November 18, 2022

Horse bending to scratch back

A student asked about bend today

My mare is still pretty distracted and not bending very well. Going around the 3 barrels is quite a challenge. Any suggestions on drills or things I can do every time I ride to help her bend?

Although the horse in the picture is not moving, and is in extreme bend, you can clearly see they are not carrying weight equally on all 4 feet.
In movement, this is common when straight and aggravated with even a subtle bend.
And if the bend is not correct for the line of travel, and/or the horse has not been taught to carry weigh equally on all four feet, the horse will feel out of balance and there will be tension and resistance.
Trish Hyatt

Below are my 2 replies to the Question.

Short answer: 
  • Work on flexion/bend changes on straight lines. 
  • Don’t change bend in the obstacle if they’re not ready.
  • Stay on the same bend, ride around the drum, or around the outside of all the drums to take some pressure off.
  • Work in walk. Ride as big of a circle as she needs.
  • Work on leg-yield to activate inside hind-leg and move ribs over.
  • Don’t worry about the pattern, ride the horse.
  • Take time to prepare before the change, so they feel good during the change.
Long answer:

There are quite a few things that come into play riding bending lines.

  1. Is the rider balanced on top?
    Or do they carry more weight on one side?
    Hint: most people have 5-10 pounds more weight to one side. That’s why when we travel our butt falls asleep on one side.
    Or was that just me?
  2. Is the horse balanced?
    Or do they carry more weight on one side, or in one corner, or on one end or a combination of those?
  3. Is the horse equally strong on both sides?
  4. Is the horse equally supple on both sides?
  5. Can the rider ‘see’ the line of travel they want to ride?
    So they can correct before they go off course.
  6. Have you identified emotional magnets (gates, barn, friends)?
  7. Do you know the aids to use?
  8. Is your horse responsive to each of the aids?

Definitely could be more, that’s just a quickie off the top of my head.

Most people can answer NO, to many of these and it only takes one to mess up your circles.

Throw in a direction change and you open a whole ‘nother can of worms.

It can be frustrating because you work on fixing one of the issues, but don’t really fix the problem because of there being multiple things contributing to it.

So what you’re doing may be correct, and may be needed, it just may not be enough to solve the problem, on its own.

One thing you can do is watch how the horse moves from the ground, without a rider, both at liberty, and  on a lunge line.

When we start at liberty, it removes a lot of the human weight/body cues. But not all.

Do they easily look in the direction of travel?
If we are facing or looking at the head (instead of the shoulder area) we often push it away from us.

You can also compare the difference between when they go left, or right. However, our body position on the ground is usually different depending which direction we’re herding them from (until we learn to be aware of it) so that can affect what you’re seeing.

Adding the lunge line can help us to influence their shape so they’re looking where they’re going (correct lateral flexion is needed before bend).

But many horses are being lunged on a loose line. And in one direction (maybe both) are looking to the outside either due to the persons body position, their own natural imbalances or both.

The lunge line may be loose (useless for subtle communication) by human choice, or because the horse is falling into the circle.

Or the horse may be on contact, but at least one direction they’re pulling, also because of their own imbalances, which causes their hindquarters to drift out because they are not bending through their body.

I often walk while I’m lunging (I don’t stand still well), but, when you do stand in one spot, can the horse keep a consistent contact on the line, with correct bend.

That’s a really good test.

Then while keeping a consistent contact on the lunge, what problems are you noticing?

This same list applies when you ride, the difference being that your weight imbalance will also be influencing them.

