THE IMPORTANCE OF FLEXION AND BEND

THE IMPORTANCE OF FLEXION AND BEND

Translation by Lynne Sprinsky of
DIE WICHTIGKEIT VON STELLUNG UND BIEGUNG
by Walter Zettl
Each turn and every exercise begins with flexion, including riding through corners, 20-6 m. circles and changes of direction, serpentines down the long side as well as through the whole arena, leg yielding, increasing and decreasing the square, turns on the forehand and haunches, lateral movements, flying changes, pirouettes, and so forth.
WHAT IS FLEXION?
How does one achieve and recognize [correct] flexion? At the halt, the horse allows his jowl to be lightly positioned to the left or the right, and thereby the crest flips toward the side to which the horse is flexed. The horse's neck maintains its proud posture, and remains straight at the withers [ -- all these are hallmarks of correct flexion]. This is achieved, for example to the left, by slightly engaging both seat muscles, and closing the left fist as though one were squeezing a damp sponge, then releasing both of these as soon as the horse obediently softens his left jowl and begins to chew contentedly. The right rein limits the degree of flexion, so that one sees only the shimmering of the left eye and the rim of the left nostril. Both ears are even horizontally. The rider deepens his right heel, thereby bulking the calf. The exercise, like all others, should begin with the horse's good or easy side. Usually this is to the left, in accordance with the horse's natural crookedness. If the horse yields easily to the left and the right, the exercise can be repeated in the walk and trot, and finally in canter. No force may be used, which would only frighten the horse and make him tense.
WHAT IS BEND?
In the training environment one often hears that the horse must be evenly from head to tail around the rider's inside leg. This is only provisionally correct, for the horse's spinal column is a solid structure of interconnected vertebrae, which can't bend very much in itself. The "bend" is manifested when the horse yields in its ribcage to the pressure of the rider's inside leg. [To continue with our example of a left bend,] This is supported by the rider's right leg, moved slightly back and well draped against the horse.
In the corner, the horse needs to bend slightly more. The degree of flexion asked for leads the horse into the desired degree of bend, which will depend upon the level of the horse's training. This is then repeated in subsequent corners.

If the horse shies on the left hand, no matter the reason, one must not try to counter this tendency by pulling forcefully with the right rein, or by punishing the horse with the whip and/or the spurs. The horse shies because it believes itself in danger. [If the reins, whip or spurs are used forcefully at such moments,] next time the horse will connect any perceived danger with the punishment it has suffered, and will become even more frightened. Pulling with the right rein only causes the horse to fall more over its left shoulder. Instead, one must begin some distance before the "spooky spot" to flex the horse even more to the left, and to give half halts, to prevent the horse from being able to break out to the left. The rider's left leg is placed slightly back with a guarding effect. If the right leg were used with equal pressure, it would have the effect of pushing the horse even further to the left.
Counterflexion is used when the horse habitually carries his haunches to the left. The rider may not attempt to use the left leg more forcefully in an effort to push the hindquarters to the right. The horse will only quicken. Such a horse must be ridden for a time in shoulder-in on the left hand, or better yet, in renvers, and also in counter-flexion to the right, in order to prevent the horse's shoulders from falling to the right and its haunches to the left. On the right hand, this horse must be ridden for a while in travers. In order to straighten the horse, the rider must align the shoulders with the hindquarters. As long as the horse is not straight, no exercise can be correctly ridden. "Ride your horse forward and make him straight" must always be the rider's watchword. We will be confronted with the crookedness of the horse with every new exercise.

On the 20-6 m. circle, the bend must remain consistent from beginning to end, with the degree of bend depending on the diameter of the circle being ridden. Each step, trot stride, and canter 'jump' must "turn" in order to contribute part of the curved perimeter of the circle. And the center point of the circle must be immovable.
When the hand is changed out of the circle, this happens over the course of three strides. For the first stride, the horse is still on the bend of the "old" circle. The horse is straightened for the second stride, and by the third stride must be flexed and bend according to the "new" circle. Increased pressure with the new inside leg, around which the horse is bent, is very important at this point, in order to engage the horse's new inside hind leg. Any haste or harshness must be avoided. With turn on the forehand left or leg yield left, the horse is straight in his body but slightly flexed left.

