Bend on One Track: An Excerpt from ‘Collection or Contortion?’

In this excerpt from his book Collection or Contortion? Dr. Gerd Heuschmann explains how correct bend systematically and sensitively leads to a horse that is ‘through’ and ready for collection, and how bend is the critical ingredient to performance, health, and longevity.

Photo by Antje Wolff.

With a young horse or a horse being retrained, “passive” (or “indirect” or “first-degree”) bend on one track precedes “active” (or “direct” or “second-degree”) bend. This means that yielding the outside rein is necessary. This is the decisive element here. The horse goes forward and steps evenly in both reins. The green horse (or a stiff retraining horse) cannot yet be actively bent.

If a working balance (tempo/rhythm) has been established and the horse moves at the trot with a swinging back (initial suppleness) into a secure contact, you can begin working with passive or indirect bend.

Bending work begins with the so-called “bend on one track” in the form of indirect bend. Both halves of the horse’s body are made as similarly supple as possible. After about a year of basic training of a young horse, the first bending work includes, for example, all of the large curved lines like circles, three-loop serpentines the width of the arena, figure eights, and the simple serpentines along the long side. After achieving similar suppleness on both sides of the trunk, you can begin working on direct or second-degree bend on large curves. The transition goes quickly and, in my experience, can be completed in about nine months.

Classical literature offers three synonymous terms for this training process. Steinbrecht (1884) speaks simply of “bend on one track.” Kurt Albrecht (from 1974 to 1985 at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna) speaks of “making him soft to the inside leg.” Max Freiherr von Redwitz speaks of developing “pliés” in his book. In my opinion, all three authors are talking about the same process. They are trotting a well-balanced horse on large curved lines with the rider’s inside leg securely at the girth and the outside leg guarding a little back of the girth.

The moment the guarding effect of the outside leg increases in importance, you have made the transition from first-degree bend (indirect bend) to second-degree bend (direct bend). Sensitivity to and acceptance of the inside leg can be developed by riding correct leg-yields. Fluidly, almost without noticing, the rider’s inside leg becomes more effective. The effectiveness of the inside leg working at the girth forward-sideways increases when opposed by a passively guarding outside leg. Other effects, such as flexion at the poll, bend of the trunk, trunk rotation, and the one-sided flexing of the joints of the haunches, happen almost automatically. The effects of this bending work appear first in front of the rider at the poll and in the neck of the horse. As soon as the back of the horse is lifted in balance, and the neck is allowed to fall in front of the withers, the horse can yield to the inside leg, or as Kurt Albrecht once called it: “get soft.” Getting soft to the inside leg allows an active/direct bend or the so-called “second-degree” bend (Waldemar Seunig).

The rider’s inside leg works in a consistent “breathing” way to create the first little bit of active trunk or rib bend in the horse. This initial bend leads to an improvement in contact with the outside rein and the diagonal aids on a curved line.

Consistent use of the inside leg has a lifting action on the trunk (stabilizing and improving balance) and improves the swing of the back (suppleness). As the use of the inside leg becomes more effective, the horse will soften at the poll in flexion to the inside. The inside eye will be visible and the crest will flip to the inside. The horse will get softer in the poll. The mouth will be more active, and the contact will be more consistent, softer, and finer. The outside rein develops its guiding function. The inside rein evolves gradually into a sensitive fine coordinator. Additionally, the suppleness of the horse’s back improves. The rider can sit the horse better as trunk bend improves.

Among other things, correct contact is a prerequisite for correct bend in the horse. To maintain this throughout training, high value must be placed on regularly riding consistently forward. Dressage work in the arena should be regularly augmented by riding out in the fields, because that is where the horse’s desire to move forward is naturally developed.

Large curved lines are used to work on first-degree bend. Work on 20-meter circles, serpentines across the whole arena with three, and later, four or more loops, the simple and double serpentines on the long side, as well as riding the corners more deeply, encourage bend on one track. All the named figures can be ridden in first-degree bend (indirect bend) initially, and later, in second-degree bend (direct bend). Working out the bend in the corners especially develops direct, active bend.

This excerpt from Collection or Contortion? by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (