California Riding Magazine • July, 2014

Ride The Bend
Tuning into the bend that's already there is the best beginning.

by Chris Irwin

A common statement among horse trainers is that "the horse must respect the rider's leg."  This is not quite true enough. I want the horse to not only respect, but also trust and appreciate, my leg.

The problem is that the phrase "made to respect" seems to give the rider permission to impose his or her will on the horse. Horses, however, don't like having their bend controlled. Bend in their ribcage is fundamental to their sense of balance and surrendering control of that crucial function creates stress. That stress is likely to cause the horse to resist and invert its spine, fill its head with adrenaline and fall off track. And for a "made to respect" rider, that means it's time to turn up the aggression to "show the horse who is boss."

However, the sad result of bullying the barrel of a horse with an aggressive leg that is kicking their ribs is, at best, a sullen or "broke" horse. In addition, the "made to respect" approach doesn't deal with the issue of why the horse resisted the bend in the first place. That resistance isn't going to go away and the desired bend is going to get harder and harder to achieve. Sooner or later, the frustrated rider is going to start pulling on the horse's face on the inside rein to create the bend that should be happening in the barrel from the inside seat and leg.

During a recent clinic in Belgium, Chris demonstrates "true bend" through the body with this warmblood mare on the lunge line. Notice how soft the contact on the lunge line is as Chris is not pulling the mare into the circle by her head but is instead sending an impulsive message with his right arm into the girth of the mare asking her to arc and "bend" throughout her entire body. Notice how she can stand straight and balanced on her outside (right) forehand. There is no "dropped shoulder" falling to the inside because the mare has not been pulled into the circle by the hand but has instead been bent out of the circle through her ribs.

Pulling on the inside rein does nothing to arc the body into a balanced bend. But if you start the bend with your leg on the barrel, the neck flexes naturally into the turn. This is a huge problem in both english and western barns, where trainers and coaches are pulling horses for flexion instead of using their inside legs for bending them. No horse likes to be pulled and all horses move better and more freely with the balance that can be found in bending from the inside leg.

Unfortunately, there are far too many trainers who talk the talk of bending from the inside leg but keep coaching their students to "tip" or "initiate" the nose of the horse into the turn with the inside rein. Call it tip, initiate, guide, flex or whatever you want, but pulling the inside rein on a horse is fundamentally backwards and it is totally counter-intuitive to the horse. As I've asked before, when was the last time you saw a horse grab hold of another horse by the mouth and drag it into a turn? 

The best and most trustworthy way to get bend in your horse is to be willing to start out at work with the bend that the horse is naturally in. The trick is to tune in to that and convince your horse that you don't want to control the bend, simply adapt it and improve it. You're saying, "I know how important it is to you to be able to bend your body how you need to. I'm not trying to take that away from you. In fact, if you follow me I'll show you a way to accentuate your bend so it is better and smoother." 

Now we see the same mare being ridden. She is now in counterbend being ridden into the corner as she bends and flexes to the right while walking left in order to flex away from the flipchart in the corner. With this natural "counterbend" Chris has asked the rider not to kick aggressively with her left leg insisting that the mare bend to the left. Instead, she is asking the mare for a right leg yield to go left through this corner. By right leg yielding instead of left turning, the rider is working with the mare's nature instead of kicking against it and this quickly gains trust and relaxation.

And they will allow us to do this. Why? Remember the physiological benefits of smooth, balanced motion in a horse: a level head that's full of happy chemicals. This is what I mean by giving up control to get it. When we improve upon the bend the horse is doing naturally, we actually get better control than if we insisted on forcing her body into a bend of our devising.

There's also an important issue of leadership that comes into play with bend. Leadership, however, means more than just acknowledging the horse's bend and working with it. We also have to use bend to help us earn the horse's trust.  The real magic is that when a horse trusts "how" we work with its barrel while bending then it will become so relaxed that it will be willing to give up control of the barrel and soon, very soon, often within just minutes, we no longer need to work with the bend the horse gives us but instead we can ask the respectful, trusting and relaxed horse to give is whatever bend we want and the horse says "yes."

Instead of starting a battle over demanding that a horse "respect" your inside leg, creating resentment that will likely sabotage you later on, you've used bend to remove a source of tension for the horse. It will be relieved, and you will be the object of its gratitude. And once a horse is calm and confident in its rider, then and only then will it allow him to easily control its barrel. 

Author Chris Irwin is an internationally renowned horseman, best-selling author and a leading pioneer in the equine assisted movement.  It was discovering how to transform BLM wIld Mustangs into18 calm and collected U.S. National Champions in english, western and driving competitions, that first showed Chris his greatest insights into learning how to learn. To connect with Chris Irwin visit his website at