For shoulder-fore, the horse's body adopts the bend needed for a 20-m circle. For shoulder-in, the longitudinal bend is that of a 10-m circle. The horse is bent away from the direction toward which it is moving.
For travers and half pass, the horse's longitudinal bend is that of a 6-m. circle. This is the most radical bend one can demand from a horse. For walk and canter pirouettes, the horse is flexed and longitudinally bent as for a 6-m volte, toward the direction that it is turning, and should make the smallest possible volte with its inside hind foot. In so doing, the four-beat walk rhythm and the three-beat canter rhythm must not be lost. This is only possible when the pirouettes are not ridden too small.

For the short half-pirouette in walk, from the trot or the canter, the horse first makes a transition from either gait into walk. The first walk step must already incorporate the left flexion and bend for the first step of the pirouette. As soon as the forehand and haunches are again lined up straight, the last step of the half-pirouette becomes the first step of the trot or canter as the horse immediately resumes the preceding gait. The horse trots on or takes up the canter with its body straight and with a slight inward flexion.

For the simple change of canter, for example from right to left, the horse will still be flexed right as it transitions to the first walk step. By the second walk stride, it should be straight, and by the third, flexed left in preparation for the left lead canter, in order to be able to take the canter as soon as the rider [advances his] left hip.
For the flying change from right to left, in order to execute the change in good balance the horse must be prepared by means of a gentle flexion to the left in time for the "third phase" of the canter footfall, that is, when the inside foreleg touches the ground.

For tempi changes at every stride, it's very important to have easy changes in flexion to the left and right. Only then it is possible to avoid having to pull the neck, from the withers forward, too strongly to one side, thus making the "ones" much more difficult for the horse. The less visible the aids, the more willing the horse will be to respond to the rider's aids.

Note to the editor: In order to make it easier for the rider to understand the following exercises, a diagram of a standard dressage arena with all the letters and the center- and quarter-lines should be placed at this point in the article.

In riding serpentines, as for example a simple one-loop serpentine ridden on the long side from F to M, the horse is turned softly off the track at F by means of a slight left flexion and bend. It then describes a flattened arc whose apex touches the quarter line 5 m between X and B. About 2.5 m.[or one horse's length] before reaching this point, the horse's flexion and bend are gently changed to the right, and it maintains this bend until about 2.5 m. before M. At that point, the horse's flexion and bend are once again changed to the left, so that the horse can also be ridden correctly through the corner.

Double serpentine on the long side between F and M: The first left flexion/bend comes at F, and then a flattened arc is ridden so that it is 2.5 meters from the wall at its widest point, which falls between L and P. Two and a half meters before that point, the flexion/bend changes to the right, and the flattened arc continues toward B. Another 2.5 m. before B, the flexion/bend changes back to the left. The serpentine line continues toward R, and is at its widest point 2.5 meters from the wall (between R and I). As the rider approaches that point, he changes the horse's flexion/bend back to the right, and rides on towards M. Just before M he again changes flexion/bend towards the left and proceeds through the corner. Thus we have first a flat left arc, second a right arc, third a left arc, fourth a right arc, and fifth, the final left arc which leads into the corner. This makes it evident how quickly a double serpentine requires the horse to change its flexion and bend five times.
Further serpentine exercises:

Four loop serpentine the length of the arena from A to C: At A, the first loop left bend begins and describes a portion of a 10m. half-circle until it touches the first quarter line. At that point the rider straightens the horse and continues straight until the second quarter line. Here the horse is flexed and bent right on the second 10m half-circle and ridden once more towards the first quarter line, but is straightened as it passes over X , and the new (opposite) bend is begun at the second quarter line. This left bend leads the horse into the third 10-m half-circle left. On approaching the center line the horse is straightened, and begins the change of flexion/bend for the fourth and final 10-m half-circle as it nears the three-quarter line. This fourth half-circle ends at C.
With an even number of serpentine loops, the horse ends up on the opposite rein from where it began, and with an odd number it finishes on the same rein that it started on. In a 20x40 m arena four 10-m half circles can be ridden, and a 20x60 m arena can accommodate six 10 m half-circles.

