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The Illusive ‘inside bend’. By;  Karina Hawkridge. http://www.tadcasteranimalphysio.com/


As promised here is the first of a series of articles attempting to explain some of the terminology you might encounter on your Interdressage score sheets, in relation to the anatomy and biomechanics of your horse.

Terminology differs widely between judges, as does the emphasis placed on how your horse works and what is expected at varying levels. As we all know  basics such as rhythm, balance, straightness, compliance, submission, impulsion etc are assessed and commented upon. Most of which are self explanatory...or is this the case?

If you look at how your score sheet is structured you will see that each movement (in a BD and Interdressage type dressage test) is scored out of 10 or occasionally, 20. Accuracy, balance, rhythm, straightness, submission (compliance) and impulsion are assessed and the horse's way of going is judged rather than the rider's position and application of aids BUT how the rider sits and how the aids are applied will have a profound effect on  the biomechanics of your horse and all the afore mentioned requisites.

At the end of the score sheet there are the ‘X 2’ marks or the 'collectives' and this is where how the horse works is scored with a section for application of aids and the position of the rider. These are usually marked out of 20 and it is these marks that are added together in the eventuality of a tie...and are the scores that sometimes appear in brackets alongside the percentage on the Interdressage leader board.

Here is an attempt to explain the basics. When we train our horses we try and work to a system known as the 'scales of training'. In diagrammatic format this will represent a pyramid with the most basic concepts such as  rhythm forming the wide base; as the work becomes more demanding and the horse progresses in his education, the pyramid becomes narrower until the highest levels of schooling such as collection are achieved. I disagree slightly with the diagram to the left as I like to establish straightness early on in a horse's education.

Progressing through the scales of training cannot be rushed- no matter how 'clever' or willing your horse is. The horse is an athlete and like any athlete needs to build his musculoskeletal system slowly according to the demands of the work expected of him. If the process is rushed, injury will inevitably follow as joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles are over loaded... not to mention the psychological damage  an immature horse who is asked too many questions too soon will suffer.

Let’s take a quick look at the differences between a horse in his natural environment doing what he is designed to do and the horse who is expected to accept and carry the rider and execute all manner of exercises willingly:The horse's anatomy has evolved  over time in response to gradual changes to his environment and diet.  Prehistoric horse was a multi digited small, agile animal bearing very little resemblance to modern Equus Caballus. He survived on a diet of easily digestible shrubs, leaves and berries, escaping predators through speed and agility. As the climate changed and the continents shifted his easily digestible diet diminished and he was forced out onto the grass lands and plains. His anatomy and physiology had to make dramatic alterations in order to survive on his less than desirable diet; grass is a hard, indigestible substance and has to be broken down firstly by the teeth and saliva then by a massive host of gut bacteria, so gradual changes started taking place; the teeth became larger and the jaws became more powerful and as a result the head became bigger to accommodate the larger jaw and bigger teeth. The neck bones increased in size to bear the weight of the head and to allow for greater range of motion; the gut became larger so the spine became more rigid to hold the weight of his ever expanding stomach. The neck had to be long enough to allow him to browse leaves from the lower branches whilst still being able to reach the ground to graze. The legs had to be long and powerful enough to allow for speed and the body needed to afford agility ...and here lays the first paradox. How can the horse be agile enough to twist and turn to escape predation when the back has to be strong and rigid enough to support the massive gut?

If we take a look at how the back is structured we will appreciate the ingenuity of mother nature....and may also question the 'achievability' of a common expression encountered on your score sheet; that old favourite...'Needs more inside bend'. (alternatives include; needs to curve around inside leg more, needs more lateral flexibility, could soften to the inside more, needs to move around and away from your inside leg more ...amongst others). So, where does ‘inside bend’ come from and is it really possible for your horse to bend around your inside leg through the ‘middle’ or ‘thoracic’ section of his body in order to  follow the curve of a loop, corner or circle? The answer is the horse cannot bend easily in the middle! The thoracic spine is a rigid structure designed to articulate with the ribs that provide the protection for the internal organs, and to transmit propulsion forwards from powerful hind end muscles. The thoracic spinous processes decrease in height as you progress cranially to caudally; those forming the withers are tall and act as levers for the nuchal ligament; as you move caudally the processes become shorter and the inclination alters from caudal to slightly cranial before joining with the lumbar vertebrae. There are 18 vertebrae in the thoracic section. The top of each vertebra allows for attachment of the supraspinous ligament (known as the nuchal ligament in the neck region). As the head is lowered the back is raised and supported thus suspending and supporting the gut.The longissimus dorsi is the largest muscle in the horse and runs bilaterally over the back.

The bend that we are expected to achieve round the inside leg is a result of the ribs moving laterally away from the inside leg pressure allowing the inside hind to step under or 'engage', not from any lateral flexion in the thoracic spine.  Bend comes mostly from the base of the neck with a little lateral flexion  through the thoraco-lumbar junction. The cervical (neck) vertebrae, of which there are 7,  are large and round, allowing, on the whole, multi directional movement whilst providing a large surface area for the attachment for the muscles associated with the neck.

So how can we achieve this feeling of bend?

1.      Firstly by ensuring that the horse is balanced, relaxed and can hold straightness. If there is any degree of tension the compliance of the horse will be compromised.

2.      Check your own symmetry and balance - any tendency to twist or lean will make it impossible for your horse to maintain straightness and balance and tension will follow.

3.      Check the consistency to your contact and the subtlety and softness of your hands and rein aids. A horse that is tense through the poll and jaw will be more likely to hold tension through his neck and back and will become uncompliant. 

If you are having problems achieving this  illusive bend try and work on straightness, rhythm and balance first; once straightness and rhythm can be maintained and the horse is soft and relaxed to the hand, even when asked to circle, change the rein and on loops and corners, the feeling of 'bend' will naturally follow; the more you try and 'push' for bend the more likely it will be that the horse will stiffen and become tense, then straightness will be compromised which will affect the symmetry and balance of your position and you will find that you will be trapped in a downward spiral with the horse becoming more crooked and unbalanced and therefore less compliant.

Any exercise to promote softness, straightness, rhythm and compliance will naturally promote this feeling of balance and 'bend', so try and include transitions, changes of rein and 'half halts' on a regular basis...but above all work towards the feeling of softness and lightness in your hand whilst maintaining a consistent rhythm and tempo at all times.

Remember, for any lateral curvature or ‘bend’ to be produced in the thoracic spine, the head and neck must be flexed all the way back to the body...not something that is advisable when executing ridden exercises. Maybe the word 'bend' should be changed to 'balance'?


Next month...’outline, in front of the vertical, behind the vertical, long and low, deep and round, Rolkur etc!’

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