Teach a Horse to Bend
 By Polo the Weirdo   •   7th Aug 2010   •   33,054 views   •   10 comments
In this article I shall be explaining in detail all the methods I have used to teach a horse to bend. Before I begin I wish to remind my readers that to try to follow these methods exactly step by step, or using any method without allowing flexibility, will seldom bring you success. A good trainer always rides by ‘feel’ meaning that they listen to what their horse is telling them and adjust their training methods or riding style to get the best results out of that particular horse. You have to feel the problem and use your intuition to know how to correct it.

First off, we have the classic method that always seems to bring good results out of most horses: Spiraling. Oh, the joys of spiraling! You’re going to be rather dizzy by the end of this one. The point of the exercise is to get your horse suppler, and more responsive to the leg so that it will be able to bend more willingly.

Start by loosening your horse up with a long trot and canter on a loose rein. Let the horse stretch out its frame and stride and get its muscles warm and working so that it will be comfortable with whatever work you ask it to do. This is a very important step that you should always follow before starting something intense with your horse in order to avoid possibly stiffness or injury.

Once the horse feels ready to work, pick up a walk and ride a 20m circle. I often find it helps to ride it in a corner as most horses feel more balanced next to a fence, but as some horses tend to drift toward a fence and we do not want a false bend, so this is something you must decide based on your horse’s own traits.

Once the horse is working well on the circle and you feel it light in your hand and responsive to your leg, try to open your inside hand almost to your knee, encouraging the horse to bend its neck inwards. It is perfectly acceptable to exaggerate the aids at this stage, as you are teaching a horse and they will often understand better if you ride effectively rather than attractively. Use a LOT of inside leg. Squeeze your horse relentlessly to try to get it moving away from your leg. Don’t be scared to give it a little kick if it won’t respond, as some horses need a little reminder that the leg is there. You are now giving the correct aids (If rather messy and exaggerated, though as I said before, the horse can’t see what you look like when you ride it, so best forget style and focus on understanding for now.) for an inside bend. Now, if your horse has problems with bending, there is a strong chance that it won’t be bending now, for the simple reason that, well, it doesn’t know how. I find that most horses, as soon as you get their necks bent, will follow with the rest of their bodies, soon coming onto a circle so small that it is really no longer rideable. This is where spiraling comes in.

Once you feel some inkling of a bend, begin pushing your horse inwards on the circle, using tactful pressure of your outside leg behind the girth to move onto a smaller circle. Keep up your aids for bend at all times, and try to keep your horse correctly bent through as much of the exercise as you can. Once you’ve come onto a small circle, start slowly spiraling out again with pressure from your inside leg. Repeat this as many times as it takes to get the desired result. This exercise is also extremely useful for teaching a horse to leg yield, as it makes them beautifully responsive to the leg, which is also what you need when teaching bend.

Another great exercise that can help bend is serpentines. Lots of horses are only stiff on one side, and will willingly bend on the other side, so serpentines are a great way to let them make the connection between the bend they can establish and that which they cannot. Remember to exaggerate the ‘Bend Aids’ previously discussed in this article on each serpentine. Start at a walk, and do as many tight serpentines as you can fit in your arena, changing your bend each time you cross the center line. This ought to get the horse understanding the link between left bend and right bend, and will hopefully encourage them to perform each with equal effort. Remember: Leg, leg leg! Leg is absolutely crucial in teaching a horse to bend, as you do NOT want just the head bending through following your hand, but the entire HORSE bending through moving from your leg to your hand.

Serpentines are also a wonderful exercise to teach a horse to change its bend, so I would encourage most riders to continue with these even more after the horse has learned to bend.

Teach a Horse to Bend
Leg yielding, showing how horse becomes more responsive to exaggerated leg aids after schooling for bend.

My third method is something I tried on my OTTB project, Moonfire. I was completely at a loss as for what to do when nothing that I knew was working for Moony at all, so I used my logic and improvised, deciding to use a slightly more difficult suppling exercise to create bend.

I started by riding Moony on a circle, but I never even got as far as spiraling, since Moony simply failed to comprehend the concept, and all I got when attempting to turn his head in was the whole horse following with an incorrect bend until the circle disappeared. Fail. I didn’t even bother to persevere with that method, since I could tell instantly that he simply didn’t understand and that it wasn’t going to work.

We had a little more success with the serpentines. Moony would bend correctly at some point, as he began to make the connection between the left rein, on which his bend is nearly flawless, and the right rein, on which I think he deserves a medal for ‘world’s worst bend’. There were some points where I’d get him bending right, but more often he would just set his neck and crabstep away from my leg.

I established the fact that trying to bend Moony on a bend would be slow progress, since I simply couldn’t get him to maintain the bend of a circle while getting his own bend correct as well. As such, I decided that Moony ought to learn to bend on a straight line, unorthodox as it may seem.

