Bend… Like a Crescent Moon.

I arrived at the barn mid-fight. The barn manager was refereeing a dust-up between a trainer and a boarder who was not his client. The trainer had tied a horse’s head, snubbed down tight, to its side and left in a stall. The boarder went into the stall and untied the horse. The trainer cried trespassing and the boarder cried cruelty. From over my shoulder, I heard the trainer growl, “Mind your own business!” at the boarder, an unapologetic older woman.

Horses usually like to bend one way better than the other; a soft side and a stiff side. You could think of it kind of like being right-handed, only with horses most are more willing to bend to the left. It means the horse would be weaker on one side which translates to a lack of balance. In other words, the horse is never straight. It’s natural for the horse, but if we want the horse strong and balanced, we work both sides. Ambidextrous is the human version of straight.

I heard an anecdotal reason once, that a horse’s bend preference depends on which direction he was curled in utero. I don’t know if it’s true, but it stuck with me because it reminds me that bend is “natural” and it’s an easy visual to understand.

Bend means a gentle arc from a horse’s nose to his tail. That the inside rib-cage is slightly compressed and the outside rib-cage slightly expanded. Think riding a circle. It’s why one direction is easier than the other.

I have no excuse for this trainer but I know what he thought he was doing. His theory was that tying the horse around means the horse fights with himself, rather than a human. It’s a common misunderstanding, like pulling a horse’s head around to your foot while mounted. They say a rider should work the stiff side twice as much as the soft side, too. Common ideas, but that doesn’t make them right.

The problem is that it gets adversarial quickly. It’s the frustration of egg-shaped circles and wrong leads. We decide the horse is disobedient, so we kick more and pull our inside reins. We drill that stiff side repeatedly, trying to soften it, but our resistance creates even more stiffness. Some of us escalate to a physical fight while others set a hard hand and hold a grudge. And yes, resort to tying his head to his side and leaving. It gets personal.

That’s the disconnect. Remember your mental image of a foal in utero. It’s not disobedience. The horse isn’t resisting you out of defiance. He’s literally stiff. Think of how stiff feels; you would defend a sore shoulder. You’d lose balance and straightness just like they do. Only theirs isn’t an injury or an attitude. They’re born this way. It’s natural.

We kindly want my horse balanced and strong and flexible, but from this standpoint wouldn’t it be smarter to massage them into it and not pick a fight? And lucky us, we have the good use of an inside leg to do it.

Start over with new understanding. Walk a large circle his easy way, probably left. Feel your sit-bones rise and fall with his stride, as your legs lightly follow the sway of his barrel. Begin by taking stock of your rib-cage. Inhale to inflate your lungs. Feel your ribs symmetrical and your shoulders level. If you aren’t sitting straight, your horse can’t balance your weight evenly. As you walk the circle, you have a slight turn to your waist; your right shoulder is slightly back.

Visualize bend like the soft edge of a crescent moon. Bend refers to that sweet outside arc of the horse, so counter-intuitive as it is, forget your inside hand. Drop your eyes for a moment and look at your horse’s withers between your reins. You want to ask your horse to shift his withers toward the outside rein. Think withers. Forget his neck, feel of your inside leg at his girth. Each time his barrel swings to the outside, pulse with your inside calf, gently asking his shoulder to release just a hair at a time. There is no force, just a rhythmic swing. It almost feels like a leg yield out on a circle, but again, that inside leg is relaxed and just cuing once per stride. Slow.

Imagine a line from your inside leg that travels diagonally through the horse to his outside shoulder. Ride that line, ask your horse to step into that outside rein. Your outside rein should work like the rail of the arena, containing and supporting the bend, which you’re remind yourself a million times, refers to the outside arc of the horse, and so, leave the inside rein alone. Foot!

There’s a dressage phrase you might consider tattooing somewhere: Inside foot to outside hand. 

Reverse and walk the other way on the circle. Now you are going his stiff way, but his rhythm is still working, so you continue the process. Be slow and quiet. In the beginning, he’ll be stiff and you’ll imagine that your inside leg is like a heating pad, gently warming as you ask his withers to the outside. Your inside leg pulses just as softly, and the response you get is probably less, but that’s fair for a stiff side. If your horse relaxes his neck longer, that’s huge. Just walk and ask, inside leg to outside rein, for bend, but reward him generously for the smallest effort. Massage him soft, and notice that your inside hand is still not pulling. Be patient. If he isn’t soft at the walk, nothing will improve at the trot and the canter will be worse.

From here continue to change direction frequently. Rather than naming the bad side, reverse so often that you can’t remember which side is which. Then, since you aren’t fighting one side, neither is he. Let both bends flow from one to the other walking serpentines and circles until there is no stiff or soft. Feel his balance and fluidity. Feel that same emotional balance in yourself.

Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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42 thoughts on “Bend… Like a Crescent Moon.

    1. Trainers are just like riders. Some good and some not. It makes it hard to get help sometimes. Still, too many horses go to rescue, when all the owner needed was some help. Ack, our imperfect world. Thanks, Liz.

  1. bonniepodraza

    Hi Allie, This is something I would like to learn because it is a SLOW exercise that wiuld require coordination and precision on my part but also be because it sounds like it would help both of us (Lady and me) with balance and maybe help her with stiffness. It also appeals to me as something I could do to warm her up to me as the boss. See you Tuesday. We can talk then. No need to reply🙂

    Bonnie Podraza Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. billiehinton

    Do you think riding the dressage tests in training level and on up, but riding them like what they are, exercises, not as in something one has to get perfect to get a ribbon in a show, actually does the work of increasing suppleness and soft bend, as well as all those other things we think we have to “make” the horse do?

    I don’t think any of my trainers actually ever told me that in plain words but just riding my horse and practicing the tests I noticed that he was stiff to the left (and from his previous owner’s wonderful notes on riding him that was a long-standing thing) but I learned pretty quickly by paying attention that shoulder-in and some of the exercises in Walter Zettl’s book Dressage In Harmony significantly decreased the stiffness to the left and that my horse actively sought that kind of work. I have seen him many times doing shoulder-in along the fence lines in the pastures.

    I realized that the dressage tests are actually the exercises that slowly and gradually ease the way into upper level work, and this is not some brilliant aha moment but something that is obvious – except that it is so rarely taught or considered that way in the riding world. Since I was never really going for showing or ribbons I think I just started looking at what the movements in the tests are actually doing with relation to the horse’s (and my) body, and how, as in yoga, when one can’t do the pose the “right” way initially you keep doing the little stretches and you keep trying the pose until gradually you can do it the way it looks. Meanwhile all that little stuff that seemed insignificant because it’s not the fancy thing has worked its magic.

    I know that my horse has been happier since I stopped trying to “perform the test” but use them, and pieces of them, as actually remedies for stiffnesses.

    The tying down of horses (or tying up as the case may be) is cruelty in action, but it’s just plain misguided. I wonder sometimes what kind of thinking leads to that sort of work with a living, breathing, elegant animal who generally moves beautifully when at liberty. How is forcing something into place in some way ever going to achieve real flexibility and beauty?

    Thanks for writing about the issues. I look forward to my Friday email because it’s always a joy to read your posts. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Billie. I agree about the tests. They aren’t about competition, but rather a road map to a supple, happy horse, if ridden to the directives. I frequently read tests during lessons for my clients, just to demystify the work. The USDF has been working these tests for decades and they are wonderful training aids. It’s up to the horse and rider where to take them. What a great comment.

    2. Kati Bishop

      Thank you! My trainer used ( I don’t ride anymore, but she still trains) to comment all the time about people in a hurry to get through the levels instead taking their time and making sure that the horse and rider were benefiting from the training that they provide.

  3. I’m right handed and I do not do anything with my left hand/leg/foot to balance myself out. And I work just fine :). Horses are right-handled in about the same proportion as humans. Maybe it’s the “old way” of training, or the problem is a showing judges’ standard, as you mentioned. Either way, it’s just goofy to (think you can) try to change the natural physiology of a horse through pressure. I agree, the best answer is bit of massage and manual manipulation (aka ask that anatomy to move a certain way) which will over time create new neural pathways that creates future flexibility. And that would take a little knowledge, but also a trainer who wants to be with the horse to help the horse learn something new. 🙂

  4. Melinda Codling

    My horse has a “Prophet’s Thump Print”, a dent on the right side of his neck. Vet’s tell me that was caused by his hoof being up against his neck when he was in utero. Interestingly enough his natural bend is to the right. This supports the theory that a horse’s natural bend is dictated by which way he was curled in utero. He is very stiff moving to the left. This article helped me to better understand how to help him. Thank you for your wonderful writings.

  5. massage rhymes with massage for a reason – love this Anna thank you as always for your inspirational sharing of your experience and knowledge. its a bright light and I too look forward to Friday to get your blog.

  6. Tracey Sands

    I love this! Another benefit of doing this work in the walk is that it’s so much easier to remember to breathe, which is also so helpful to rider and horse. I also really appreciate the reminder to focus on the withers.

  7. Lisa A O'Brien-George

    So beautifully explained with logical, humane and common sense training tips to achieve balance. Thank you! This should be copied and put in every tack room in the world!

  8. Susie

    Thank you again. Another time I read your wisdom on this issue, the main thing I carried away was to think of my inside leg as a heating pad inviting his inside shoulder to melt or soften. He loved it. It was also very nice for me.

