Thursday, 31 May 2012

The myth of overall bend

“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:
  1. the five sacral vertebrae are welded together (the sacrum) = no lateral bending
  2. 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

So what can I as a rider know for sure when riding a horse on a circle?
  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Bone-Tendon circumference

A question in the Swedish blog in regard to Bone-Tendon circumference (BT-C) has brought about this posting - how do you go about calculating the load the horse has to carry?

The pressure that the horse's legs are subjected to consists of its own weight, the rider's weight and the weight of equipment and should  really be expressed as kg/square centimeter or pounds/square inch. The formula used in this case to estimate the weight the horse has to carry on his forelegs creates a relationship between weight and BT-C. (A way to construct a more handy mathematic formula that may not fully follow ingeneering standards and recommendations.)

total weight / (BT-C x 2)

The way to go is as follows
  1. Sum up the weight of tha horse, rider and equipment. 
  2. Measure the TB-C just below the carpus. You can, if you want take measures from both front legs, divide by to ang get the average BT-C for your horse.
  3. Divide the total weight by the BT-C.
  4. Divide the sum from paragraph 3 with 2.
The guideline is a sliding scale where below or close to 13.4 kg /cm (75 p/inch) is good and up to 14.3 kg  cm (80 p/inch) is acceptable but when it approaches and exceeds 15.2 kg /cm (85 p/inch), you have to be observant of the increased risk of injury.

This is to give a guideline to the rider, but should not be seen as a simple truth! On a long term basis you might be able to increse BT-C by low impact training. The weight can be adjusted. Some extra pounds on horse and /or rider can be dealt with, the equipment may be changed. The horse's conformation, hoof size and status, the work they are expected to perform a number of other factors also matter - and it is important to remember that.

The U.S. Cavalry's own measurements from the 20's and a study by the Kentucky Equine Research (2008) focused on how horses respond to load verifies the conclusion made by the cavalry, a horse should carry a maximum of 20% of its body weight. (NB: a measure calculated with the assumpion that the horse is not obese)

And a quotation that summon the upcoming summer in Sweden.

"Horses make a landscape look beautiful."
Alice Walker

Thursday, 17 May 2012


Flexions are a way to introduce the bit to the horse, and also a way to supple the horse. Flexions include asking the horse to mobilise its jaw, raising and lowering its neck, bending laterally right and left and flexing the poll.

Suppleness and mental cooperation
We all want a supple horse, but what does it mean? A horse is supple when there are no unnecessary muscle tensions. This means when you ask your horse to bend to the right, the muscles on the left side of the neck can relax and allow the bending to the right. The horse is supple.

In order for your horse to perform flexions well, he also needs to be relaxed and calm. A horse that needs to scratch his belly can easily bend his head all the way around to his belly. This does not mean the same horse will bend when you ask for it. If your horse does not bend when you ask, he either does not understand your request, and/or his muscles are tense. You might think your horse is stiff, but I would like to suggest it is more of a mental “stiffness”, i.e. lack of understanding or willingness to follow your hand, rather than a physical stiffness in the muscles. A well schooled horse will easily follow your signals and requests while being both supple and relaxed.

Flexion is not just a means for schooling physical suppleness, but also for mental schooling of the horse. As described by the Father of Modern Equitation, de la Guérinière, a schooled horse should follow the bit wherever the rider places it and flexions are a way to train this.

From the ground or in the saddle
You can ask for flexions either from the ground or in the saddle. Here I will describe how to introduce flexions to your horse from the ground.

First flexion: flexions of the jaw, “cession de mâchoire
As I already mentioned, flexions are a way to introduce the bit to the horse. The horse should neither fear the bit, nor lean or brace on it. The horse should calmly move the bit with its tongue and through relaxation of the lower jaw be able to swallow. Therefore it is imperative that the nose band be adjusted so you can fit two fingers between the nose band and the bridge of the horse's nose.  

How to ask for the flexion of the jaw
Stand in front of your horse, assuming your horse can stand calmly. Place your thumbs in each ring of the bit. Lift the bit into the corners of the horse's mouth. Lifting the bit avoids pressure on the tongue and the bars of the mouth. In the best of worlds, your horse now responds by lightly mobilising the lower jaw. If not, you can try to either increase the pressure in the corner of the mouth or vibrate. Different horses respond differently so try what works best for your horse. As soon as your horse mobilises the lower jaw and the tongue let the bit drop down and hang in the cheek pieces, i.e. release of the hand. The goal is for the horse to calmly mobilise the jaw whenever the horse feels a light presence of your hand through the bit or the reins.  

