Straightness is Fundamental

I always talk about straightness with clients far earlier than the Scales of Training would suggest that it needs discussing and have had conversations with dressage trainers about it’s location on the training pyramid. But this week I had the perfect demonstration of why straightness often comes before rhythm.

A new client approached me last month, wanting help rebuilding her confidence and getting back into cantering. She felt out of control of her horse, and worried by his lack of balance in the canter. Of course I was happy to help and looked forward to a new challenge.

During their first lesson the thing which became most apparent was how the horse curled up to the right, leaning on his left shoulder, and falling in drastically on the left rein. The trot was choppy and unbalanced on both reins. To me, before we can address the canter we need to improve the balance in the trot which ultimately comes from the horse being straighter. The rider’s lack or confidence comes from, I believe, the feeling of a lack of control and her horse not responding as expected to her aids.

We spent the first couple of lessons checking she was straight, evening out the hand position because the right hand came back and the left went forwards. We also really worked on her horse staying straight in walk and during short trots. On the right rein he’d fling himself through the left shoulder going into trot but the fence line prevented too much drift, but on the right rein he fell in, and caused his rider to twist which exacerbated the horse’s crookedness. My aim initially was to reduce the bend to the right before increasing the bend to the left.

We chatted about saddle and physio checks, but the more I observed the more I felt that it was a control issue rather than a problem with the horse. He was trying to control the situation and his rider, who ultimately backed off as soon as he resisted her aids and twisted his body. Then the horse got away with not trotting, so tried this on every time and soon got the upper hand.

I helped my rider adjust her horse’s body, and most importantly have the self belief that she was doing it correctly so needed to stick to her guns as her horse explored the different avenues of evasion.

During the first two lessons we focused on reducing the right bend in walk and even getting some good left bend at times. On the right rein we worked in trot, as the fence prevented the over bend, and my rider learnt to use her left rein and left leg to reduce the right bend. On turns I concentrated her on using the left leg and reducing the right rein. She started to feel his left shoulder coming around each turn and his vertical balance improving.

Once the right rein was getting straighter we turned our attention to the left. We couldn’t just go straight into trot on the left rein because of the evasion twist during the transition. I put together a little exercise, focusing on straightness and not making a big deal on going onto the left rein. They started in trot on the right rein, turned across the short diagonal, focusing on bringing the left shoulder round the turn and using the left leg to keep him straight. They aimed to ride onto the left rein without losing this straightness and then riding a transition to walk before they lost the straightness, then immediately a ten metre left circle before two half circles to change the rein and begin the exercise again. The idea was that they progressively did more and more trot strides without falling onto the left shoulder.

We ran through this exercise a few times, with improving results. I was pleased with their progress over the last couple of lessons, but felt there was a bit of a block for future progress. I didn’t think there was a problem with the horse, but he was still determinedly evading his rider by twisting to the right in transitions. She was correcting him well, but lacked the determination to stand her ground, so ended up yielding to the horse, who effectively won that conversation so continued with his evasion tactic. I suggested that I sat on at the beginning of the next lesson to reinforce the boundaries and also to check that I couldn’t feel an issue that would cause the extreme right bend. As soon as I sat on, I secured the left rein and did a couple of leg yields to the right and within minutes the horse accepted my aids and stopped trying to fall through his left shoulder. Of course, he still felt stiffer to the left, but he was reactive to the left leg and much straighter through his body. I rode him for a few minutes longer until he’d proved that he wasn’t looking for an evasion. He also felt great so no underlying issues to my mind.

Then his rider mounted, and we picked up where we left off last lesson. Now she’d seen her horse stay straight she had more self belief in herself and her riding. He’d been firmly put back in his box by me so was less argumentative with her. We soon got a straighter trot on the right rein, and then managed to keep this balance onto the left rein. We developed the right rein work with circles, and focused on staying straight and on the track on the left rein. Finally, we started using demi voltes and consecutive changes of rein to improve their balance and reduce any tendency for the horse to fall into right bend.

