20 Jun 20. Straightness
The training tree or training scale for horses which seeks to explain the basic training of a horse for any discipline, including the Olympic disciplines of dressage, show jumping and eventing, was first set out in the German Equestrian Federation Official Training Manual (Heeresdienstvorschrift), published in 1912. It took a few decades, however, for the process to be condensed to the six components that are widely recognised today: rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection.
This time, we look at straightness which, in the equestrian world, denotes the positioning of the horse’s body such that its hind feet track into the hoof prints of its front feet. It also requires the horse to be even on both reins and able to bend equally to the left and to the right. This is more challenging than it might sound as, just as with humans, horses are naturally crooked, so helping them develop equal ability/flexibility on both sides is fundamental to ensuring their long term health and wellbeing. A crooked, one-sided horse will be more susceptible to lameness (due to wear and tear on joints, tendons and ligaments), so it is important to ensure that you help your horse to develop the muscles on its weaker side, a process that is likely to require stronger aids initially until progress has been made.
Before you start addressing the issue of straightness, however, your horse should already be able to work in a steady rhythm on both reins and in a relaxed and balanced manner, while moving freely forward and accepting a contact.
As a starting point, you will need also to ensure that your own position is correct as it would be unfair to expect your horse to be straight if you are not. As we have discussed previously (Article 2 Improving your upper body position, Article 3 Improving your lower body position, Article 4 Becoming more balanced in the saddle and Article 10 Improving your balance), we often believe we are sitting correctly when in fact we may be leaning too far forward or to one side, so it is helpful to check your position by asking your instructor, using mirrors or practising on an equine simulator which will allow you to monitor yourself through the information that is generated on screen.
Nor can you expect your horse to move in a correct frame if it is crooked; as we know, impulsion comes from the hind quarters and you also need first to focus on the correct use of the hind legs in order to enable straightness. You can help your horse by ensuring you are sitting equally on both seat bones, with your shoulders level and by checking that you are not leaning forward or to the inside as you ride corners. Using your eyes correctly will also help; remember too to keep your head up as looking down – for example to see if you have a contact – will make a difference to your horse’s balance. Also make sure you are looking in the direction you are going – indeed, looking several strides ahead – so that when you wish to turn, you will be communicating your intention to your horse through the shift in your position. And when riding a circle, remember that your horse’s inside bend should be such that the inside eye is barely visible – too much bend and you will lose the straightness as well as the outside rein connection.
PRACTISE THIS ON THE SIMULATOR
Developing the ability to maintain a steady but elastic contact with the outside rein (with just a very light contact on the inside rein) will help your horse to become straighter, as long as the hind quarters are engaged and providing the energy. One common problem is lack of contact on the outside rein, suggesting the hind quarters are not working hard enough, perhaps because of insufficient leg aids from the rider or because the horse is not responding – if the latter, a tap with a schooling whip will reinforce the leg aid and help prevent it becoming dead to the leg. Conversely, some riders tend to hang onto the outside rein too much, rather than ensuring the energy is coming from the hind quarters. If your horse speeds up when you ask it to be more forward, it may indicate a lack of balance or simply a misunderstanding of your leg aids.
As riders, we know all about muscle memory and how we need to re-educate our bodies to ensure we are straight, a process that takes time and effort. The same is true for your horse. Exercises to help straightness include circles, leg yielding, shoulder in and counter canter, while riding serpentines is also very beneficial.
Next time: Achieving a balanced horse and rider combination