Episode 168: Q&A: ‘I need help getting my horse to bend’; groundwork & ridden

Why do some horses resist bending in the direction of the circle when being lunged or ridden?
Two listeners called in asking versions of this question. The answer includes; defining bend and counter-bend, deciding why we want bend, determining the ‘big picture’ with bend and why some horses seem distracted. I also introduce the concept of ‘rebound’, or the horses desire to immediately pull away from the bending rein. I share two different reasons this happens and offer new ways to look at the challenge of bend.

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Stacy Westfall: [00:00:32] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is a Q&A season. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can leave a voicemail by visiting my website and looking for the orange button that says, “Leave Voicemail for Podcast.” Today, I’m answering two questions about bend. One is a groundwork question and the other is ridden. I’ll be talking about what bend and counter bend are, how balance plays a role, what rebound is–I made up that word so yeah, you’re going to have to listen for that definition–and also how the different stages of training impact bend. Let’s listen to the first question.

Caller 1: [00:01:20] Hi, Stacy, thank you so much for all that you do. My problem today is that I need some help getting my horse bent and looking in the direction where he’s going on a circle. His body is going on the circle, but his eye and his heart and his mind are looking at something else. And he’s moving in the direction I want him to be but he’s not bent in the direction of the circle. In a way, we’ve made progress because he used to just stop and stare at whatever it was that interested him. So we’ve moved beyond that, but I really want to move to the point where he is–his mind is focused on where he’s going, and he’s bent correctly in the right direction. He’s just turned five. I’ve done all the work on him myself. He’s pasture kept. Anyway I wouldn’t describe him as a leader, but I wouldn’t describe him as a follower either. I hope that you can help us. Thank you so much again for all of your good work. Take care and have a great day.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:20] Thanks for your question. And before I jump into the answer, I just want to talk a minute about bend and counter bend so that we’re all using the same terminology. So when I think about a horse bending, I’m going to imagine a horse traveling to the right. The way this question was asked, I’m going to guess that this horse is being lunged on a lunge line. And so let’s just imagine this horse is traveling to the right and bend would be being able to have that horse’s inside eye. So the traveling to the right, the right eye would be bent to the inside. If you were up on top of the horse, you would be able to see the right eye. You would see the neck bending to the–to the right. Now keep in mind that bend goes further than just the neck. It’s not just about the neck bend, and it’s more about like the bend throughout the body, the way the horse is engaging. However, there is also something called counter bend and counter bend would be, imagine the same horse going around to the right and instead of the eye being bent into the right. So if we were up above looking down, instead of that horse matching its body kind of to the circle so that the eye is bent to the inside, we would actually have that horse would be still traveling to the right. But for counter bend the horse’s outside eye, the left eye, would be more visible from up top. So there would be a counter bend. Now again, keep in mind that this counter bend can be exhibited just through the head and neck, or it can be through that horse’s body. So keep that in mind as you’re picturing it. But basically a lot of times when people are saying that they want the horse to bend in the direction of the circle, they’re talking about bend being able to see the horse’s inside eye if you are riding it or having the horse looking to the inside when they’re doing the groundwork. There’s some level of bending in the direction of travel, inside eye matching the same direction of the circle versus what I’m going to call counter bend. Some people would call counter arc, some people would just say looking to the outside. So now that we have that a little bit established, when I listen to this question, it’s interesting because I’m going to ask a question that might seem oversimplified. I promise it matters if you answer this question. So I’m going to ask it and then I want everybody listening to answer it. Here’s the question: Why do you want your horse bent and looking in the direction he’s going on the circle? Did everybody answer that? Why do you want your horse bent and looking in the direction he’s going on the circle? If the first thing that popped into your mind was blankness, then that’s something. If your answer was because he’s supposed to, then I want you to ask why? And if that comes up with, because my instructor told me to or because a video told me to or an article told me to then I actually think it matters that you dig a little bit deeper. Because if you answer with, because somebody else told me to, then what’s very likely to happen is that you’re very likely to focus on the neck bend, the head and the neck. You’re going to be thinking when I lunge my horse to the right, he should be bending on the arc of that circle because the instructor told me to. The article told me to. Therefore, he should be. Is the neck bending? Yes or no? Yes. Yay. No. Uh-oh. And that’s just not deep enough. If you can start to look deeper at what the bend is, a piece of what the bend is indicating how the bend is useful because, believe it or not, counter bend is useful. So when you start to understand why bend? Why counter bend? Why this much bend versus that much bend? Why bend? OK, Bend could be considered part of my horse being collected like a–like a coiled spring. There’s a power in collecting and bending and bringing this together. So now if I’m looking at this bend as being part of this coiled spring, as part of this balanced, flexible, collected image, how can I look for that more broad thing? Balanced, flexible, collected? How can I look for that instead of possibly overfocusing on the bend? Don’t get me wrong, the bend is a piece of that bigger picture. But make sure you keep going back to that bigger picture of why you want the bend. So let’s say that you’re lunging the horse and it’s going around to the right, but you notice it’s looking off to the left. It’s got an outside bend, so it’s counter bent bending out to the left when you’re looking at that horse. And instead of just thinking, why isn’t he bending to the inside? We start thinking, I notice when my horse is doing this, when the horse’s head is to the outside, when it feels like the shoulder is pushing in towards me. It feels like the shoulder is leaning away and pulling weight. He’s pulling on me. That’s right. I don’t like that. He’s dragging me. I don’t like that. He looks distracted. I don’t like that. He’s pulling on me. What’s going on here? Now we start seeing a lot more pieces than just the bend, and we can start saying, OK, maybe the bend isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s a symptom of a bigger problem.

