To Bend or Not to Bend: That is the Question
In recent years it has become quite popular to indulge in lengthy discussions on whether a dressage horse is capable of bending its ribcage and spine - as the Old Masters claimed in all their writings - or not. Modern scientists doing extensive research have come up with sometimes contradictory findings which have left the dressage world in a state of confusion. Some experts say, although never having ridden nor trained a horse themselves, that a horse can not bend his spine at all, while others maintain that all bending is only imaginary. Statements like that can easily be used as a perfect excuse never to bother with bending exercises and can result in the opinion that bending is bad and unnatural. No wonder that there are so many talented and gifted yet stiff and rigid horses out there.
I have been actively involved in the training of the dressage horse
for over 40 years and during that time I have missed few days in the saddle.
My Alma Mater, the Spanish riding School in Vienna, is proud of being in
existence for over 400 years. The school is one of the few riding academies
in the world where its members focus on practical riding methods rather
than on theoretical-empirical discussions, which are considered of little
value in the real world training of the horse.
As a young rider under the famous Colonel Alois Podhajsky, I witnessed on a daily basis the approach of older riders in regards to the bending of the horse. Among other significant principles, the importance and necessity of bending was firmly implanted in our physical and mental consciousness from the very beginning. There was no doubt in our minds that a horse had the ability to flex or bend and whenever bending was discussed, a distinction was made between the bending of the horse's ribcage as opposed to the bending solely of the horse's neck.
I remember quite vividly the hours of the LEKTION, which is what a mounted
session a completely trained school horse is called at the Spanish Riding
School. The voice of my teacher still rings clear as he encouraged me to
bend my horse around my inner leg...... biegen Sie ihn doch mehr um den
inneren Schenkel" especially when riding through corners, working on circles,
practicing shoulder-ins, flying changes, half-passes, travers, renvers,
voltes and pirouettes. it is hard to believe that an institution which
has been around for over 400 years would ask for something a horse was
incapable of doing.
Modern studiosi claim that a horse can not bend, and some even encourage the riders not to bother trying. Claims like that can have a devastating effect on the proper training of the horse in the long run, resulting in stiff and unnatural gaits and decidedly unclassical movements. The great Podhajsky used to say: "Gentlemen, we, at this institute, do not need the 'green-table-rider-attitude' nor will we tolerate the 'green-table-approach' towards training. We are, and always must remain, practical horsement, bound by tradition and the law of nature and inspired by the success of our forefathers. There is no need to invent the wheel again in riding." By 'green-table-riders' Podhajsky referred to those who feel compelled to invest much time and energy in the discussion of horsemanship at the round table, those who know everything in theory while in practice demonstrate poor examples of able equestrian.s In referring to the 'green-table-approach' Podhajsky clearly frowned upon the overemphasizing of the theory without practical backup, and the solving of training problems through theoretical discussion which could not stand up to the test of time.
Throughout the history of Dressage many books were written and in almost
all of them, bending is mentioned in one way or the other. In the book
Die Logik in der Reitkunst von Oberst a.D. Spohr (The Logic in Riding)
this relevant statement is found: "The ability to bend requires the ability
to stretch..... the lateral ability to bend the ribcage is only a means
for the rider to reach the hind legs, to bend the haunches through the
application of the half-halts...." Close to the end of WWII Oberst von
Haugh published an excellent little booklet entitled: Die Bearbeitung junger
Pferde mit der Transe (von einem alten Reiter). The translation is: Working
Young Horses With the Snaffle (from an old rider). In this work he writes:
"Bending is necessary to (1) make the horse submissive, agile and supple
and (2) to teach him the proper canter depart...."
W = the square root of S2 + T2 : a bit of black board dressage for the theoretically and mathematically inclined from the 1879 work: The Mechanical Principles in Riding by E. f. Migotti, a lieutenant of the Imperial Field Artillery. Throughout the book Migotti explains in mathematical formulas the movements and the gaits of the horse. The above formula for instance say: "The action of the hind legs is the result of the ability to thrust (di spingere)and to carry.(di portare)...." There has never been (to my knowledge) a more mechanical book written about the horse than that of Mr. Migotti's and yet he speaks about the importance of the..... "bending of the horse's body."
Udo Bürger in his book: Vollendete Reitkunst says: "Submissiveness
means, the horse responds to the rider's aids from the rear to the front
as well as from the front to the rear, equally on both sides, with bending,
without bending or with counter(contrario) bending....." And at another
spot Dr. Bürger talks about bending to achieve straightness(per ottener
il raddrizzamento): "A horse which can be controlled by the rider in such
a way that it can be flexed equally in both directions and whose head and
neck position is in harmony with his longitudinal bend, is a horse which
is also straight."
Leopold von Heydebrand unde Der Lasa in his book Illustrierte Geschichte der Reiterei, (Illustrated History of Riding), which deals with the development of Classical Horsemanship throughout the centuries also talks about bending: "The two track movements are the ultimate polishing exercises in the bending of the horse..." Gustav Steinbrecht, who became famous for his Gymnasium of the Horse, the most comprehensive and in my opinion the best book ever written about proper training, frequently refers to the importance of straightness within the horse, which can only be achieved through the ability to bend properly. Every top trainer in Europe is familiar with the technical terms such as "geraderichtendes Biegen" (bending in order to be able to make the horse straight) or "gebogen-gerade" (straight with flexion). These principles are important cornerstones in the correct training of the Dressage horse.
Monsieur de la Gueriniere, the authority on shoulder-in was of the opinion the: "In the shoulder-in the horse learns to bend in its entire length. The effect of the shoulder-in on the horse is to bend and to relax, while the effect of the haunches-in is to bend and collect."
When the two German Veterinarians Mr. Simon and Haase discovered the muscle-ring roughly one hundred years ago, they also discovered the importance of the fine balance between the ability to bend and the ability to stretch. The yielding to the inner aids (leg-rein) and the acceptance of the outer aids enable the rider to encourage proper stretching and bending at will. Proper bending is the result of proper stretch ing and vice versa. It becomes quite clear that the bending which concerns the rider varies greatly from the bending ability which concerns the scientist. Paleontologist Dr. Deb Bennet in her book: Principles of Conformation Analysis writes the following: "In the early members of the horse family such as the HYRACOTHERIUM 55 million years ago, the horse's backbone lost its primitive arch and most of its ability to twist and flex laterally in the lumbar region. The horse's back is still more flexible than that of a camel or of any advanced cloven=hoofed mammal. But still it is not as flexible as a cheetah."
I think that most of us would ageree that horses are not by nature as flexible as cats or certain members of the canine family such as Afghan Hounds. But while scientists like Sleijper might be interested in the anatomy of whales and dolphins and in the importance of the scaleum muscle, should not we the riders concern ourselves more with the crucial question: is the horse willing( disponibile) or unwilling to bend? Every rider who has had the opportunity to sit on well trained horses can testify what a wonderful feeling it is to ride one which knows how to bend its body.
Copyright 1996 by Karl Mikolka
- Società Italiana di Arte Equestre Classica