If you’ve gotten test comments like “needs more bend” or “unbalanced turn/circle” or worse, “counter-bent on circle”, read on for some ideas that might help you work on it. It seems like bend is one of those things that can be super tough to figure out how to get correct, especially at the lower levels, but it’s such an important foundation piece that getting it right will help many pieces of the more advanced work fall into place for you. It’s also something that can be improved almost endlessly, so it never hurts to spend some time concentrating on it.
With all of these exercises, the key to success will be in riding accurate figures (use letters, or if you don’t have those, find some other sort of marker like a cone or even a spot on the wall or a tree) and in remembering to use ALL your aids, not just your reins. Most riders do plenty with their reins, but neglect their seat and leg aids. Remember that your rein can pull your horse’s face back and forth, but cannot bend his entire body. So take a simple pattern and concentrate on using your entire body to ride it (or for extra credit, even try riding it with your hands holding your bucking strap, just to see how much your body can do once you take the hands out of the equation entirely!). Feel yourself change your position from straight and centered as you travel straight and then adjust to inside leg at the girth and outside leg stretched behind the girth, outside heel stretching down toward the horse’s hind hoof, bringing the inside hip into the lead as you make the turn and ask your horse to bend.
A Quick Refresher on Bending (and where to start if you’re having trouble with the patterns below)
If the outside leg stretches back and *down*, the movement will come from your hip, rather than from the knee. What happens when the rider puts her outside leg “back” by only bending the knee and drawing the heel up is that her outside hip is going to tend to be pushed up and forward, de-stabilizing the rider’s seat and allowing (maybe even causing!) the horse to fall on his outside shoulder. If you aren’t sure about this, try it with your horse halted. Sit evenly on both seat bones, and one leg at a time practice doing the outside leg back by bending the knee (to feel the incorrect movement), and then try it again by moving the leg from the hip (or think to yourself “place the knee 2 inches back from its resting position”) and compare the feeling of doing it correctly. This is important so that your seat ends up in the correct position, allowing your position becomes an effective aid on its own, freeing up your hands and feet to ask for other things.
As you ride the turn, your outside rein moves your horse’s outside shoulder into the turn (sorta like neck reining), and your outside hip and thigh help support this. Your inside rein creates a soft flexion in your horse’s poll (if you glance down, it should look like you tucked his cheek bone into his throat latch). Your inside leg supports the inside of the bend by asking your horse to step more under his body with his inside hind leg. When you have it right, you’ll be able to hold the bend with your inside leg and outside rein – it’s easy to test for this connection by softening your inside hand forward to put slack in the inside rein for a few steps. If your horse stays stretched into the outside rein and on his line of travel, you’ve done well! If your horse falls apart when you soften your inside rein, he needs more support from your seat and leg. If you find yourself wanting to cross the inside rein over his withers to keep him from falling into the turns, you need to get a better response to your inside leg aid (ask, reinforce with the spur/whip, ask again with the light aid, repeat until you get the response to the light aid, praise correct responses). If he’s falling out of the turns (10m circle ends up being 15m), then you need to be firmer with your outside aids.
So, with those notes in mind, pick a pattern to start with and saddle up, we’re getting you off the rail and riding some curvy lines today!
First, we have the most basic. This serpentine is great to start with because the bend required is gentle and the straight bits in between give you plenty of time to organize for the change of bend. This one would be great to practice at a walk without using the reins to test how much influence your seat and leg has when it comes to turning your horse off the rail and then making the turn back to the second corner. If that goes well, give it a try trotting too, with the attitude of experimenting. Let yourself mess it up a few times and just see if you can improve it some after a few repetitions. Then when you add the use of the reins back in, let the reins add refinement and a finishing touch, instead of doing all the work. This serpentine shows up in the trot at training level, and then in the canter (with counter-canter) at first level, so it’s a great pattern to practice if you’re going to be showing.
This is a variation of the above serpentine. The bigger loops require bend for a 20m circle (the loops are just half a 20m circle), and what I added to the pattern was a full circle in the middle, which can be added “as needed”… If you add it in, ride the half circle from C to just past I, then ride the full circle from I back around to I, then ride another half circle from I to L, before finishing with a half circle from L to A. Adding in the extra circle gives you more time to get the change of bend correct since the “straight part” between “bending parts” of this pattern is significantly decreased from the serpentine above, making it more challenging because you have less time to make the change of bend. Once you are comfortable with this pattern, try trotting the first half circle and then cantering the circle in the middle, and then transition back to trot to finish the last half circle. Then mix it up by cantering the first half circle, trotting at I around the middle circle, and then picking up the canter again at L as you finish the last half circle. If you are more advance, you could ride the middle half circle in counter canter (you’ll find that in a 2nd level test), or for extra credit, ride simple changes (through trot or walk) or flying changes at I and L, cantering the whole pattern. An easier way to mix in transitions would be to trot the entire pattern, but ride halts every time you cross the centerline, checking that your horse is straight and facing the long side, versus standing like he’s on a diagonal.
This next one takes the same concepts but makes them more challenging by tightening up the circles and requiring more bend. The pattern could be ridden with 20m or 15 m circles to make it easier, or start at the walk until it’s comfortable. If you and your horse are sufficiently advanced, move on to the trot and then the canter, mixing in transitions and simple or flying changes to increase or decrease the difficulty to whatever level presents a comfortable challenge.
And lastly, we make it even slightly harder still. This time we take away the straight parts in between the bending parts so you have less time to reorganize your position and your horse’s body when changing the bend. Try to adjust the bend to the part of the curve you’re on. You need less bend to ride the pieces of this pattern that are like half a 20m circle (see the 2nd pattern), and more bend when you ride the 10m circle parts. Again, start in the walk until that’s comfortable, then move on to the trot (mixing in walk or halt transitions if necessary to give you more time and/or re-balance your horse). If you’re more advanced, try riding parts of it in the canter (either trot the small loops and canter the big ones, or vice-versa), and then finally canter the whole thing using simple or flying changes at I and L.
Hope you have fun with those!