Stacy Westfall: [00:08:30] Now I love that you were kind of onto yourself. You’re onto this because you started observing some other things. But right before we go to observing the other parts of his body that you mentioned like the idea that his heart and his mind are somewhere else. One last thing on the bend. One last question around the bend here. What if bend, when you were lunging, had to be the third item on the priority list? If you’re lunging the horse and bend being a problem wasn’t allowed to be the number one thing, if bend wasn’t the number one priority, if you had to put two other things above bend as priorities while you were lunging, what would come ahead of those? I like that even in this voicemail, you actually already jumped on to one that I would put up there, which is the idea that you’re able to control the direction he’s going. You said before he would sometimes stop and look elsewhere. So I like that you made the observation that his body is on the circle. But you said, his eye, his heart, his mind are somewhere else. To me, this is an interesting verbalization of the idea that basically we’re always in training, the way that I’m viewing it, and this illustrates it really well. We’re kind of doing this body, mind, body, mind, stair-step up through a lot of the training. At least that’s how I view it. So what happens is, you know, you’ve got this horse and the horse is going around you. So there is a control, a level of control over this horse’s body, but you want the next level and that next level is going to require that horse’s mind. Technically, to get to the level you’ve got to require the mind and then you got the body and then you’re going to get more of the mind and then more of the body and it’s going to continue to stair-step up like that. So for me, as these levels go up through, sometimes you hear me talking about it, using the vocabulary of elementary school, high school, and college. And the reason I do this is because it helps illustrate or remind us that there are different levels of understanding. And even inside of those different levels of understanding, there are different levels of responsibility. And I do love the definition, the ability to respond, which also again, responsibility when you think of it as the ability to respond, means that they were set up for success. So you don’t just decide one day that a kindergarten human child should be responsible for running the household because their ability to respond to the things that would come up wouldn’t be there. So there’s a level of understanding that’s there. I think it’s really this is an interesting concept right now. I’m going to introduce–OK. It’s totally going to sound backwards. Elementary school horse, when you’re lunging it, very, very green. Let’s say it’s got a halter on for the very first time. If an elementary level horse, halter on it for the very first time, and let’s say that it’s the first day that you’ve been working with the horse. It’s just very, very, very green. If the horse wants to leave, it leaves. So if I ask you with an elementary school horse, very green, super green, crazy green like it just met humans. If the horse is going around you, you’re going to be like, Well, at least 51 percent of it wants to be here because it would leave if not. There’s one of the beautiful things about the early, early stages with the horses is that it is more black and white. Here’s what gets a little bit more complicated, I think, but I love the way you left this voicemail because you’re on to it, and a lot of us sense this, and I’m trying to put it into words for you. As the horses spend more time with people, they develop more of an understanding of what we are willing to tolerate, what we are doing, what we are after. And it’s very fascinating to think that they could be with you a lot and not necessarily be buying in more and more. I’m going to put it this way. I’m going to say that it is possible to have a horse that’s been handled a lot by people. So it’s kind of generally safe and it’s just got a lot of time spent. I think it’s really interesting that I meet horses that might only be 25 percent committed to being there yet they’re still there. So what’s interesting to me is that somewhere along the line, the habit of staying with the person–so let’s just illustrate it like this. The habit of staying with the person because they’ve got the habit of not pulling on the lunge line, the habit of staying could be holding the horse there more than the horse’s mental engagement. And the way that that starts to look symptomatically in this again, it happens when the horses have actually been around people a lot. You don’t see it when the horses don’t have a lot of human experience, but when they’ve been around people a lot, it’s kind of interesting because you can get, it’s possible to get, more and more of this feeling from the horse that their body is here, but their mind isn’t. And I believe that it’s possible to get horses where it can feel like only 25 percent of them is present. Now, it seems like it would be an obvious thing that they have to be at least 51 percent present. But like I said, I think if you look at it more like the habit of staying around is–is a habit and not a thought process I actually think you can get more and more of a divide, even though they’re not leaving you. Isn’t that crazy? Yeah, I might have to go deeper in a different podcast on that, but I totally believe that.