Anyway, what’s the purpose of my witterings? As soon as the horse started to work in a straighter way, with improved vertical balance, his stride length opened, the rhythm improved and the trot became lighter and freer. From this straighter trot, we can start to establish a consistent rhythm, improve his suppleness and balance and progress up the Training Scale. However, if we didn’t correct his lack of straightness we would be fighting a losing battle. So really, a horse and rider need to be fairly straight before they can begin to work correctly and improve their way of going. In which case, shouldn’t straightness be the first training block? Or perhaps the Scales of Training should come with a caveat that you are starting with a fairly straight and evenly sided horse and rider?

My plan for the next few lessons is to really establish the straightness of both horse and rider; improving their suppleness on the left rein, ensuring my rider feels very confident and in control; able to manoeuvre him easily, and then start introducing the canter work, again with the focus being on the horse staying straight initially.

Should We Be Riding?

Since lockdown began and normal life ceased, I’ve been plagued by all sorts of emotions regarding riding in “these unprecedented times”.

Many people I know have decided not to ride, many have decided to continue, and many have had the decision made for them by livery rules. The pressure not to ride comes from the British Equestrian bodies which are strongly advising horse owners not to ride so as to not add to the burden on the already overstretched emergency services. Fair enough, and the pressure will have been removed immensely by the cessation of organised equestrian competition. Paramedics and ambulances are usually present at events, so by cancelling our spring programmes we are freeing up personnel and vehicles without any accidents even happening. Let alone the beds we’re not occupying with injured riders.

But should we be stopping riding altogether? In Spain and Italy the government have banned it. So we are lucky. At the moment!

The biggest question I’ve been pondering these last weeks is the psychological effect being told not to ride because of unnecessarily pressuring the emergency services will have on riders. I mean, do you get on your horse to go to the school for a flatwork session and think “I might fall off today and need an ambulance.”

I hope you don’t, and if you do I question whether you should be riding at all. But now, everyone is ultra aware that there is a risk to horse riding and it could happen to them. Of course, you do get those freak accidents which happen in the arena during flatwork, but they are exactly that – freak. You could have a freak accident getting out of your car, or carrying something upstairs, or doing the gardening.

I wonder how riders, particularly the less confident and more insecure riders, will be after this is over. Will they ever get rid of that niggling thought? Will there be a sudden decrease in leisure riders jumping and competing? Although this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in that I often see riders competing at the top edge of their ability, which is more risky. But I think it will be a bad thing for the less confident ones. Will some people give it all up as a result of the Covid pandemic?

Of course I’m not advocating that life continues as normal, I just wonder what the net result of this new line of thought is.

I think everyone has to balance out their needs, their horse’s needs, and being sensibly safe, when they come to their own decision.

One big factor, which my GP friend said to me about the emergency services issue, is that if you continue to ride, or do whatever sport or DIY you want to, and take risks then you have to accept that the level of care you will receive will be below the usual standard. It might be that you have to wait longer for an ambulance. After all, they need thorough disinfecting after transporting a potential Covid case, which takes time. Or your injury or treatment might be managed at home, when in an ideal world you should be in hospital. So you have to accept a drop in the level of care you will receive. However, you could have just as serious an accident climbing up 25′ ladders to clean the guttering which you are doing instead of riding your horse.

Start by evaluating your horse’s needs. If they are fit and ready for the competition season you can’t just turn them away. They might do themselves an injury in the field burning off excess energy, or injure their handler because of said excess energy. If they are a horse currently in rehab then is it detrimental to stop halfway? If they suffer with weight issues coming out of the winter are you risking obesity and laminitis by stopping riding them? Do they have a previous injury which actually benefits from steady exercise to maintain muscle tone and strength? If the answer to any of those is “yes” then exercise needs to continue in some form or another. Additionally, take into account your horse’s nature. Are they a mature, sensible horse used to being ridden, used to their environment, or are they flighty, spooky, unpredictable? If they’re the latter then there is obviously more risk involved in each ride. But that goes for your ride in February as well as April!

Now let’s look at you. Do you have a lot of exterior stress in your life and need to unwind by riding your horse? Do you struggle with your fitness which would benefit from continuing to ride? Do you suffer from depression, and without riding need to resort to increased medication? If the answer is “yes”, then you need to try to do some form of riding for your personal well-being. I would add here, that if you regularly fall off then you want to assess the reason (if you tend to fall off jumping then remove jumping from the equation) and try to avoid it.

