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.