Stacy Westfall: [00:14:58] Now here’s the way that you can start working on that. I love that you said it looked like his mind is somewhere else. I want you to start asking the question, how can you be more interesting? Because rather than focusing on how do I get the bend? How do I get the–the body? How do I get this? It’s going to be there too. But how do you become more interesting? A lot of times it’s something as simple as doing something different with your body. Like a lot of times when I’m lunging a horse and it starts looking out, out, I’ll do something like, I’ll jump or I’ll twitch, or I’ll move in a funny way. I’ll move quick, I’ll move slow, I’ll move. I’ll do something interesting. I have posted a video and I want you to go look at it because it shows Willow running and little Nugget, my miniature, is following her. And I want you to watch the video and I want you to keep this in mind. What is it that is changing Willows bend? What is it that is happening? What do you see going on with her body? What do you see going on with him? How do you see the bend changing? How do you see it reflect in her body? And do you notice how interested she is in him? Now in full disclosure, they don’t know each other very well, so they’ve got the interesting factor is actually there. When you introduce two horses, you get a little bit more of this elementary school reaction. You get a little bit more of that raw reaction because they haven’t had time to create a habit. And some of those habits are what the horses are leaning on or against. So just one thing for you to think about after you answer the question, Why are you after this bend? What is your bigger picture? What else can you be looking for? If bend had to be number three on the list, what else would come above that? Inside of all that, the other thought work for you is how can you become more interesting so that when the horse thinks about looking away, there’s something you do, and he goes, Oh, well, look, that’s interesting. Because to me, that’s when you can start really creating that shape because then the body is matching up with the mind because the mind is actually truly there. Let’s listen to the next question.

Caller 2: [00:17:46] Hi, Stacy. I have a six-year-old Andalusian mare who is still pretty green and is learning the basics, but I’m working with her on getting to bend to the inside when we are circling. She really wants to lean to the outside and I’ve been working with just using my inside rein, to bring her to bend her body to the inside and then releasing when she softens. But a lot of times what ends up happening is it’s just kind of a tug of war, and she kind of gives in unwillingly or will stop super fast and really turn into the inside, and she just gets really salty about it. So I was hoping that you had some advice after bending her to the inside, she’ll just immediately want to stick her nose out to the outside of a circle. Thanks so much, and I appreciate you taking the time to answer this.