Second flexion: raising and lowering of the head
The first part of the second flexion is the raising of your horse's head and neck. You begin as you did for the first flexion by standing in front of your horse and asking your horse to raise his head and neck by gentle upward rhythmic circular actions of your hands in the corners of your horse's mouth (demi-ârret). The height of the head you are seeking is the height your horse would take when looking out over an open field.

When you try this for the first time, your horse might try to back up instead of raising the head. If this happens you might have acted on the tongue or the bars of the mouth instead of into the corners of the horse's mouth, or you might have asked your horse to continue to raise his head even after he is as high as when looking out over an open field.

When the horse has raised his head to the proper height, and he is not leaning or bracing against your hand, he is standing still and calmly mobilizing the jaw, you stop doing the demi-arrêt. With correct training your horse will maintain this position, but the first time you ask this of your horse you want to completely remove your hands from the bit as soon as the horse raises his head, stands still, is light in hand and calmly mobilises the jaw.

The purpose of this flexion is to have a signal when riding which will ask the horse to remain light in hand (not lean on the bit), and to raise the neck which will shift its weight to the hind legs.

The second part of the second flexion is the lowering of the horse's neck, known as neck extension. It is important to teach your horse when he lowers his head he should also take his nose forward, so in neck extensions the nose is always in front of the vertical.

Third flexion: lateral bending
Lateral bending is asking your horse to take his head right and left. When bending the horse to the right, stand on the horse's left side. Place your left index finger in the left ring of the bit, the right rein is placed over the horse's neck close to the withers. Hold this rein between the thumb and the index finger of your right hand. When you ask for the flexion with precision, have a light contact on both reins or if you find it hard in the beginning to control both reins you can loosen the right rein.

Prepare your horse for the actual bending by having the horse stand with a raised head as if he was looking out over an open field (second flexion) and also mobilising the mouth (first flexion). Now ask for the bending by gently pushing your horse's head to the right with your left hand. If your horse is resistant to bending his neck, most of the time, the horse will also have his jaws locked. If this happens just ask for the first flexion until the horse again mobilises the jaw. If you press too hard with you left hand or ask for too much bend (more than 90 degrees) you might cause the horse to move his feet. The goal is to have the horse bend his neck 90 degrees while standing still and gently mobilising the jaw.

When your horse has bent his neck, is standing still with the ears at more or less the same height and he is calmly mobilising the jaw, you should reward your horse by releasing the bit and taking a step back. Let your horse decide when he wants to straighten his neck. If he stays bent for a moment after you release the bit it is a good sign of suppleness.

Forth flexion: flexion of the poll
It is important that you first have flexion of the jaw (the first flexion) and the second flexion (neck extensions) well established before you ask for the flexion of the poll otherwise you risk your horse taking his nose behind the vertical. The first (flexion of the jaw) and the third flexions (lateral bending) is the preparation for flexion of the poll.

Differentiate between local and systemic effect
When you ask your horse to either bend or do a full flexion, all you want is a local effect on the horse's neck. When you apply a direct or indirect rein you want a systemic effect on the whole horse that affects the horse's balance. With a well schooled horse you can ask for either a local or a systemic effect, or a combination of the both. In practical riding this means you can bend the horse either in the direction of motion or away from the direction of motion, or bend the horse and continue on a straight line, or ask for shoulder in or half pass, renvers or travers.

I hope this will help you understand the practical benefits of flexions for refined riding. 

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for checking my spelling and grammar! All other errors are my own.

Thursday, 10 May 2012


The words inhibition - to say no and direction - to give yourself orders comes early on in the process of taking lessons in the Alexander Technique.

What is it that need to be inhibited, stopped?

Those that I work with first notice that they must stop the already established patterns of movement when they "do what they always do" when they carry out an every day movement. The pause is necessary to find the time to notice what happened - actually.

