Horse-Riding: Correct Bending and Engagement

The half-halt is a near synonym for dressage riding. Without it, the horse could not maintain his balance when asked to shift his center of gravity. Gymnastic riding is successful only when the horse can shift his center of gravity horizontally, vertically, and laterally, without losing his balance.

When driving a horse forward, we must discourage him from running faster by the necessarily frequent and skillfully applied half-halts. The horse’s understanding of the leg aids should become more sophisticated as time passes and training progresses. Instead of resulting in speed—in effect, the faster rhythm of footfalls—the horse should learn to differentiate the various effects of the rider’s legs and produce appropriate reactions, running being one of several inappropriate ones. Correct reactions include lateral bending or increased engagement of the haunches.

The rider must use both legs all the time. When bending a horse, both function in highly important roles. Never can a rider bend a horse “with the inside leg.” To bend a horse, the rider should use steady, continuous outside leg pressure behind the girth in order to press the horse’s quarters inward. That “curling” of the part of the horse behind the rider is done with the outside leg slightly behind the position of the inside one, but still with the calf stretched and heel pushed down. This position of the outside leg toward the rear is accomplished by pushing the knee back and down, the power coming from the well-stretched calf. The inside leg of the rider has a double function. The inside leg is placed in the normal vertically hanging position, to define the area “around which the horse is to bend.” In addition, the inside leg provides the aids to create the impulsion necessary for bending.

When moving through corners (arcs) and curves, the horse should be bending and therefore using his hind legs in slightly different ways from each other. The inside leg flexes more at the hocks while the outside flexes more at the stifle. A laterally bent horse steps with his hind legs toward the hoofprint of the forehand on the corresponding side. Often, we see stiff horses crossing with the inside hind leg under their body toward the hoofprint of the outside fore, as if in a leg-yield; the outside hind leg, of course, is spinning off the curved pattern outward. A properly bent horse, however, will track correctly with his hind feet, because he uses them slightly differently. While bending, the horse contracts and shortens his inside muscles and lengthens and stretches his outside muscles. He shifts the center of gravity to the inside of his spine. Both of these attributes depend on increased inside hock activity.

Imagine an analogy in human terms: stand on your right leg and lift your left knee high as you extend both arms sideways. You will realize that with your left knee high (analogous to the horse’s left hock), your body will develop a bending posture to the left. Notice also that your balance is maintained in spite of your standing on your right leg alone because your left knee is up and your torso is contracting on the left and stretching on the right. Bending the horse in good balance, one’s inside leg drives his inside hock to increased bending.

Only the specialized positions and activities of the rider’s legs will produce proper and consistent lateral bending in the horse. Lateral bending is paramount to arriving at collection. One cannot develop collection by riding in collected gaits. Collection is developed by means other than by solely practicing collection itself. All knowledgeable riding is made up of various means leading to the desired ends. Therefore, one achieves a Grand Prix test not by riding a Grand Prix test every day, starting with the green three-year-old and “drilling” it into him. This analogy, far-fetched enough to be grotesquely comical, makes its point strongly. We do not achieve passage by riding passage; we do not achieve collection by riding a “collected” trot on an undeveloped horse. One of the many means—indeed, one of the most important means—to collection is riding with proper bending. When bending, as mentioned above, the horse must use the inside hock differently than he uses the outside hock. Bending is unilateral (one-sided) collection, and it is a most important building block in producing genuine bilateral collection—equal on both sides.

The shoulder-in, one of the finest suppling and therefore collecting exercises, is primarily concerned with intensifying the horse’s bending through the mobilization of his inside hock. That is why the pulling of the inside rein during a shoulder-in is its very negation. The entire movement is designed primarily to address the inside hock, therefore it must not be inhibited in its potential action by a restrictive inside rein. Through the shoulder-in, the rider can “sweep the horse’s inside hind under” by doing the exercise in mirror images, that is, repeating the same on both reins, until strength, courage in lateral balance, eventually produce a perfectly soft and harmonious result when both hind legs sweep under, as if they both simultaneously do the shoulder-in, but now on a straight track. Behold collected trot!

The ideal dressage horse, which moves forward with minimum effort producing maximum efficiency of impulsion on a straight line, is developed through the means that include frequent bending. Through bending, the horse is elasticized, making it possible for him to move straight and efficiently. Similarly, the medieval sword-makers of Baghdad or Toledo tempered their steel until they could produce swords with blades bent to a full circle. The blade, which bent to the circle either way, was the blade so well tempered that when straightened, one still knew it was supple rather than stiff. When straightened, the supple and flexible sword wielded the maximum efficiency!

Only the horse that can collect—its haunches inward and under—can extend efficiently. When such a horse extends, whether to a medium trot or to a fully extended trot, he gives the rider a feeling that he is sinking down behind while climbing up a staircase two steps at a time with his front end. The animation and freedom of the forehand make the horse dance upward “tilling the air.” The animation and the effortlessness of this kind of motion have such a hypnotic effect on the horse that he seems to act as if he could maintain this activity eternally! The horse finally becomes self-propelled, self-risen in the front, in full flight upward and onward with so much kinetic impetus that the rider becomes a mere supporter of the action by accommodating it as a harmonious partner. The feeling is that the horse rides itself through the rider, who merely lends his weight as a medium of balance and stability through which the horse can send his energies unencumbered.

An arched neck does not by itself denote a horse on the aids. Being on the aids helps to become part of the momentum of evolution toward collection (out of which comes extension) and engagement. A curved neck, an arched neck, an overbent neck, a “broken at the third vertebra neck,” or a neck in any number of wrong shapes is not ridable! The neck incorrectly held by the horse or falsely developed by a rider will prevent the rider from controlling the horse’s haunches. Equally, ill-shaped necks will prevent the horse from connecting his haunches to the forehand. The neck is symptomatic of what the haunches are doing. False position, wrong development in the neck, will testify to the same in the haunches.

Through bending and, in particular, correctly performed two-track movements, the horse assimilates the correct meaning of the rider’s “collection leg aids.” For instance, when the horse understands that during a shoulder-in the rider’s outside leg pressure prevents it from speeding up or “uncoiling” to evade by straightness, while the rider’s inside leg supplies a rhythmic aid for impulsion to increase the hock action, then the horse connects the leg aids toward the bit. Being on the aids is essential to gymnastic development. Being on the aids depends on the horse understanding the leg aids correctly, rather than refusing them by rushing away from them or by stiffening against their contact.

Leave a Reply