  • Is the flexion correct?
    (looking slightly in towards you so their ribs can be away from you)
  • Are they tracking up?
    • if not they are carrying more weight on their forehand and you want it equally front and back (to start with).
    • Horses that naturally track up may still be carrying extra weight on the forehand because horses naturally have 60% of their weight to the front. When we add our weight, it becomes our responsibility to teach them to shift their weight to the hindquarters and carry no more than 50% on the front legs so we don’t cause premature wear.
  • Do they drift in, or out?
    • If they drift in going one direction (going left) and out the other direction (going right) you’ve identified a strength/suppleness issue on one side of their body (they want to carry more weight with their left legs and probably don’t bend as well to the left).
    • If they drift in on one side of the circle and out on the other side even though you have not changed direction, you’ve identified a magnet (there can be multiple magnets).
    • And of course, both of these can be happening at the same time and require a different correction every step or two until they become more balanced.
  • When a horse is not balanced, they’re more likely to be attracted to the magnets because where they are doesn’t feel good.

These, and the other problems identified at the beginning are why I include such a variety of lessons in the Working Equitation Mastery program.

Working on flexion starts with the ‘Key To Unlocking Your Horse’s Bend’

Then the ‘Single Slalom Bend and Balance’ course uses the fun and diagnostic Single Slalom to present exercises as corrections to problems commonly found on bending lines such as flexion changes, drifting in or out, tempo changes and accuracy.

In the WE Dressage course you’ll find lessons on 'Circles', 'Half-circles & Serpentines' and 'Connecting Half-halts & Stirrup Stepping’ (that’ one’s very popular), that will each give you more ideas on performing and correcting your bending lines/circles.

Too nasty outside to ride? In the ‘Beyond The Basics’ course there are lessons on teaching your horse to respond quickly and lightly to the ‘Bending Button’ from the ground.

Then you can take that exercise to the saddle, repeating it while standing still, and then building on it with the ‘Go and Stop with Bend’ lesson to help the horse make transitions both in gait, and bend, more easily and without resistance.

The ‘Turn on the Forehand and Haunches’ lessons, and ‘TOF and TOH In Motion’ and ‘TOH and Timing’ lessons, all give you more tools to refine your bending lines by correcting deviations and helping your horse to become more equally supple and strong.

And ‘Counter-bending to Fix Flexion’ and ‘Softening/Giving/Yielding to the Bit’ are more techniques with their own lessons to help you make circles that are correct and benefit your horse.

Each of the lessons in the ‘Beyond The Basics’ course was created in answer to student questions and I add additional ones as needed.

So there are a couple of tips in this article, but as you can see, for the most part, there are multiple contributing factors that we need to work on.

First diagnose, then prescribe, then re-evaluate and repeat.

I hope you found something useful here.


ps. Oh ya, the WE Mastery program also has lessons for the Figure 8 and Drums which present similar challenges. And registration is open now. But only until November 28th,

pps, I also have one DIY course that’s not in the membership, for Rider Balance, Suppleness and Core Stability, that I call - ‘Equestrian Aquatics’.

There’s no horse and no swimming but it’s fun and allows you to tune into your body in a dynamic environment with 75+ simple but also challenging exercises (easily modified for different fitness levels). in 7 modules that work the whole body but focus on different aspects of the body.

Sometimes when we ride we’re too busy to focus on ourselves.
And while horses try to compensate for our imbalances, the water doesn’t so it’s a great teacher.

See I really do try to give you everything you need 😊

Get it all HERE!

You CAN learn how to improve your horse's skills from online courses and tips such as these.
But only if you implement.

So when you read my articles write down the steps or thoughts that come to mind as a reminder for what you're going to try in your next ride.
Come on back when you're done and let me know how it went.

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I'd love to read your comments and answer your questions below.

A Horse Will Lay Or Pull On Any Bit

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About the author 

Trish Hyatt

International Coach and Clinician
National and International Top 10 Competitor
Technical Delegate and Judge of Working Equitation (retired)

Trish's superpower is the ability to give you and your horse what you need, in a way that you understand, so each horse and rider makes progress and knows what they need to work on.

She puts her many skills to use introducing the international discipline of Working Equitation to riders eager to improve their partnership with their horse, with a focus on fun, classical horsemanship and use of the horse for practical work or as cross-training for other disciplines.

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A Horse Will Lay Or Pull On Any Bit

The 1 Goal