The second step is trickier to get and involves your own thoughts about what "needs to be happening" in order to go from sitting to standing, for example. - Yes, but I have to xxx, yyy, this or that to be able to...
There is a pre concieved idea of ​​the force needed to bring the body in motion. All such preconceptions need to be inhibited.

An additional level in which inhibition is necessary concernes distrust, selfdoubt in your own ability and what you reckon is possible.

The first, superficial level is easy to see and therefore to understand. I might for example show with my own body what is happening with my students and also show how it can be done in a different way.

Level two is slightly harder to reach. Most people I meet are active, enterprising and energetic people. They take responsibility for and initiates most of what happens in their lives. Vigorous efforts is a living for them! It is a journey in itself for them to realize that their own body can "give them what they want" if they'd only leave themselves alone.
Which almost seamlessly brings us into the last level - the confidence that what we have practised through the lessons and dealth with above really is an ability of their own.

To me it's really a magical moment when those I work with really realize that inhibition, to say no (how paradoxical it may sound) is the key ... and now I have no handy way to describe what I perceive ... allows them to be fully living in their lives. And we're not talking about a fluffypuffy life, many have been troubled by pain for years and will have to live with it for years to come but inhibition can help them live a fulfilling life together with the pain. For those who are free from pain, there might be other burdens that they have to carry with them in their lives.

The magic is that they feel they can live adequately and fully in their process, they know they have the ability to say no and, from there take a more desirable direction, for me it is a privilege to be present at the very moment they realise that all they need is to be found within themselves.

"When you look at fairy tales, it must strike you that one thing that nobody ever worries about at all is how the wish is going to be carried out."
Walter Carrington

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The rein-back – To do or not to do?

When chatting with a friend at my local Swedish barn who competes in dressage, she said that the one movement that seem to cause the most difficulty is the rein back. She was talking about horses that in dressage tests perform lateral work in all gaits, counter canter and changes of lead in the canter. The rider of these horse apparently never or seldom know if their horses will rein back at all during a competition, or in what way.

I was very surprised to hear this and offered my opinion that the rein back is a more basic movement than either later work, counter canter or flying changes of lead. She agreed. After pondering this for a while I came to the conclusion that these riders likely don't practice reining-back very often. I've been told by various trainers that rein-back for the horse is a very difficult and demanding exercise and that horses perceive of it as a punishment so therefore it should not be performed too often.

But is it so? Horse's can back perfectly well all by themselves when they decide they need it, so why shouldn't I ask for it?

Mental aspect
In Natural Horsemanship, backing a horse is sometimes described as a way to inform the horse, in a way the horse could understand, that I want to be the leader. Leadership between horses, and also between human handler and horses are determined through movement and territorial dominance. So when you have you horse back away from you, and in so yielding the territory he/she just stood on to you, you have in fact informed the horse you are the leader again today. As I see it, first and foremost there seem to be a mental aspect to backing the horse: establishing leadership and communication with the horse.

When mounted
When reading Reflections on equestrian art by Nuno Oliveira I found this statement about rein back: “The practices of rein back is useful for certain horses who push against the bit and who weigh heavily against the hand.” Here I can only agree, rein back when mounted is an excellent tool for controlling the horse's balance. In this regard rein-back is not just mentally affecting your horse, but it is also a good overall gymnastic exercise if done correctly, and with this I mean there should be no pulling on the reins from either you or your horse.

How to
Official theory would like us to use our legs to push the horse forward, then letting the hand convert the forward energy into a backward movement. To use the legs and the hand in this way, is as far as I'm concerned not a good idea. Most likely the only thing you will achieve is to teach your horse that your legs doesn’t really mean go forward.

Another theory for the cues for rein back is to use only the hand. One argument for this is that “In terms of balance and locomotion, forwards movement and the rein-back are diametrically opposed. Common sense therefore means that the aids that ask for them must be strictly opposite” (Philippe Karl Twisted truths of modern dressage). As I already mentioned, this does not mean you should pull your horse backwards with the reins, but instead use a circular lifting action of the hand (the classical half halt as described by de la Gueriniere in School of horsemanship) to rebalance you horse so that he moves backwards.

In my experience rein back, both from the ground and when mounted, is a very useful exercise that I practise with all horses I handle, and that I teach all my students. It is not a exercises you need to, or should wait to ask of your horse until he/she can do flying lead changes a tempi.