Correctly bending a horse involves two variations of muscle recruitment. First, the muscles on the inside of the bend contract concentrically, which means they create strength by getting shorter. As the horse flexes his spine inwards, the muscles of his topline and sides flex and shorten to draw his front and hind end closer together. Meanwhile, the outside of his body needs to lengthen in order to allow the spine to bend. This engaging-while-lengthening type of muscle engagement is called an eccentric contraction. These types are needed for their stabilizing role during many maneuvers in dressage such as bending. They support the spine and provide balance to the horse’s inner muscles (internal and external oblique, rectus abdominal, transvers abdominal, latissimus), allowing them to become stronger by flexing and shortening.
When a horse finds bending in one particular direction more difficult than the other, it’s easy to assume a weakness resides on the side of his body placed on the inside of the bend at that moment. Many times this is not the case at all. Very often, horses struggle with bending maneuvers in the direction that places their weaker side on the outside. When needing to stabilize himself through eccentric contractions on this weaker side, the horse struggles. He will lose energy, get resistant, stumble with balance. I have always found that suppleness and symmetry can be restored by developing strength in the muscles that stabilize the horse’s hip and stifle joints and his lower back. When these are on the outside of a bend, their role upon balance and overall quality of movement cannot be over-stated. Once a horse gets stronger in these areas, his quality of bending in both directions will equalize. Not only will he be able to flex his spine and ribcage inwards for a bend but he will also be able to support his balance and movement by properly tensioning his outer body.
Here is an exercise I use to develop strength in the muscles around the horse’s hips and stifles. It combines good joint flexion—caused by lifting the legs over poles—with stabilizing strength from tight ever-changing bends. This exercise has often been used as a physical therapy routine for horses post-injury to strengthen their ability to adduct and abduct front and hind legs. Today, I use it as a general strength building exercises for all horses, equally valuable when done either from the ground or under saddle.
Snake Over Poles
- Place two or more 8’ poles end-to-end in the center of your arena. Be sure they are lying in a straight line.
- In working walk or jog, make serpentine loops to cross over the poles.
- Keep your loops small; think of keeping the horse’s hind legs close to the ground rail, rather than letting him walk far out away from the pole at each turn.
- Remember to change bend through the horse’s entire spine with each loop. Draw his head/neck in the new direction/bend first. Then ask for bend through the ribcage and spine.