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What is the difference between bend and flexion ?

I think we all probably know the importance of bend, we need it on circles, serpentines and corners and our horse needs to be supple and flexible to be able to do it but at the same time doing it can make our horses more supple and flexible so its a bit of a cycle.

But then we talk about flexion and then the confusion sets in. I've heard people talk about flexion when they've meant bend and bend when they've meant flexion and the two, i think a lot of the time, tend to be used to mean the same thing when in fact they're both quite different.

What is bend?

Bend is probably the more commonly used word that we hear about a lot in dressage. It may be a judge or coach has said that you need more bend on your circles or that perhaps you have too much bend in a shoulder in or leg yield.

But really, bend is the horse using his whole body to follow a curve in a uniform way. In other words, their head, neck, shoulders, ribcage and hind quarters should all follow that line that the circle or turn takes.

What does the right bend feel like?

The ideal bend is when the horses whole body follows the line of the circle or turn so if you imagine you are viewing your horse from above the bend should look like you are sitting in the middle of a half moon shape where the bend from his nose to his tail should be an equal curve.

For this to happen we need our horses to be supple and athletic so we can move their body onto the curve we want to. Imagine like a centipede or millipede, when you see them move they move each body part along the same line; compare that to a large HGV lorry or a boat and the movement is fixed in position with the front end or back end swinging in or out. So, we want to avoid that feeling that our horse is lorry or boat like, we don't want that stuck, fixed feeling where the horse's hind quarters swing out, out of our control. Instead we want that feeling that we can move or position the horses head, neck, shoulders, ribcage and hind quarters on the line or curve we want. When we can position them in a line this gives us straightness, when we position them on a curve this gives us bend.

How do we achieve a good bend?

So to achieve that feeling that you can move and position your horses body, we need suppleness, the more supple our horse's body, the more moveable they are and the easier we can position them. So it seems illogical but actually sometimes if your horse wont go straight it can be because you need to bend them and supple them up more to then be able to move them where you want, get that head, neck, shoulders, ribcage and hind end in line with each other and then you get a straight horse.

So, how do we do it then. Well, part of it comes down to a little bit of anatomy, but its simple i promise. The horses neck is probably the most flexible part of the horses body in that we can bend it and move it around quite easily, if youve ever done carrot stretches with your horse youll know what i mean! The middle part of the horses back, the bit we sit on where their ribcage is, is actually really inflexible and cannot actually bend. But what they can do is bring the ribs on the inside closer together and spread the ribs on the outside further apart, this happens when we put our leg on and it gives you that feeling that the horse yields and gives around your inside leg and pushes the rib cage out a little to the outside. The hindquarters again are also pretty inflexible, we create bend here by getting the inside hindleg to step in and forward from the hip.

So, the neck is super flexible, the back and hindquarters are much less so. And this is why the main aid for creating bend is our inside leg not our inside rein. If you just use your inside rein, what will happen is you will get loads of neck bend (something that most horses find quite easy) and zero body bend. But when you use your inside leg, you get those ribs to come together on the inside and spread on the outside, and you get that inside hindleg to step more in and forward. In other words, you get that whole body bend that were trying to achieve. The outside rein then controls the amount of bend.

So, what is flexion?

So we've spoken a lot about bend. When it comes to flexion there are two types: longitudinal and lateral. Similarly, there are two types of suppleness - longitudinal and lateral. Don't get them mixed up though!

I think of longitudinal flexion as the opening and closing of the poll which results in the horse being on, behind or in front of the vertical. If you move your chin down and back to touch your neck and then stick your chin forward and out and repeat that movement youll feel that point where your spine meets your skull flexing. This is similar with a horse.

What we aim for is that the flat part of a horses forehead makes a straight line and a 90 degree angle to the ground and this is what we call on the vertical. When the poll flexes forward and opens, the result is a horse that is in front of the vertical, and the opposite, if the poll closes and flexes back, the horse will be behind the vertical with their chin closer to their chest.

Lateral flexion is generally what people get confused with bend because this related to the turning left and right. But flexion is specific to the horses head turning from the poll.

So, when a horse turns their head from their poll without turning their neck or the rest of their body, we call this flexion. When a horse turns his head as well as his neck and the rest of their body, we call this bend.

So the ultimate rule is that you cannot bend your horse without flexion. But you can flex your horse without bending them.

When do we use flexion and what are the aids?

You can use a small bit of flexion before you ask for a bend for a circle or corner or with some lateral movements. It can help keep your horse supple too.

When we flex our horse, the actual aid for it is to use one rein to create the flexion and the other rein to control the amount of flexion. Now this can very easily send you down a hole because if you use your inside rein to turn your horse and bend them round your circle you're going to get yourself into a whole heap of trouble.

So, the difference between bending and flexing?

The ideal situation is you turn and bend using your inside leg and your outside rein and you flex by using one rein and the other rein to control how much flex you get (we don't use the inside leg to flex our horse because were not trying to bend the body, we just want flexion at the poll and that's it).

All in all ending is probably the thing you will use the most and is probably the most important thing to get right as a dressage rider, especially if you're wanting to get those really good marks in tests. Using your inside leg and your outside rein to ride a circle or a turn is a really important skill to be able to get as a rider. The flexing is simply something you can use as a preparation and suppleness tool.

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