Stacy Westfall: [00:18:54] Thanks for the question. I’m really happy that you brought up a couple different concepts in here because at the end of the day, it makes it easier for me to diagnose a rebound problem. And what I mean by that is you mentioned that when you are asking the horse to bend the inside, you kind of get one of two things you are asking the horse to bend to the inside. And if you release the horse springs its head back to the outside. That’s what I call rebound, that desire when you loosen the rein for the head to not just return to even straight, but to even go anywhere from the bend that you had–like, let’s say that you bent the horse 15 degrees, and when you release, it goes immediately, quickly, back to straight or even counter bends a little bit. Any of those I would consider rebound to me. Rebound is actually a little bit more about how quickly the horse tries to take that head back. It’s actually not a problem for me that the horse wants to slowly return to that straighter body position. That’s to me, not the bigger indicator. It’s actually how–how strongly, how quickly, and listening to your message it’s pretty clear that it must be fairly strong. So I’m putting this in the rebound category. The interesting thing about horses that want to have that rebound, it almost always indicates a horse that doesn’t know how to balance themselves well. So one of the reasons that they resist staying in that position or the position might feel forced or a little bit like a tug of war or something like that is because the horse is feeling unbalanced as it moves towards that bend. And that’s where you get that real strong leaning feeling from. Because it’s a little bit like if I ask you to balance on one leg and then I start pulling on your hand, you almost automatically start like counterbalancing and doing something. And intuitively, you realize that if I let go that you’re going to be off-balance in a different way. So there’s this lack of balance thing that tends to go on with the horse that has rebound. Now I should put this disclaimer. The other thing that causes rebound a lot is if riders change direction super frequently and the horse is anticipating a change of direction and it shows up in the horse kind of springing from one direction to the other. So that can definitely also cause a different level of rebound. Actually, the horse tends to be a little bit more balanced when that one’s happening, so you don’t see quite as much lean. It doesn’t–the riders don’t tend to complain quite as much about the horse being heavy in that one. They complain more about the horse, you know, ducking and diving and those things that are–it’s a little bit different version of it because it’s coming from a different reason the way that you described it.

