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.

The Way The Mane Lies

I read a really interesting article about what the lay of the mane tells you about a horse’s body.

In a nutshell, a foal is curled inside the womb either to the left or to the right. The side they curl to is their naturally more bendy side before undergoing training (as don’t forget that a lot of training focuses on straightness) and this is also the way their mane falls. The mane, so long as it’s not trained to lay on the offside because it’s more traditional, falls to the side the horse bends more easily to, even over bending in some instances. It’s to do with muscle fascia, but I’m afraid that’s getting far too complicated for my little brain to comprehend so for that information I’d recommend asking a physio or Google.

I had never heard of this before, having just presumed horses who’s manes fell left were the left handers of the equine world. Phoenix’s mane falls left and I hadn’t even made the connection between her softer left rein and more resistant right rein.

After reading this article, which you can find here I started to pay attention to all the horses I see and their manes. Of course my observations are limited by the fact that we still subconsciously lay the mane right, and neck rugs compound this laying, so like a lot of lefties, left lay manes can often pass as right lay manes. This limits my observations a bit, but when grooming Phoenix s couple of weeks ago I had a light bulb moment.

She doesn’t wear a rug at the moment and her mane has gone from a very definite left lay, to sitting either left or right with minimal effort and if anything going upright or favouring lying to the right. It’s almost as though her mane has been blow dried to increase the volume by encouraging the roots to stand up. Ladies, you’ll understand what I mean. Before it was very flat to her crest. Thinking about her current way of going, she is much straighter and stronger so presumably the improvement in her muscle tone and strength is causing her mane to change it’s lay. It will be interesting to see whether it stays right, upright, or reverts left as she continues to develop.

I asked a friend who’s a physiotherapist for her opinion on mane lay. Apparently it’s quite common for a young horse’s mane to switch sides as they go through their training and favour one bend more than the other. Additionally, sometimes half the mane flips sides, which indicates neck dysfunction, and the muscles working incorrectly.

In this not particularly brilliant photo of Phoenix you can see that her mane is very much undecided which way it wants to go, and you can see the shorter part of her mane at the bottom goes fairly straight up.

I would say that observing the way the mane lies is not a foolproof way of identifying their supple side, because heavy breeds offen have so much mane it has to part down the middle, and rugs with necks encourage the mane onto one side or the other, and some people put a lot of effort into training the mane onto the off side. However, during a schooling session the mane will usually try to revert to it’s natural lay, as I observed whilst teaching last night. But having an understanding for the mane lay and the possible effect on the horse’s way of going, hopefully you can use your observations to successfully feed back into your training plan.

Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

The Importance of Straightness 

Straightness comes quite high up in the Scales of Training, but I feel it is often overlooked with novice riders, which can often cause problems later on in their training, or cause injuries due to over stressing a limb.

I wouldn’t expect a child or novice rider to be able to straighten a horse, and correct them very easily, but I would want them to be aware of what straightness is in it’s most basic form.

Firstly, it’s important to understand the importance of riding evenly on each rein, and changing diagonals whilst hacking to help the horse develop symmetrically. A horse with even muscle tone is more likely to travel straight. Straight being when the left hind foot follows the path of the left fore foot, and the same with the right limbs.

Lessons and guided schooling usually instils this to riders quite easily.

Another area I like to work on, which ties in nicely with Pilates, is proprioception. I like my riders to be aware of their body; which side is stronger, where they tend to tense and where they tend to collapse. Then together we can work on creating a more symmetrical rider, which will help the horse stay symmetrical. I’m a huge advocator of having regular physio or osteopathy sessions. Everything we do in our daily life encourages us to twist and carry ourselves crookedly. If you sit at a desk all day then your right shoulder will slump forward because it’s using the mouse. If your other hobby is fencing then you will have a very developed dominant side. Regularly straightening yourself out will ease muscle tension, reduce risk of injury, and improve your posture. All of this will benefit your riding, and most importantly if you are as symmetrical as possible then you will not stress one side of your horse’s body and cause him to compensate with his body in order to stay in balance.

A lot of people lack proprioception. They think they are standing straight, when really they are leaning on one leg more than the other. Try standing up tall, closing your eyes and identifying where your weight is in your body. Then adjust yourself until you feel the weight is even down both legs and you aren’t loading your toes or heels. You’ll probably feel like you’re at a forty five degree slant! The other thing to do is assess the upper body with your eyes closed: are the hip bones level, are the shoulders level, is one hip further forward than the other? Again once you even yourself up you’ll feel wonky. But that’s because your perception of straight is crooked, and you need to adapt that.

With so many asymmetric riders, it’s not surprising that horse’s backs are suffering and the horse physio/chiro/osteo industry is booming. 

Back to my original point. I spend a lot of time in lessons tweaking riders’ positions to improve their straightness, and encouraging the correct feel. Often they can see the immediate difference in the horse because they have stopped blocking them.

So a straighter rider will encourage a straighter horse; even a horse who needs regular back treatment will benefit because his muscles will develop evenly and will hold his skeleton in place for longer.