The exercise I used was one that I had been using to get some of my eventers supple and loose, as they tend to be a little stiff through the neck. It involves riding down the long side of an arena and bending the horse to the inside, while using loads of leg to keep it dead straight on the track with only its head turned in. The short side of the arena you ride straight. The next long side, you use counter flexion. Bend the horse’s head to the outside, whilst making sure to keep it on the same track. It may sound easy, but some horses find it very difficult at first, especially if they are a little stiff.
Once the horse has done that, circle the arena again. Down each long side, bend your horse in, then as soon as it is doing it correctly, change the bend and bend it out, always staying on the same straight line. Remember: Exaggerate the Bend Aids! But do not let the horse stray off the track. Make sure to do this exercise on both reins, and to keep doing it until your horse feels loose, supple and willing.

Once the horse is responding well, try the exercise in trot. This is likely to be a little more difficult, but if the horse has grasped the concept, it should be able to do it.

Teach a Horse to Bend
Flexion exercise. Note the exaggerated bend in the neck.

Once you feel your horse is doing this exercise as well as you’d like it to, and as well as it can, try to introduce some small circles. As soon as you have the correct inside bend on the straight line, push the horse off the straight line onto a small 5m or 10m circle just off the track. Hopefully, the horse will maintain its bend. Once back on the track, proceed with the exercise. I would advise doing 2 small circles on each long side of the arena, and gradually make the circles bigger as the horse starts to understand bend better. Remember to do this on both reins, and only to come onto the circle when the horse is being to the INSIDE.

Teach a Horse to Bend
Flexion exercise. Moony before the bending exercises.

Teach a Horse to Bend
Moony after the bending exercise. Note also how his movement seems more flowing and relaxed, and his acceptance of the bit softer. This is the effect that suppleness can have on a stiff horse.

Lastly, I want to remind you that patience is key. No horse is perfect. Some learn quicker than others, some fight more than others. Don’t get yourself worked up if things aren’t going as well as you expected. Take a deep breath, step back and try to work out why. Often the answer is staring us right in the face, and we are just too stubborn to see it, or too scared to try something slightly different to address it. I wasted a lot of time trying to get Moony bending on a circle when he so clearly didn’t understand, as I was stubborn in believing that doing this was the correct way to teach bend. Once I actually started listening to what Moony was trying to tell me, I remembered that there is no ‘correct’ way, and used what I knew to develop what would work for the horse in question. It worked for me maybe it can work for you too?

I hope you found this article useful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to mail me and I shall answer to the best of my ability. Likewise, if you are having any specific problem with your horse, I will gladly write an article to address said problem if I have the necessary knowledge and experience in that particular area.
Horse News More In This Category:  Horse Training      Horse News More From This Author:  Polo the Weirdo
Great post hunni, with toffee if I want him to bend will in trot or canter, I have to get him to overbend in the walk. Which is good as it builds up muscles faster. As Jess says "I want his nose on the floor" She wants me to get him as low as I can so when I do go up a transition as he throws his head slightly but as I sit deeper he lowers his head and holds in in the correct way. Also I find going from trot to halt, (abruptly) Then getting him on the bit in halt, before going back to trot helps, though that works with Toffee to help him bend and he doesn't do well with spiraling. He just looses it all, like you say Moony does. But every horse is different, as you have said, this is your technique, other people have other ways. It is an amazing post to help though hunni-bunni :) x
  Aug 7, 2010  •  27,758 views
Great article! I'm currently riding a pretty young horse who can't seem to get the hang of bending. What my instructor calls "nose to the wall" seems to work. It's like leg yielding, but the horse is almost perpendicular to the fence. I've also used some of the things you wrote about. :)
  Aug 7, 2010  •  27,379 views
Looks great and I love this article! Your horse is doing well!

Can you give me some advice:
My horse bends great at the walk and the trot and when I tell her to canter, she sticks her nose out like a race horse. OH MY! If I give her leg, she thinks I mean faster. Please message me on my account if you can.
  Aug 7, 2010  •  27,407 views
Welsh Paradise  
This did wonders for me and my horse. Thanks so much :)
  Aug 8, 2010  •  30,086 views
Welsh Paradise  
This did wonders for me and my horse. Thanks so much :)
  Aug 8, 2010  •  30,086 views
Polo the Weirdo  MOD 
Thanks guys. :D I'm really glad it could help. :) Hehe!

Dreamer: Would you be able to drop me a message with a detailed deion of the problem and what you've tried to solve it, as well as a brief summary of your horse's personality and attitude toward work? The more information I have, the easier it'll be to guess what will work. Hehe! :P
  Aug 10, 2010  •  27,380 views
Inactive Member  
Really great article, it really helped!!!
  Aug 20, 2010  •  27,405 views
G H O S T E H  
thankyou so much for this polokins!
me and the new pony [who has been trained like a racehorse -.-] have been doing sprials and it REALLY works! :DD

- ghosteh x
  Aug 19, 2011  •  27,497 views
Cruisin Past Curfew  
Thank you! I am going to be trying this on Smokey, just after he is able to get his head into a frame :)
  Apr 24, 2012  •  27,383 views
PonyBox  MOD online
Excellent article! Thanks Polo!
  22 days ago  •  28,272 views
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