Riding the green horse: counter bending

The last article I wrote was focused on basic bending. Lateral suppleness is very important in a schooled horse. It can allow us to position the horse’s feet where we need them through bending and straightening the body. This flexibility helps improve balance, and will help get the horse soft and round and connected. Being able to comfortably bend the green horse will lead to improved performance but at this stage it is still about safety and control.

Keeping an inside bend in a green horse helps develop steering with a direct rein. It helps keep the horses head down and encourages him to yield to bit pressure. It also helps me keep a physical advantage in case things get a bit more exciting than expected. With my horse bent I can keep him in a small circle until things calm down. It is only when my horse has too much speed that turning my horse into a small circle is not a good idea. If the horse has too much momentum bending him too much into a small circle could cause him to lose his balance to the point he could fall over with me on him. This is where counter bending can be valuable.

Counter bending means bending my horse towards the rail rather than into the middle of the ring. As training progresses counter bending is a valuable tool that can help a horse accept an indirect rein and will lead to things like shoulder in and side passing. At this point it is to help build lateral flexibility and regain control at speed. If my horse gets too fast and gets scared, bending him into the rail will help him from running away with me. The rail acts as a brake by slightly blocking forward movement because the rail is always in front of the horse. That does not mean that he won’t decide to very quickly change directions on me. I try to keep him facing the rail by changing reins if he changes directions.

To teach my horse to counter bend it begins the same as basic bending in a circle. He needs to respond to a direct rein and bend in that direction. I will use my inside leg to help encourage the bend if he resists the rein aid. During the counter bend I will define inside rein and leg as the aids on the inside of the way the horse is bent not the inside or outside of the circle he is traveling on.

I want him to be able to walk a circle while bending to the left without stopping and without changing directions or drifting into the middle of the ring. To do this I will start by riding towards the rail on a 45 degree angle facing the direction I want to travel. I will shorten my inside rein (left hand) and bump with my inside leg and ask him to bend towards the rail. I need to keep enough contact in my outside rein (right hand) to make sure that he does not change directions towards the rail. I also need to keep enough leg on to keep him forward. If he stops when I bend him I will send him forward right away and ask again for the bend. I play with the amount of bend necessary, if I have too much bend he will try to turn left and he will lose his forward motion. Not enough bend and he will just be walking in a circle. I sometimes over bend him until I feel him start a turn on the forehand and then release and send him forward before he can change directions.

I will use my each hand to support the other hand, left rein to initiate the bend and right rein to prevent a change of direction and then left rein so he does not lose the bend and if he can take a step or two I will release and let him walk forward. I will continue to ask and release until I can get several comfortable steps, at that point I will change directions and repeat the whole process. It can sometimes take several days for them to get comfortable counter bending.

If I have a horse that finds it very difficult I will get off and go back to the work in hand that I have done with him in the past. I will work him through a few large turns on the forehand in each direction and then get back on and try again.

If my horse continues to have a lot of difficulty I will leave it and try again tomorrow. I do not want frustration to set in so I will take what he can give me if anything and be satisfied with that. I will maybe go back and work on basic bending and make sure that he is comfortable changing directions with a direct rein. There can sometimes just be too much going through the horses mind and he could be misinterpreting what I was asking him for. I want to make sure that I leave him with a clear understanding of the basic aids before I ask him to counter bend again. I will also evaluate whether I have been rushing the horse into learning more that he can clearly understand in one day. It is easy to do especially that the things I am teaching are getting more complicated.

As the training progresses for the green horse the expectations that we have for our horse to perform can become exponentially more difficult from day to day. It is more important to continue to encourage effort than it is to demand correctness. The horse is still in a fragile stage of his training. His knowledge has increased but as the work load increases the stress on him mentally is still enough to set him back considerably. I always try to keep in mind how much he is already dealing with and try to proceed with caution when asking for something new. Working this way helps the horse deal with a new challenge that he may or may not want to perform, if he deals with the challenges of training with confidence he will learn that he can deal with things that he does not entirely understand. We are also expecting him to respond to our aids more quickly so he has less time to think before he commits himself, this can lead to him making more mistakes. As I ask for more performance I always try to allow more time for him to try to be correct. I believe that as long as he has the confidence in himself to try to do what I ask he will face every new challenge with confidence.
© 2007 Will Clinging