The Difference Between Bend and Flexion

01/25/2023

Lots of people use the terms bend and flexion interchangeably, especially with regards to dressage horses. Or you might have been told to ‘bend and flex’ your horse to warm up or to improve suppleness. The terminology can be misleading when they’re lumped together, as they’re two separate (although related) concepts. To further complicate matters, there are also different types of both bend and flexion.

So, What is Bend? And What is Flexion?

The main distinction is that bend refers to the whole body of the horse, from their nose right through to their tail. Flexion refers to changing the position of the poll only. So while bend does include the poll, flexion refers only to the poll.

Usually, "bend" in horse riding is explained as the way the horse bends his body into a curve which matches the line they’re traveling on. For instance, a 10m circle would have a much more obvious bend through the whole body than on a straight line. The curve is banana-like in that it runs through the entire body. In reality, it isn’t quite as simple as that – but we’ll get into specifics a bit further down! For now, just remember that the horse’s entire body bends while only the poll flexes.

The Different Types of Bend and Flexion

There are different types of both flexion and bend: longitudinal flexion, lateral flexion, longitudinal bend, and lateral bend. We’ll start off with lateral bend and lateral flexion, as these are the two which most people think about when an instructor tells them to bend or flex their horse.

Horse and rider in show gear cantering in sand arena with bend and flexion

Lateral Bend

Lateral bend is a ‘sideways’ bend, in that it works on the left and right sides and ribs of the horse rather than the topline. Think about the banana shape we mentioned earlier. Essentially, if you lay a banana flat on its side, you would have a curve to either the left or right of the entire thing. If you had a birds’ eye view, this is what a horse’s body would look like as you turned a circle, for instance. 

It isn’t actually the spine which bends in a horse, because it doesn’t have much flexibility at all. However, the neck can move from side to side. In addition to this, horses can bring their hind end and his front end "in" towards the inner part of the circle. It’s also possible for them to contract the muscles between the ribs on one side (the inside) and stretch them on the opposite side. 

All of this combined helps to create the entire-body positioning which we talk about as bend. 

Lateral Flexion

Lateral flexion also refers to a left or right change in the horse, this time just in the poll. You might have heard someone say to flex your horse so you can just see the inside corner of the eye, but not move the neck. 

The idea of lateral flexion is exactly this – the rest of the body from the neck downwards towards the tail is straight, but with lateral flexion you can move the poll and head slightly to one side without changing the bend in the neck.

Longitudinal Bend

When it comes to horses, the term “longitudinal” refers to the topline and back of the horse. When a horse engages its hindquarters, raises its back and flexes at the poll, you will see longitudinal bend. This requires suppleness and strength, and the degree to which they can bend will improve with schooling. This is also true of lateral bend – a green horse can’t easily bend around an 8-meter circle, but an established horse can. 

To help picture what longitudinal bend looks like, imagine we took the same banana as mentioned earlier and placed it so it was balancing on its stalk and end, it would curve up towards the sky. If the banana was a horse, longitudinal bend would refer to the bending of the body upwards and away from the ground, causing the ’rounding’ of the back and topline. Another useful image is to imagine holding a dressage whip with one end in each hand. When you push the ends together, the whip curves upwards—it’s the same with longitudinal bend!

Horse and rider trotting with longitudinal bend in outdoor arena

Longitudinal Flexion

We’ve already established that longitudinal talks about the way a horse can curve, bend, and flex over the top of his body. So it stands to reason that longitudinal flexion talks about how you can flex a horse’s poll to change how the head is positioned in relation to the chest. 

In terms you’ve probably heard before, longitudinal flexion is what creates a horse where the front of the head and nose is in a position which is ‘on the bit’, ‘behind the vertical’ or ‘above the vertical.’  

As with lateral and longitudinal bend and flexion, the two are related but separate – the horse needs flexion to properly bend longitudinally, but can flex without bending. When there is correct flexion at the poll combined with proper bend through the topline, the horse will be able to carry his head on or slightly ahead of the vertical.

How to Apply Flexion and Bend When You’re Riding

So you now know that bend and flexion aren’t interchangeable. How does that apply when you’re riding? Remember that your horse cannot bend without flexion. However, they can flex without bending. 

If your instructor asks you to bend your horse, you will be trying to achieve all four of the types of bend and flexion listed above. That includes lateral flexion so that your horse is slightly flexed to the inside (usually, but not always!). typically, this is to increase suppleness in the horse and improve the overall way of going. As you turn, go through corners, or make circles and serpentines, you’ll need to change the degree of bend to suit the exercise and line you’re traveling on. 

If you’re asked to only flex your horse, the instructor is usually referring to lateral flexion. This means you’ll slightly turn the poll and head to the left or right without bending the neck. This can be a way to supple and soften the horse, and is also often used to prepare a horse for lateral work or a change in bend and/or direction. 

If your horse is coming above the bridle and hollowing, your instructor may encourage you to add a bit of longitudinal flexion to bring the horse’s nose more towards the vertical – but this is usually in combination with leg or seat aids to add bend and impulsion at the same time. 

Conclusion

The different types of bend and flexion can be confusing – so if you’re ever unsure exactly what someone wants you to do, ask! And always remember the golden rule: bend is the whole body, flexion is the poll. 

Let us know if this has helped clear up the confusion between bend and flexion for you. And if not, feel free to post a question or tip in the comments!

 

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