  9. eremophila

    I clearly remember the first time a trainer showed how to ride just on the outside rein-it was magical! Mind you this was not before many training hours of riding with no contact at all. By then we were striding forward long low and rounded. His primary concern was only ever for the horse. Great points you’ve raised Anna.

  10. Tami Davis

    Great article! It really is about getting the horse to respond to the riders inside leg so that he is bending equally all thru that side of his body. My horse likes to be crooked as it’s easier than getting that inside hind leg come under his body more. But once I start getting that bend he fills up the outside rein really nicely and I just keep that inside rein soft and quiet. The connection that results is amazing!

  11. Kate Schmidt-Hopper

    All true, while remembering if the outside contact does not move forward to allow the outside bend one of two things will occur; your horse will duck his chin behind the vertical, or he will tip his ear inside ear down and stiffen the jaw losing inside flexion.

  12. JUDITHBELFORD@comcast.net

    Hi Anna Blake….I just read your book and absolutely loved it. I’m sure I am not brave enough to do what you did, but I love the way you relate to horses. It’s going to be the book I read again and again. I also wanted to tell you that one of the physicians I worked for has a daughter and her name is AnnaBlake Patrick!

    1. Thanks, Judith, for giving the book a try. I appreciate it. (I met an Author whose pen name is three names long, and the first two are Anna Blake… ) It’s a tiny world. Thank you again.

  13. Karen Graves

    I always get such a visual from your words..you write so we can feel…the words you are using..very helpful. …when you lead a horse, where should he be? And how do you let him know where you want him?

    1. Thanks, Karen. The more I practice this writing thing, the closer I get. It’s funny. I almost wrote about leading this week. I seem to have a lot of opinion on it and it’s different depending on what we’re doing. Mostly I want to stay out of his face, and out of his space. I think it impacts their confidence…but more about that later. Here’s the short answer: more of less shoulder to shoulder most of the time. I cue him with my feet. Not sure this helped much?? Thanks for the kind words Karen. More soon.

  14. Good Morning,

    I have felt like that “old lady” before I was an old lady. I would be mad at trainers and friends who tied their western horses to the right all night. I knew it was wrong and your word picture of the foal goes deep to understanding.

    Now, add that feeling of us walking better to the left and the horse bending better to the left> Hmm. Does the pair really have a problem?

    Because of how I tend to the left when I ride, I look for a mount that is more natural to the right.
    I’m too old to change much;)

    Perhaps you could do a follow-up article on how our tendencies effect the team?

    Thanks Again,
    Kathy

  15. Victoria Wertgen

    Sounds like I am not the only one with this issue, LOL.

    On Fri, Apr 21, 2017 at 7:23 AM, Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” I arrived at the barn mid-fight. The barn manager was > refereeing a dust-up between a trainer and a boarder who was not his > client. The trainer had tied a horse’s head, snubbed down tight, to the its > side and left in a stall. The boarder went into the ” >

  16. sofiarikeraj

    Head on what I needed to read today! I was starting to doubt how I am working with our poney and your article reassures me that we are on the good track and you can’t rush it. I was asking for too much in his left turn where he is stiff today.

    1. It’s always a work in progress; he might have even played to hard the day before. But it sounds like you are listening well. Thanks for commenting.

  17. Blue eagle

    Hello Anna – – started reading your blog from the beginning about 3 months ago and this reply is actually related to a couple of posts from a month ago. I’m relatively new to horses and am volunteering at our local horse rescue. Sometimes I was having difficulty with the horses allowing me to halter them so they could be led to the farrier or vet. Just wanted you to know that your two posts about (1) not being a coyote when coming up on them and (2) moving slowly and easily and standing in front of them and breathing out slowly – has really made a difference in my being better able to having the horses respond to my approach. Thanks so much for your blog, which I really enjoy reading. It has very useful information.

    1. I’m so glad the blog is helping. It’s funny; I’m getting ready to write about haltering; it’s how we start and what’s more important than that. Thanks so much for your kind words.

  18. JKS

    Being the recent owner of a stiff horse, this is where we spend the most time. Asking for as much as he’s capable of, and rewarding the try for more.

    One of the first things we did, when noticing how much he resisted bend to the right, was check that he COULD bend from the poll. From the ground, standing in front of him, asking gently from the reins right up near the bit. Tiny asks to bend left, and bend right. He could do it at a stand still, squared up on all four. Turns out his bend resistance actually came from an arthritic stifle- he won’t bend right while moving because he wants to protect that hind from the weight it’d take.

    It’s not always a flexibility problem. It often is, but sometimes when a horse is extra resistant, you need to search til you find the cause. Not to make excuses, but to better tailor your suppling efforts. An anti-inflammatory supplement took care of the bulk of his issues, and now we can start the hard work of strengthening the leg he’s spent years guarding. I had a massive grin on my face when we could do 20 meter circles with good bend and no tail swishing or pain cues from him.

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