Stacy Westfall: [00:22:08] The other reason I really feel like this falls into the rebound category is that you also mention that if you’re really trying to get that bend that the horse wants to stop super fast and try turning to the inside. And to me, that is another indicator of the horse trying to find, kind of like find a way out of this, find a way that works for the body. And so if the horse is compact and balanced in the way that, like halting and pivoting feels more comfortable than carrying, it’s kind of funny to think that a sudden switch of direction can sometimes feel like more balance than–I’m picturing right now, like ballerina balanced on their toes balanced versus the balance that it takes to run, stop, and go the other direction. I think it’s interesting to play around in your mind with what balance is and what balance means, and that a horse can be more naturally wired to do, like in reining horses we’d call that a rollback. Or you see it happen in a field. They run up, they slide to a stop, and roll back and run the other direction. That is a balanced turn, but it’s a different balance turn than a horse version of a ballerina. So when we talk about the horses needing to understand the balance, that’s another layer to it. This question makes me want to play around with the idea of the elementary school high school concepts, but also kind of removing different pieces of the–the four square model or those for different quadrants that I talk about. What I mean by that is I think this would be a perfect horse to go back and do groundwork with, because if you go back to groundwork and you start questioning the horse’s ability to canter and balance and do these different things with the bend on the ground, all of a sudden you remove your body from the equation to some or all of a degree. So a lot of times in groundwork, the rider’s body is still impacting the horse in that maybe there’s a lunge line connecting to you or something like that, but you can go as far as doing it in a round pen or at liberty. And what starts to become interesting is sometimes you’ll find that these horses are challenged to use their body in this way, even at liberty, because it’s just a lack of balance. Presto, for sure, has been there. Like I can even get him to understand the concepts, even at liberty of cantering this collected tight, smaller circle. But it’s a struggle for him physically. So it’s easier for me, though at that point to see that it’s not something I’m doing. It’s not a resistance to the rein, like in this question. It sounds like a resistance to the rein but it can actually just be the horse trying to figure out the balance and that desire of that horse to kind of lean on you or not lean on you. And all of that feels like it’s happening in your body in the rein when you’re pulling on it, when it’s really something that’s a lack of balance in the horse’s body. So I would see if you can go back and work on this and groundwork. The other reason I’m going to reflect back to the first question, you’ve got to go back in and ask, like, why? Why should the horse be looking in? But I think it’s even just as far as, like the patterns that you use. Again, like if the horse is seeing this kind of circling motion and you know, in my courses, I teach like wandering circles and the four-leaf clover pattern. When we’re doing some of these patterns, the patterns start to give the horse a reason why to look in, because the horse is like, Oh, I get it, we’re going over here, oh, I get it, we’re going over here. And then they start to kind of buy into the system. So you start to get the mind understanding what’s coming next. So they start looking ahead. They start literally looking ahead and shaping themselves. And–and I think it’s interesting for you to think about. Don’t just focus on the bend. Like I said in the first answering the first question, focus on the whole thing. This has to do with the horse’s body bend, forward motion, it has a lot to do with all these other things, but also it has to do with, like the mind, as far as like, why should the horse be looking in here? Do you end when it’s in here? I think it’s also fascinating that in the question, you know, you said the horse leans to the outside, but then you also said stops and turns super fast to the inside. Another thing that that brings up to me is that that horse is looking for big answers. The other thing that could just be happening is the horse is, you know, not able to find its balance. You’re working on it with the techniques you were talking about, you know, you’re trying to hold the bend, you’re trying to help the horse and you’re doing that. And so the horse starts leaning against it. And then at some point the horse is like, I don’t want to be leaning against it. I shouldn’t be leaning against it.

Stacy Westfall: [00:27:11] Ok, I need to try something else that worked. And that’s when you get that stop and that turned to the outside. So all of these indicate to me that the horse isn’t seeing really subtle softening releases. The question becomes, are you softening and releasing in little ways? And is the horse capable of seeing those little things? Isn’t that another interesting thought? Sometimes when the horses are in a very early stage, they don’t even think to look for the smaller things, and those smaller things become more apparent when you ride the horse on a particular pattern because it gives the horse a way to start to see what stays the same and what’s different. So when you’re riding this horse, I want you to think about some of these different things. And here’s my number one tip for you. Videotape it. Videotape your ride, because sometimes you’re not going to see the role that you’re playing in it until you can get outside of it. And that’s where the video reviews, whether you do them yourself or whether you bring them and have somebody else review them with you, become like gold because you can watch yourself ride, know what you are working on that day. But when you’re sitting, let’s just say in the house watching that later, what will happen is you’ll be able to start noticing some things about you and about the horse that you just weren’t able to see in real time. So some of these videos that don’t feel like they’re worth posting online or sharing with anyone or, you know, you’re definitely not in like show quality riding or whatever that is. They can be so valuable to you because it’s a way for you to use your own mind to look at your own mind and body, as well as looking at your horse’s mind and body. That’s what I have for you today. I hope I brought up some ideas that got you thinking about bend and counter bend or lack of bend in a slightly different way. It’s amazing to me how willing most horses are once they understand what we’re asking for and as long as we stay interesting. Now, if you have questions similar to the second caller about bend when riding, this is a topic that I cover in detail in my online courses. I recently posted a video that’s over an hour long of student video reviews, where students sent in videos working on bending and steering. And I gave voiceover tips, very specific feedback, and very specific instructions. In my courses, students get to learn from not only having their own videos reviewed but also from watching other students that are working on similar things. Visit my website for more details. Thank you for listening, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

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