Most of my riders will understand straightness at this level quite easily. Now it’s time to expand their proprioception to include their horse. Riders can see the head and neck, so this is a good place to start. Is the horse looking one way or the other when trotting down the long side, or the centre line? Once my riders can see the lack of straightness we can correct it by adjusting the weight in the reins, position of the riders hands and shoulders. Next we can look at their feeling for what the shoulders are doing; are both shoulders moving around the circle, or is the horse drifting through the outside one? Again, checking the symmetry of the rein aids, seat aids and leg aids will allow them to start to influence the horse’s shoulder position. Finally, and this is usually the hardest for riders to learn to feel because there is no visual cues, is developing an awareness of where the hindquarters are positioned. Then a combination of leg and seat aids can begin to influence this.

So far, the idea of straightness is still more of an awareness, but I will talk to riders about the exercises we are doing and how it is improving the suppleness of the horse, which will improve their ability to stay straight. However, there is no point trying to supple a horse if he is allowed to carry himself in a crooked way.

If a client still doesn’t understand the importance of having a symmetrical horse and rider then I like using transitions within a gait to highlight this. 

A few weeks ago I was working on shortening and lengthening with a client, who was finding her horse lost rhythm and balance, but the exercise highlighted the importance of being straight very well. We spent most of the lesson focusing on the proprioception of the rider; using circles, serpentines and shallow loops to get her maintaining straightness, and most importantly being aware of their loss of straightness. 

Then we began lengthening the trot. As they came round the corner, I made my rider establish straightness for a stride before asking the horse to lengthen. When she did, the mare opened her frame and went into a lovely, balanced medium trot with all the power coming from behind and the forehand light. This is because when the horse is straight and pushes off the ground with a hind leg they are pushing towards their centre of gravity, meaning the energy is free to flow in a straight line from the hind leg through the body and forwards. If the horse is crooked then energy (or propulsion ) is lost as it travels through the kinks in the horse’s body.

This rider really noticed a difference when she established the straightness first. On one rein she had to make sure the shoulders had travelled the full corner, and on the other rein she needed to prevent the hindquarters from swinging out through the turn.

We took this forward into collecting the trot, and extending the canter, but the most important bit of homework for this rider to take away was the straightening to prepare for the transition.

Whilst straightness is near the top of the training pyramid, I still think an awareness of symmetry and proprioception is vital in the early stages of a rider’s development and will stand them in good stead for riding higher levels of dressage and training their own horse.

A Breakthrough!

So I’ve been feeling like I’m plateauing with one of the horses I exercise. I’ve spent a lot of time getting her to be forwards in the trot, and to use her hindquarters more, but still she is too much on the forehand for my liking, which is affecting any lateral or medium work. She’s not particularly downhill in conformation, but I think it’s a lack of engagement of her tummy muscles so her back is blocking the power.

I’ve used direct transitions, which help to an extent, and plenty of circles and leg yield to improve the flexibility of her hindlegs. Rein back has also been really useful in helping her take the weight off the forehand, and the upwards transitions subsequently feel better. She tends to load her left shoulder and take her quarters to the inside, which has been checked by the physio and I think this is a limiting factor in our progress, so I’ve done a lot of work leg yielding right, counter canter, and travers.

Anyway, I’ve been struggling to overcome this blip, spending ages planning my sessions and beating myself up a bit about it all. A couple of weeks ago There were some poles out so I decided to have a break from flat work, and worked her over raised poles in a circle and she seemed to enjoy the change. I don’t think she’d be a great jumper because she shies at all jumps as we’re working and it took me weeks to get her to trot over a single pole without stopping to peer over it first!

The canter felt significantly better after this pole work, so I was convinced to try some cavaletti work with her in our next schooling session, even if I had to get off a dozen times to rearrange the poles.

In the next session we began with four poles on the ground and once the mare was happy with this arrangement I raised them one at a time. Of course each time she had to peer at them and knocked a few whilst sorting her legs out. At one point someone asked me if I’d fallen off because I was remounting. 

I could feel the difficulty the mare had with the poles as her natural response was to rush, lengthen her stride, but not elevate any. When she got it right, he back lifted, her legs flexed and the trot slowed with each leg spending more time in the air. Her weight shifted perceptibly off her forehand, which combined with lots of transitions created a lovely trot.

So we’d had our mini break from dressage, and cavaletti were out earlier this week when I rode her. She pinged straight through them, so I used it as part of our warm up, and then once the canter had loosened up the trot I readdressed the straightness and loading the left shoulder issue. We’ve played with shoulder in, but it’s really more shoulder fore. This time however, left shoulder in felt as good as it ever did, with the left hind being activated, but the right shoulder in suddenly had a break through. Remember, her quarters go right, but this time they stayed behind her, and the right hind stepped under with the left shoulder lifting. It felt much better!

After a few strides I rode straight out of it and she literally pinged into medium trot. It was like the handbrake had been taken off and she suddenly found it much easier to propel herself forwards! 

I did a couple more right shoulder ins before enjoying her medium trot before finishing. I felt inspired, and I felt like a lightbulb had been switched on in her mind! Now we can build on this new found straightness and nail the trot-halt transitions, medium trot and walk-canter transitions ready for some more novice tests!