The Importance of Straightness

All horses and all humans are asymmetrical to a greater or lesser extent. The muscles on one side of the body are stronger than the other, one side may be more flexible than the other and we (and our horses) are more coordinated with one hand or hoof than the other. So if we are all asymmetrical, why should care if we or our horses are straight?  Fundamentally the asymmetries of the horse and rider have a profound influence on each other which is why straightness or symmetry should be important to us as riders.

If you compete in dressage the chances are you will know that Straightness is the 5th element in the Dressage Training Scale, following after Rhythm, Suppleness (& Relaxation), Connection and Impulsion. As dressage riders we realise the importance of straightness or the lack of it, fairly early on, as we struggle to ride a straight centre line or stop falling in on a circle. Conversely many leisure riders don’t ever think about straightness and just assume that the way their horse moves is the norm or that they need to tighten their girth just a little bit more to stop their saddle slipping to the right.

However, the negative consequences of us not correcting both our own and our horse’s asymmetries can have a serious adverse effect on our horse’s soundness and well being not to mention our own health.

Let us look first at our horse and why crookedness should have such a negative effect on our horse’s performance, ride-ability, and health. I read a simile recently that compared our horse’s crookedness to a car whose chassis is bent after an accident or where the wheels are not aligned. If the misalignment is severe enough, the car will not steer well, it will veer in one direction, it will not hold its line of travel when you have to brake and the tires will wear very unevenly. The same principals can be said to apply to our horse.

  • He will make his turns smaller than intended towards his stiffer (convex) side and larger than intended towards his hollow (concave) side.
  • He will tend to veer away from the line of travel towards the stiffer side.
  • He will tend to stop with his haunches turned in or with the hind leg of the stiffer side out behind.
  • He will be difficult to bend towards the stiffer side.
  • He may have trouble cantering on the stiffer side. He will find it difficult to sidestep with the hind leg on the hollow side.
  • He will lean onto the rein of the stiffer side, while staying behind the rein of the hollow side.
  • He will overload the legs of the stiffer side, making them susceptible to repetitive stress injuries such as spavin, ring bone, and tendon injuries.

These are just some of the symptoms of crookedness that are caused by a misalignment of the horse’s feet. These problems originate because the hind leg on the hollow side does not step under the centre of gravity, but steps out to the side of the body, which results in that leg neither carrying nor pushing the body mass effectively. This then causes a chain reaction throughout the horse’s entire body.

One of the most serious consequences of the leg not stepping under sufficiently on the hollow side is that this overloads the diagonal shoulder, causing a loss of balance, which in turn leads to the horse leaning on the rein of the stiffer side and curving his spine towards the hollow side. In other words, the horse carries too much weight on his forehand and on the stiffer side of his body, which creates excessive wear and tear on the legs that have to carry more than their fair share of the weight.

This imbalance can also lead to muscle blockages as the horse will tense muscles to prevent himself from falling over. True relaxation and suppleness is therefore only possible when the horse is balanced, and balance is only possible when the horse is not crooked.

When the horse braces his muscles to prevent himself from falling over, his gaits are uncomfortable to sit. When the hind legs don’t flex and open at the joints sufficiently the back of the horse becomes tight, which prevents the back from swinging properly which in turn causes a roughness in the gait.

When a horse is stiff on one side and hollow on the other the rein contact can never be light, steady and even. The rein will always be heavier or harder on the stiff side. When our horse’s hips and shoulders are not aligned properly he won’t be able to bend correctly, which in turn has negative repercussions on his rhythm, suppleness, rein contact, impulsion, and collection.

When only one hind leg steps underneath the center of gravity (point of mass), the haunches are unable to direct all their energy towards the center of gravity, which means that the horse can’t develop his full impulsion. Other issues caused by crookedness (or not stepping under) in our horse can include “sucking back” or being behind the aids, which in turn can lead to shying and even more dangerous behaviors such as bucking and rearing.