Once you’ve assessed yours and your horse’s needs, you should be able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement which keeps you both happy and healthy. My decision, and how I have come to it is as follows: Phoenix is better in consistent work, so continuing to work her is beneficial. It’s spring time, and she would get too fat if turned away. I don’t think she’d become rude and bargy if not in work, but with a toddler around I don’t really want to try it out. I am now looking after a toddler 24/7 and for my sanity I need some time in the saddle. I also want to keep a reasonable level of riding fitness ready for returning to work, so need to consider this. Phoenix is now working in the school under saddle three or four times a week. She is lunged once or twice, either in the school or the field. I’m not jumping her under saddle because it’s unnecessary at the moment, but I am lunging her over poles and little grids to provide variety to her work. Phoenix will hack alone, but until they’re turned out 24/7 and the north wind disappears, I don’t think it’s sensible to hack her because she is not as relaxed and the risk of finding gremlins in the hedge is higher. But I usually finalise my solo hacking decision when I’ve checked the actual weather and felt how coiled a spring she is, so in reality this hasn’t changed much from normal. I don’t think we should hack in company unless we’re from the same household because there’s no way we can stay two metres apart. Having said that, last weekend I was desperate for a hack, so went out with a lady who I see from a distance at the yard each morning. And kept our distance. So reducing the risks of Covid whilst giving myself a much needed time out. But I can’t see that happening again in the near future.

This arrangement and routine seems to be working well, and Phoenix is definitely benefitting from the increased routine and consistency. Plus my morning pony time sets me up for all the thrills and spills a toddler in potty training throws at you!

I think it’s important to know your horse, and what will keep them sensible. Some horses need a canter in the school to warm them up, particularly veterans, and others need a steady canter to get their brain engaged and eliminate any tension. So you need to work out what level of work your horse needs to keep their bodies and minds healthy. I’ve heard of some yards banning cantering at all, which is all very well but I’d be concerned that the horses would maintain a relatively good level of fitness, but not be able to release their tension and energy through canter so could become explosive when cantering is permitted or when the bottle of pop is shaken and the lid opened…

The way I see it, for myself, and for any clients who I’ve discussed exercise programs with, is that you have to think of your riding education like a growing tree. Usually, we are focused on growing upwards, with a few willowy branches going out to the side. Now, we are going to focus on increasing those branches. Growing more of them, and strengthening them. Our tree will become denser and stronger as our skills develop, knowledge increases, and foundations for later work is built.

Let’s say that you are currently working towards Novice level dressage. You can continue to develop the movements you have already introduced, but it wouldn’t be wise to introduce a new movement or concept. Instead, look back at your last prelim tests – was you free walk as good as it could be? Could you improve your centre lines? The answer is most likely “yes”, and if not I’m sure you can find a couple of movements which only received a 6 instead of a 7. Spend a week focusing on those movements to make those branches more robust. Then when you’re allowed, they will grow upwards more easily. For example, giving and retaking the reins is a weak spot of Phoenix’s, so I have been working on her maintaing her trot rhythm and balance whilst I give either the inside rein or both reins, and extending the amount of time I am giving the reins. Another area to improve could be your sitting trot, or your transitions. Think of developing and improving your current level of work rather than stepping up a level.

You can also use this time to practice a new skill, such as long reining, or to spend the time improving your lunging technique, which will help keep both you and your horse fit, provide variety to the workload, and improve your knowledge and understanding.

So whilst I’m very much leaning towards continuing to ride in a sensible and safe way; developing current knowledge and ability rather then stepping up, I think it’s important to consider how your actions are viewed by external people. That doesn’t mean the keyboard warriors who aren’t riding, either because their yard has stopped them, or through their own decision (they can get off their high horses and support those who can ride because yards are permitting it or their horses are sensible instead of going green with envy). I mean the non horsey passers by. And let’s face it, there is increased pedestrian traffic at the moment. Does it really look good if there’s three or four of you hacking out together? Does it look good that walkers see you jumping? Not really, in either case. I think if we want to continue to have the ability to ride we need to be seen to be obeying social distancing guidelines and to being precautionary in our activities.