Using the traditional German Scale of Training you will find that straightness is quite high up, at level five, but it`s still important every so often to remind yourself of it, even at the lower levels of training.
If you start with the ideal horse – perfectly symmetrical, perfectly healthy and sound, then you can go quite swiftly through the scales of training, not deviating from the direct route.
However, I increasingly see that people get so caught up in the suppleness factor that horses develop asymmetry (they have a certain amount of asymmetry anyway) and cannot work on a contact and with impulsion because they are crooked. The second stage of training, suppleness, doesn`t just mean that a horse can ride a circle in rhythm, but they can stretch their topline, and adduct and abduct their limbs easily, as well as utilising their hindquarters. When they can do that they can begin to move onto the next stage of training.
So let`s go back to straightness. When I warm up horses, or I’m watching a client warm up, I often ask them to think about how straight their horse is going on the long side of the arena or down the centre line. I get them to think about how straight they are; are their legs sitting evenly, is their rein contact even, are they sat in the centre of the saddle? A straight horse will have their left hind leg following behind the left foreleg, and the right hind following the right fore. They also won`t drift from a straight line.
Some horses and riders are crooked; looking out on one rein, or having their quarters in on another. For me, correcting this asymmetry is as important as establishing the rhythm. Straightness goes hand in hand with suppleness, because if a horse maintains those two tracks on circles or school movements then they are working their muscles correctly and will improve their flexibility and suppleness correctly, with less risk of injury.
If a horse is showing a crookedness then I will begin by ensuring the rider is turning correctly. Earlier this week I was teaching a client and horse who carries her quarters to the right. After ensuring that my client could feel when the quarters swung in, and adjusted the mare correctly by bringing her right leg slightly behind the girth whilst closing the left rein slightly to stop the mare drifting to the left. Then we looked at how this rider was asking the mare to turn on the right rein. Obviously it was the textbook “outside leg behind the girth and inside leg on the girth” but because the mare`s hindquarters moved too easily to the right and she tended to leave her outside shoulder out on corners. I suggested my client brought her outside leg further forward, so it was closer to the girth, and would influence the shoulders more than the hindquarters. Together with the outside rein this should ensure that the mare goes around turns with her body on two tracks, and in balance. I used a mixture of trot corners and walk turn around the haunches (this was to bring my rider`s attention to turning the shoulders around turns, and to improve the movement in the shoulders, and responsiveness to the aids) to improve the mare`s straightness and balance around turns. My rider found that her circles afterwards felt much more symmetrical, easier to ride, and a lot more balanced. We worked on both reins, but the left needed the outside leg to “talk to” the haunches more than the shoulders.
We repeated a similar exercise in canter; turning the shoulders on the right rein, and being aware of the hindquarters trying to escape to the right at all times. The upwards transitions improved because there was impulsion, and energy wasn`t lost wriggling through the transition, and the circles improved vastly. Now that my rider was so much more aware of their straightness we did some medium canter, and as soon as the mare was straight she pushed up into the medium canter brilliantly. You could see the hindquarters push, and the mare become slightly more uphill.
Going back to the trot work, we revisited some leg yielding on a circle. The mare tends to fall out on the right rein instead of stepping out, but now that my rider was so much more aware of straightness, and could influence the positioning of the mare`s shoulders so much more she could get a correct leg yield on both reins. From this week`s work I want to move on to correcting the contact and improving impulsion.
Because straightness isn`t at the lower levels of the Scale of Training it is easy to forget that a horse (and rider) needs to carry themselves straight and level in order to not injure themselves, and to achieve all the other stages of training because ultimately the stages are based on the symmetrical horse and rider. Even when riding around turns and circles, no matter their diameter, you want to still feel that the horse is on two tracks (imagine a railway track going around a circle) and they aren’t overloading a limb.