Horse-Riding: Lateral Bending

The horse’s neck is naturally more supple than his bulky trunk, which includes a relatively unyielding rib cage and heavy musculature. A horse can remain rigid throughout his trunk and still bend his neck to reach a fly or scratch his body way back. However, correct lateral bending occurs only when the horse is evenly bent throughout his body, along his spinal cord.

At the beginning of dressage training, the major task is to teach a horse to carry his rider in balance on a straight line. The horse should move evenly and straight without pushing his shoulders or haunches in or out, his hind legs following the forelegs so that the horse’s spinal cord remains the center axis from which the hoofprints are equidistant. The rider should never become a passive traveler, and even on a running horse, he should keep his legs intimately in touch with the horse’s sides, teaching the horse the concept that he may move only under conditions of aiding.

Most of the time, a horse moves on a bent line. Only seldom is there a straight path to move on. In our small riding arenas, there are two long walls and two short walls where a horse should move straight. Otherwise, most riding is done on various arcs and circles or in the combination of them, whether it is jumping or other gymnastic disciplines that the rider may pursue. Lateral bending can be practiced qualitatively in two different ways.

The simpler lateral exercises are those done on circular lines, while the horse’s hind legs continue to follow in the direction of the corresponding forelegs. These are called “single track” lateral exercises. The path of the horse proceeds on an arc. Such is the case with all the corners of a riding arena, since they are parts of an incomplete circle. To that, we can add the riding of a full circle, which can be of any size, usually larger for a stiffer, novice horse and smaller according to the horse’s ability to bend as he improves his suppleness. Then we can ride serpentine lines, which are more difficult than simple circles, because the horse is asked to bend from side to side in succession. Finally, we can ride figure eights, which are rather difficult to do well, as the horse must sustain bending for a long while on each side, yet is given only one straight step to change the bend from one side to the other side.

The progression should be from simple to complex in riding on arcs, from a simple circle, to serpentine, to the figure eight. We also proceed from generous arcs to tighter, smaller ones as the horse’s ability to bend onto them in a continuum improves. Note that the horse should be tutored in lateral bending at the walk first, then in trot, and, finally, in canter.

The more difficult or complex lateral bending exercises are done on multitracks. These require that the horse’s hind legs do not follow directly into the footprints of the forelegs on the corresponding side. Rather, the horse will leave either three or four distinct traces of hoofprints behind on the ground. In general order of difficulty, these exercises are as follows:

The shoulder-in and shoulder-out exercises can only be done at the walk and trot. In shoulder-in, we ask the horse to bend around our inside leg, stepping with his inside hind leg toward the footprint of the outside foreleg. As a result, he leaves three tracks behind and bends the joints of the inside hind leg generously by striding deeply under his center of gravity. The horse progresses in the direction of his outside shoulder, however; he bends opposite the direction of his progression: to the inside.

This is the only multitrack movement where bending opposite the direction of motion is required.

The shoulder-out is the reverse of the shoulder-in. It is not necessary to do it, for by changing hands a rider can supple equally both sides of the horse with shoulder-in alone.

The haunches-in and haunches-out exercises are a little more sophisticated in their demands on the horse’s musculature than the shoulder-in and the shoulder-out.

In the haunches-in, the horse is once more bent evenly around the rider’s inside leg. He moves toward the side on which he is bent with his hindquarters displaced inward away from the rail. The forehand proceeds along the rail. The outside hind leg of the horse strides toward the footprint of his inside foreleg.

The haunches-in can be done in all three natural gaits: walk, trot, and canter. However, I discourage practicing it in the canter. Horses have the natural tendency to canter crookedly, usually with their haunches in, anyway. This is highly undesirable, because it allows the horse to avoid bending his joints correctly and causes him to move in stressful lack of balance. Indeed, the rider must teach and encourage his horse to canter very straight. Thus, the haunches-in at the canter, while horses are eager to offer it, should be avoided.

The haunches-out, just like the shoulder-out, is an exercise that is not necessary to practice, as it can be replaced by changing hands and performing a haunches-in, again in the opposite direction.

The half-pass is a more sophisticated lateral bending exercise than the previously described ones. It serves to strengthen the horse’s use of his hips, stifles, and shoulders, as opposed to the shoulder-in, which aims to strengthen the hocks for-collection and suspension. The haunches-in strengthens the stifles and the lumbar back most.

In half-pass, the horse moves on a diagonal across the arena, with his bent body somewhat parallel with the wall toward which he progresses, yet with his inside shoulder slightly leading. The horse is once again bent around the inside leg of the rider, proceeding in the direction of his bending. Most important are the maintenance of the forward urge and the evenness and clarity of motion. Half-passes can be done at the walk, trot, and canter and should be done in all three gaits. The horse moving in half-pass will leave four tracks behind on the ground. It strengthens all the joints, especially the hips, and therefore, will improve the horse’s ability to extend his strides.

Pirouettes are also lateral bending exercises. They can be performed only in the walk and in the canter. While pirouetting at the walk is a relatively simple gymnastic exercise, doing the same in canter is one of the most difficult. Young horses can soon pirouette at the walk, but only the most advanced horses will be able to do the same at the canter, usually some years later.

At the pirouette, the horse is asked to turn around his inside hind leg. Both hind legs are to remain active, but on the spot where the movement was started. One can ride quarter, half, three-quarter, or full pirouettes, depending on the horse’s level of advancement. During these turns, the horse is gently bent around the rider’s inside leg toward the direction of the turn.

The following is a summary of some of the properties of lateral bending:

• During all lateral bending exercises, horses are evenly bent along the entire length of their spinal column toward one side. The “inside” is the hollow or contracted side of the horse. The other side, called the outside, is stretched longer and feels “full.”

• While lateral bending exercises can never be done with a straight horse, their purpose, however, is to help straighten a horse. Lateral bending exercises have a very high suppling value, which ensures the eventual development of the desired straight-moving horse.

• There can never be any successful lateral bending without the horse first being longitudinally flexed. In other words, lateral bending can occur only when the horse is accepting the leg aids for increased flexion in his joints without hurrying. This elevates his back, rounds his topline, arches his neck, and allows his head to hang while seeking the bit.

• While longitudinal flexion is a prerequisite to lateral bending, each reinforces the horse’s ability to do the other. Hence, successful lateral bending will consolidate the horse’s ability to remain in longitudinal flexion, which in turn will make this prerequisite position more often available to do additional lateral bending exercises.

• Always repeat each lateral bending exercise in both directions.

Never exercise the horse’s hollow or stiff side more than the other. Always “mirror” lateral exercises and do it in close succession. For example, circling to the right should be followed by circling to the left.

• Always combine longitudinal and lateral gymnastics. All transitions are powerful longitudinal flexing and balancing exercises. Riding transitions after each lateral exercise makes for a successful combination. As an example, ride a half-circle right in the trot and reaching the opposite rail, depart into canter on the left lead. Or pirouette left at the walk, and then depart at the canter on the left lead when the pirouette is completed. The possible combinations are infinite.

Gymnastic riding can be meaningful only when a planned strategy is pursued by the rider. No exercise should be done on the spur of the moment and without due preparation. During riding, a quick succession of changes may indicate well-planned gymnasticizing. There is no specific value in endlessly riding in the same gait, on the same line, in the same exercise for a long time. The frequency of transitions is in direct proportion to the value of gymnastic development in the horse.

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