Crookedness or asymmetries in the horse can have an adverse affect on the rider’s position too. When a horse is unable to flex his hind leg, his hip on that side is pushed up. This means that the rider will be sitting on an incline and her hip on the other side will slide down into the “void” and cause the rider to collapse at their waist.

The tendency of the horse to brace on the rein on the stiff side encourages the rider to brace her hand as well. This bracing on the stiff side can also make it hard for the rider to maintain rein length. Her arm on the stiff side will tend to creep forward taking her elbow further and further from her hip, whilst on the hollow side the rider may well take her hand further and further back in an effort to find contact. And if the horse has a tendency to carry his hips towards his hollow side he will probably place his rider in the same position.

But it is not just the horse’s asymmetries that cause crookedness. A crooked or asymmetrical rider can cause crookedness in their horse.

If the rider’s pelvis is unlevel, so that one hip is higher than the other the horse will fill the void and lift his hip on that side and then the hind leg on that side will lose the ability to flex properly and carry weight. If one side of the rider’s pelvis is further forward than the other, the horse will find it easier to do a canter depart, haunches in and half pass in that direction and may well tend to travel in a haunches-in position at all times. If the rider consistently has too much weight in one seat bone, then the horse will tend to veer in that direction, as well as falling in or out on a circle in that direction. If the rider’s pelvis is always tipped forward and she sits with a hollow back the horse will sooner or later mirror that position and hollow his back. Whilst if the rider sits in a chair seat the horse’s back will sag and his hind legs trail out behind.

The asymmetries of horse and rider influence each other. Sometimes the rider’s crookedness can cancel out the crookedness in the horse but they are far more likely to exacerbate each other. In fact, in most cases the rider’s and horse’s crookedness become so intertwined it becomes hard to know whose crookedness is whose. The first step in straightening either ourselves or our horse is awareness. Just as our proprioceptive system lies to us, so does the horse’s proprioceptive system lie to him. His body will seek to take the easiest route which isn’t necessarily the gymnastically beneficial solution.

This is when it really pays to work with your horse on the ground first. Whether you chose to work on-line, in-hand, on the lunge or with long reins, the advantage of working off your horse’s back are manifold. You know immediately if your horse falls out or in that the asymmetry is his and not because of your seat. You can see how the horse moves his body and be in a better position to influence him and you can help show him a better way of moving without accidentally interfering with his balance.

Just as we need to work on our horse’s asymmetries we also need to work on ourselves too. Whilst a posture assessment on PI will help you become more aware as to whether you are a chair seat or hollow backed rider, sit more heavily on one seat bone or another and which of your hands tends to brace more, we need to make an effort to correct ourselves and teach our body a new and better way of moving. There are any number of ways you can help yourself, including taking up Rider Exercise, Swiss Ball, yoga or Pilates classes.

In extreme cases exercise classes or ground work may not be sufficient for either you or the horse. If one of you has a pelvis that is seriously “out” for example, it may well be worthwhile consulting a Physiotherapist, or getting a Bowen or Emmett treatment.

Once we have worked on our horse and ourselves separately we can start to use arena patterns as diagnostic tools/improvement exercises when we ride.  The arena patterns and movements that we ride can change the horse’s balance and posture, which means we can use certain patterns to analyse and then target specific muscle groups. Every movement or exercise requires the use of different muscle groups in the horse’s body. For instance, corners, turns on the haunches and voltes mobilise the shoulders.

So as you can see, Straightness, for both the horse and the human, is the one of the most basic requirements there is for riding our horse in harmony. Perhaps it should no longer be placed at the end of the Training Scale but at the beginning with Rhythm. After all it is the combination of Straightness and Rhythm together that enables our horse to find his lateral and longitudinal balance, which then allows the horse to relax, become “through” in his back, find a light, steady and even rein contact, bend correctly, and to develop impulsion and collection.

I hope that I have provided a pretty convincing argument for the importance of straightness. It is certainly something I work towards everyday because the price we and our horses pay for crookedness is high, and the rewards of straightness are more than worth the time and effort.

 

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