Shoulder-Fore: The horse is bent slightly around the inside calf along the long side of the arena; the degree of bend is equivalent to a 20 m. circle. Here the horse steps between the hoof prints of its forelegs with its inside hind leg.

Shoulder In: The horse steps with its inside hind leg into the hoof print of its outside foreleg. Its bend is equivalent to a 10 m circle In both the shoulder-fore and the shoulder- in, the horse is flexed away from its direction of travel.
My old Master, Col. H.W. Aust, taught us to develop shoulder-fore in travers in walk, trot and canter. Renvers was only developed in counter-canter.

What is "Entwickeln" [(literally, "develop")], how is it ridden and what is its purpose? "Entwickeln" is an exercise that renders the horse obedient and supple through the use of flexion and bend as well as straightness. It is critical for the rider to be able to give well-balanced aids.

How is "Entwickeln" ridden? Before starting this exercise, it's imperative that neither horse nor rider have any difficulty at all with the lateral movements in all three gaits. The rider must know precisely how "Entwickeln" is ridden so that he can focus exclusively on his aids. In shoulder-fore and shoulder-in, we begin on the left rein. After both reins and the right knee have been used to bring the horse's shoulder in off the track for either shoulder-fore or shoulder-in, and several steps or strides of walk, trot or canter have been completed, the rider straightens the horse with the right rein and leg, but without altering the horse's angle to the wall, and rides 2-3 steps or strides straight ahead as though he were about to change direction on a diagonal line. Next, the rider again flexes and bends the horse for shoulder-fore or shoulder-in, keeping the right rein and using half halts, together with a well-applied, sidewards driving left leg, to drive the horse, still in shoulder-fore or shoulder-in, back to the wall until the horse's right (outside) hind hoof touches the track. Immediately the rider then straightens the horse with the outside rein and again rides 2-3 steps or strides forward into the arena. Almost right away, within the first stride or two (depending on how sensitively the horse reacts to the rider's aids), the rider again asks for shoulder-fore or shoulder-in, and in that flexion and bend the horse is ridden back to the track. This sequence is repeated for the length of the long side.

Developing Travers (Travers Entwickeln)
On the long side from F to M, riding on the second track, at F the rider uses his right (outside) leg to bring the horse's haunches just far enough to the inside that the horse is bent left, with the degree of bend equivalent to that of a 6-m. circle. After only a few steps of travers, the horse is ridden forward into the arena for 2-3 steps, still bent as for travers. Then the horse is straightened and ridden back to the second track. As soon as its outside foreleg touches the second track, the rider once again positions the horse for travers and rides 2-3 strides into the arena. At that point the horse is once again straightened and ridden back to the second track. This can be repeated 4-10 times down the long side. This exercise, as for shoulder-fore or shoulder-in Entwickeln, can be ridden in walk, trot, and canter.

Developing Renvers Left
Beginning at the first corner on the long side from F to M, riding on the second track, the rider uses both reins and his outside knee to place the horse in shoulder-in left. In this posture he rides the horse 2-3 strides into the arena on a diagonal line as though he wanted to change rein. At this point the rider flexes and bends the horse for renvers right and rides the horse in renvers back to the second track. As soon as the outside (right) hind leg touches the second track, the rider straightens the horse but without allowing the shoulders to fall back to the track. The flexion (right) of the renvers may not change. After a few straight-ahead steps as though changing direction on the diagonal, the horse is flexed and bent for renvers and ridden in renvers back to the second track, etc. At M, the rider straightens the horse in order to ride through the corner with the correct flexion and bend (equivalent to a 6-m. circle). This exercise can be executed in walk and trot, but only in counter-canter, because otherwise the rider would have to ride the horse back to the second track in true canter with counter-flexion.
These exercises are only helpful with the horse lets itself be flexed and bent easily to left and right. Naturally, all of them can be ridden on the right rein as well.

Traversale (Half Pass) the full width of the arena at walk and trot is ridden across the arena from F to H. To make it easier for the horse and the rider, one must envision riding the half-pass along an imaginary wall that extends diagonally from F to H. Shortly before the letter F, the horse is flexed left and bent around the rider's inside calf, which lies at the girth, and the rider sits into the movement with the left seat bone. The rider's outside (right) leg brings the horse's haunches to the left until the horse is bent as for a 6-m circle. At this point the horse is almost parallel to the long side. The horse crosses both its fore- and hind legs in the particular half-pass posture. The forehand leads somewhat. The horse must maintain the rhythm and tempo he displayed before beginning the half-pass. Shortly before the letter H, the rider uses his right knee and the reins to straighten the horse with a half-halt. He then flexes and bends the horse as for a 6-m circle to the right as he rides through the corner.
Simple Half-Traversale from F to E. Again one thinks of a wall from F to E, along which one rides in half-pass left. Again the horse is flexed and bent to the left beginning at F. Now the fore- and hind-legs must cross a bit more strongly. The tempo and the rhythm may not change. As for all half-pass work, the horse travels almost parallel to the long side. The forehand must lead the hindquarters a little bit. Shortly before E, the rider straightens the horse with a half-halt, using his right knee and the right rein against the neck. The same aids are used for the second half to the right of the traversale ridden along a new imaginary wall. Shortly before E the horse is straightened and then immediately flexed and bent to the right, and the half-pass is then ridden from E to M.

A Half-Traversale is ridden from F to X. At X the horse is straightened and ridden straight down the center line to C.
Double Half-Traversale is ridden from F to X to M. The same aids are used as have previously been described.
Half-Pass Zig-Zag is ridden beginning with 3-4 steps Half-Pass to the left, then 6-8 steps Half-Pass to the right, followed by 6-8 steps Half-Pass to the left, and ending with 3-4 steps Half-Pass to the right. On the left, turning at A, the horse travels on to the center line with left flexion and bend, continuing straight until just before D. At D, the horse is flexed and bent for the first leg of the zig-zag and 3-4 steps are ridden Half-Pass to the left. As soon as the second or third step, the horse's flexion and bend are changes and 6-8 steps of half-pass are ridden to the right for the second zig-zag leg of the Half-Pass. Between the 5th and 7th step the horse is flexed and bent left for the third leg of Half-Pass and 6-8 steps are ridden to the left. The fourth leg of the zig-zag of Half-Pass is ridden back to the center line. In 3-4 steps the horse is straightened and ridden to C, then flexed and bent right to continue on the right. Here again we see how important it is that the horse allows himself to be flexed and bent easily both right and left.

Canter Half-Pass with Flying Change, Because the horse, depending on its level of training, may need considerable time to accept new aids, the rider must know precisely when to give the aids for the flying change from right to left, while simultaneously introducing the aids for half pass left. Always, the change of flexion to the left comes first. At the same time, the rider weights the left seat bone a bit more, the new inside (left) leg drives the horse's left hind leg more under, and the reins and the rider's right leg, positioned slightly back, bend the horse as for a 6-m. circle. The left inside rein takes softly and then gives while the rider's right outside leg, a bit behind the girth, drives the hindquarters sideways together with appropriate half-halts on the right outside rein. Show the horse what you want from him, but then be soft and allow him to execute it. Often a rider tries to bring the hindquarters sideways with overly strong outside (right) leg aids. But the horse just quickens. [Instead,] the rider needs to use left half-halts aids to bring the shoulders a bit more to the right, thereby bringing the hindquarters as far left as they need to be.

From the preceding comments one can see how important flexion and bend are for the education of a dressage horse, and indeed for all horses. We must not forget that dressage is the foundation for every riding discipline. The horses must be so well trained that they can even be ridden by a weak or less-skilled rider. The horse should be our partner, on whom we can depend. And the horse must be able to depend on his rider. The horse must not fear the rider, but respect him.

Image Gallery

Walter Zettl

I believe in dressage as art, and I have practiced that art throughout my professional life.”
-Walter A. Zettl

Contact Us

You can visit Walter's Facebook or YouTube Channel for more information.
Or contact Premier Equestrian at 800-611-6109

Facebook walter zettl facebookOfficial Facebook FanPage
YouTube Walter Zettl YouTubeWalter Zettl YouTube
Phone800-611-6109
E-mail: agent@WalterZettl.net