Bending exercises may not be as much fun as riding straight down the trail, but they offer so many benefits (and solve so many riding problems) that they should be a mainstay of your routine. Bending your horse properly is like yoga for him, with many of the same benefits. These include:
• Fitness. Bending both strengthens and supples your horse’s muscles, making it easier for him to do everything else you ask of him. Wherever your horse is stiff is where he’ll be the most resistant. Thus bending helps him become “softer” in your hand and to your leg. (It also helps protect him against injury.)
[READ: YOGA FOR RIDERS]
• Straightness. Ray Hunt said, “I bend my horses to ride them straight.” Bending requires you to have control over your horse’s body; this, in turn, enables you to ride him on a truly straight line when you so choose. (And, of course, when you ride a circle, “straight” means properly bent on that circle.)
• Calming. Asking your horse to bend and turn directs his feet and busies his mind, helping him focus. It can be a perfect way to “get him back” after a distraction or a spook.
• Challenging. Bending exercises help you finetune your communication with your horse and develop your skills as a rider.
There are many ways to bend. To arc your horse properly on a circle, lift your inside rein to draw his nose slightly toward the point of his shoulder; at the same time, press your inside leg at the cinch to help create a bend through your his body. Here’s help in setting up your circle.
For something different and a bit challenging, try this figure-8-in-a-circle exercise.
If you find your horse is harder to bend in one direction than the other (most horses are), here’s how to deal with that asymmetry.
Finally, if your horse tends to lose his bend out the “back door,” bone up on how a horse’s body naturally moves, front and back, and learn how you can overcome some of riding’s most vexing problems.
One caveat: If your horse persists in resisting bending, be sure to rule out pain or discomfort before you continue.