direction the horse is looking (into the circle or to the outside) or if the horse is straight in the neck.
- I can know if the horse is “falling” in the direction of motion by overloading the inside front leg (usually the horse turns faster and tighter than you asked for if this is the case)
- I can know if the horse is “falling” to the outside by overloading the outside front leg (usually when this is the case the horse will bend more in the neck than you asked for)
- I can know if the horse's croup is to the inside (the horse's hind feel are moving on a smaller circle than the front feet)
- I can know if the horse's croup is to the outside (the horse's hind feet are moving on a larger circle than the front feet).
In my experience none of these problems can be solved by the rider simply pushing more with the inside leg. More efficient solutions require noticing the causes of deviations from the ideal:
1 has to do with how well the horse follows the bit (flexions)
2 and 3 have to do with where the horse has its weight and how you as the rider influence the weight distribution by the correct use of your hand (direct and indirect rein, and figure 8).
4 and 5 have to do with a combination of how well the horse follows the bit (#1), if the horse can maintain a desired weight distribution (2 and 3) as well as if the horse can maintain an equal use of both hind legs.
When you have educated your horse's mouth so that she stays light in hand with an equal contact on both reins and moves on the circle without increasing or decreasing it and maintains an equal use of both hind legs, I would suggest it then feels like the horse is bent around your inside leg. This feeling is a result of a correctly working horse, but not the way to get there.
Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading!