Horse Behaviour – Speaking the language Part 15

STLlogoA series by SUSAN McBANE* explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training. The series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientific terms presented at the First International Equitation Science Symposium, 2005. The glossary description is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.



‘The lateral curvature of the body that arises principally by the flexing at four sites on the horse’s vertebral column: the cervical region in general, and the thoracic (tenth thoracic vertebra), lumbar (first lumbar vertebra) and sacral (third sacral vertebra) regions (Faber et al., 2000, 2001a, 2001b). Bend allows the horse to step into its foretracks with its hindfeet on a curved line or circle that is greater than 6 m in diameter. Bend is usually accompanied by flexion, lateral, longitudinal and vertical and is an accepted correct feature of all work on curved lines and all lateral movements.’

LATERAL BEND of the horse’s spine (including the neck) has probably been the subject of more, often heated, discussion than any other single aspect of equestrianism for many years. I love antiquarian books and note that learned arguments for and against the possibility of ‘bend’ in the horse’s body do not seem to have appeared much in print before the 20th century.

Many years ago, horse and country magazines often featured rather esoteric articles on various equestrian subjects, including bend. All authors stressed the importance of a horse ‘bending with the line of the circle’. Some explained the established truth that bend is a result of correct work and emphasised that it should not be forced. In books published up to a couple of decades ago, we often saw diagrams showing an overhead view of a horse from poll to tail, following exactly the line of a circle or turn, and were exhorted by instructors to do it.

If a horse has reached the stage in his (patient, correct) schooling where he offers bend in his body, the ribcage against the rider’s inside leg feels softer and more malleable than in a younger or greener horse performing his circles and turns with a straight spine, even though he may have some neck flexion. The neck and tail are the most flexible parts of a horse’s spine and most healthy, sound horses can scratch their hip with their teeth without too much trouble.



The accompanying diagram shows the points of the horse’s spine given in the glossary definition at the beginning of this article. These are the main points at which the spine can flex although there is a very little flexion at other vertebral joints, too. As the horse flexes his spine, his ribcage moves slightly to the outside to accommodate the flexed posture, but we can get out of our heads any idea of the spine uniformly following the exact curve of a circle or bend. It just doesn’t happen. The differences of opinion over the years, indeed centuries, on this topic may well continue and in the past have been indulged in by veterinary surgeons and horsemen and women with no scientific background alike. Nowadays, as well as vets we have other professionals and practitioners with science-based training such as physiotherapists, chiropractors and massage therapists, all trained in their own fields of equine physiology, many of whom are also riders and horse owners, most of whom, from what I can gather, working on the basis that the spine does not bend or flex uniformly.

The size of circle or turn of 6 metres mentioned in the definition at the beginning of this article is felt to be the minimum size, in general, at which horses can be expected to be able to place their hind feet in the prints of their forefeet, as required in good equitation for ‘straightness’. If the curved line you wish to follow would result in a circle smaller than 6 metres, it will be difficult or impossible for many horses to execute purely because of the limited capability for flexion of the equine spine.

It is noticeable that, despite the knowledge that is now fairly widespread concerning spinal flexibility, many horse people with no scientific background still prefer to believe that the spine does, indeed, bend uniformly and I think that this is partly because they do not, understandably, read scientific texts or even, less excusably, veterinary books for ‘ordinary’ horseowners, but do possess several books on riding propounding the old view of spinal flexibility. If they are reading this article, I hope they will look into the topic more fully and discover that the spine does flex – a little and, apart from the neck and tail, mainly at the tenth thoracic and first lumbar vertebrae – but not in the way that we used to think.

Bend is an integral part of school movements. To our eyes, it improves the beauty of the horse and seems logical. Yet horses are quite capable of turning, at liberty and under saddle, with virtually no spinal bend at all, not even in their necks, rather like a battleship. Their natural, fairly effortless way of turning is to do a turn on the centre – watch any horse in the field do this – and horses being schooled under saddle will turn this way unless ‘corrected’ by their rider because it is easy.



A young horse being trained/schooled should not be forced to bend either by the rider’s use of reins and legs or, during groundwork, by being strapped into it by equipment. When, and if, his schooling has strengthened his muscles and other tissues, and the work he has been doing has developed his balance so that he is carrying himself in horizontal balance (i.e. not on the forehand) with his weight a little further back than he would naturally go, it will be found that he offers not only ‘roundness’ of the head and neck posture (using his ‘balancing pole’ to counterbalance the slight rearward shift of his and our weight) but also lateral bend of his own accord. Obviously this is not because he knows we want that but because he is stronger, better balanced and more ‘together’ within himself and it is a natural result of good training and gymnastic exercises.

Those exercises are transitions within and between gaits (lengthening and shortening of stride) and bending exercises such as initially large curves and shallow corners and loops, leading on to large serpentines and circles, shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, then, as the horse builds up physically and learns about his work, smaller circles, deeper loops and half pass. Opinions vary on leg-yield: generally it is performed with a straight body and the horse being allowed to look slightly away from the direction of movement so, because there is no bend required, it is not regarded as a classical movement but is useful for giving the horse a feel of lateral work and for strengthening and suppling the joints and tissues required for it.

Good classical training and equitation science alike ultimately require a horse to go in self-balance and no horse can do this if he is held firmly in what his trainer thinks is a correct outline or way of going because he never gets the chance to develop the muscles which allow him to go independently. Horses ridden coercively and restrictively like this do not, indeed cannot, show bend or roundness or come on to the bit of their own accord. They are known to develop the wrong musculature and to be more susceptible to injuries leading to ‘mysterious’ lamenesses and back, neck and shoulder pain and stiffness. Such horses can also show a variety of behavioural and management problems during work and even when stabled or in the field, due to their stressful work and uncomfortable, painful bodies.

(Many people believe that once a horse’s work is over for the day he forgets about it and carries on with the business of eating, resting, socialising if given the chance, grazing likewise, and just loafing around. My experience convinces me that this is not so. Horses subjected to distress, difficulty and pain during work are badly affected by it for the remaining 22 or 23 hours of their day and beyond. Stereotypies or ‘stable vices’ often occur at some level, also disorders similar to those experienced by over-stressed humans – usually chronic indigestion and, more seriously, gastric ulcers. The fact that these can be prevented by giving medication daily is a help but, of course, the real solution is to not distress the horse in the first place.)

If a horse is taught from the start to be responsible for his own balance, under a rider who knows how to sit in balance with him and use his or her own body correctly, and to gradually work on a light contact in which the bit touches the tongue and lips, but not the bars of the mouth, in a consistent, light but present pressure, his body will develop correctly and naturally in response to the right sort of work. ‘Roundness’ and acceptance of the bit will develop, and from this lateral bend appears. This is so hard for many modern riders to accept, or even understand because they are not taught it, but if they would learn to school and ride correctly and, most importantly, allow the time for the horse’s physical strength to develop, and for him to understand his work and develop a work ethos, which many do, their rewards would be so much greater than if they used more forceful, rushed methods.



In early schooling, the horse is getting used to pressure (aids) from the legs and hands. The old classical tenet of ‘hands without legs, legs without hands’ is important as horses are taught to stop or slow down to pressure on both sides of the bit and to turn, initially, to pressure on one side of the bit – the direct rein aid, right rein to turn right, left rein to turn left. Simple. The hands are used to turn the forehand and to slow down and stop. The legs are used to turn the hindquarters and to ask the horse to go. Do not use legs and hands at the same moment, therefore, as the horse will not know what to do. Similarly, do not try to turn the forehand using your legs.

To ask your horse to turn, you simply apply pressure on the bit on the appropriate side, opening your fingers of the other hand, and he will likely turn his head slightly to that side and move his forelegs in that direction, starting to turn. This is the first step towards lateral flexion on a curve – the head turns by flexing the first few vertebrae at the top of the neck. When you turn, even if he is not ready for a circle yet, ask for it simply with just your inside hand so that he looks round his turn slightly (remembering that he can turn without doing this) so that he gets into the habit of flexing his neck into the turn.

Sound, logical basics like this can be developed from good, early techniques and habits. From early flexion towards the direction of movement, plus the work described earlier, lateral bend will develop. Do not expect or ask your horse to bend round your inside leg at an early stage. So long as he is looking where he is going with a clear, slight neck flexion, this is a great step in the right direction towards lateral bend as he strengthens and develops.



Although the battle against longitudinal hyperflexion (formerly called Rollkür) is not yet over, we are increasingly seeing its bad brother, lateral hyperflexion. Riders swing their horses’ heads (which are usually behind the vertical) from side to side and some ‘trainers’ have the horse going around with his muzzle almost on his rider’s knee. This is done under the guise of increasing lateral flexibility and suppleness. Some clinicians seem to do this with every horse who enters the arena to achieve that and, in one case I heard, to ‘break down his resistance’.

May I suggest that if anyone tells you to do this to your horse you leave the arena immediately and don’t employ them again? Over-flexing a horse like this is not only pointless because it doesn’t produce bodily lateral flexion but also, in my opinion, it is cruel, bullying and indicates a hair-raising lack of knowledge of equine physiology and caring sensitivity towards horses.

Although horses can hyperflex their own necks, they do so for only a very few seconds and it clearly requires some effort. To be forced to do it repeatedly and to sustain it is likely to cause injury to the joints between the neck vertebrae, the joint connecting the lower jaw to the skull, that between the atlas and the skull, and the horse’s mouth. Finally and crucially, imagine what the horse will suffer in his mind and its effects on his well-being and attitude to work.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Classical Riding Club (, the International Society for Equitation Science (, EquiSci for the UK (, the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre ( and the Equine Behaviour Forum ( Also, follow up the links and publications on each site.

(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine ‘Equine Behaviour’. For your copy, send a cheque for £3.50 payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6 Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)

*SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, co-founder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ (see advert this issue). For lessons in and near Lancashire, ring 01254 705487 or email


Author: Features Editor

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