Straightness - Equal Balance on Both Hands
By Paul Kathen © 2007
“Immer an der Wand lang,” meaning always along the wall, is the title of an old German beer drinking song. It describes the feeling of a person on the way home after an evening of too much drinking. He is slowly working his way along the line of house fronts to help him stay upright and give him direction. If you were to observe this fellow you would notice that as the alcohol evaporates his steps become more secure and his reliance on the wall less frequent. He is still staying near the walls but he is no longer hugging them. His stumbling short and long steps even out and his posture straightens. His slurring of words turns into singing and upon arriving at home he has sobered enough to find the door lock with his key and open the door. While I know the song, I am not speaking from personal experience but from observation.
I can imagine that the young horse, new to the saddle and rider, would sing a similar song if it could. His loss of equilibrium is the result of added weight on his back. His progress would also be from the need of physical support to the emotional support of the rail to his ability to obey commands by the rider. After about three months of constant improvement in the horse’s balance the rider then can more and more detect the horse’s preferred side. It becomes obvious to the trainer that, like all horses, his also moves crooked.
After I had completed this article I sat down and read what I had written and realized that this is quite complicated. I found myself reading a sentence over again to make sure I had the correct bend in mind to have it all make sense to me. In order to make it easier to follow my reasoning, reach for a peace of paper and a pencil and draw a stick horse as seen from the top. Bend it to the right and draw a line along its left side that represents the rail. What you see now is a straight line with a slightly bent line next to it on its right side. Add to your horse a head at the top and a tail at the bottom to give this animal a direction of movement. Now write on the hollow or right side, “crooked.” Underneath that write, “strong,” and underneath that, “hollow.” On the left side you write, “weak.” Now every time you see one of those terms quickly check with your drawing to make sure you have the correct picture in mind.
Most horses are crooked to the right. If looked at from the front while the horse travels on the right hand, the observer can see the outside hind stepping between the front legs and the inside hind moving to the right of the inside front. This horse shifts its weight to the left shoulder and is, therefore, harder on the left rein. From now on this fact will influence how we train the horse. Although straightness is step five on the training pyramid the process of straightening begins now. It is actually not anything especially designed to straighten the horse that we do at this point, but it is the way we ride the movements to achieve rhythm, suppleness, etc. We must make sure the horse travels in line at all times. Doing that is not difficult but feeling the crookedness so that we can correct it is easier said then done.
The meaning of the word straight in its common usage is not exactly the same as the connotation we give it in dressage terminology. We expect a horse that is straight to travel with its back and neck straight on straight lines and with its back and neck bent on bent lines. The bend in the horse’s spine corresponds with the bend of the line the horse travels and, therefore, its inside legs track on the same line. That means that the bend in the horse’s spine is greater on a ten meter circle than on a twenty meter circle. The bend of an advanced horse traveling through the corners of the dressage arena is about that of a six meter circle. A young horse is not yet capable of so much bend and it is up to the rider to enlarge the corner according to his horse’s ability. She must, however, then take care that the horse does bend according to her chosen line and the inside front and hind must follow the same track. In the lateral movements the horse moves with its hind legs in the direction of the movement and not to the side of it. Often one can also see the horse tilt its head sideways so that it carries one ear higher than the other. This is due to the uneven connection on the reins.
The rider cannot, of course, see all of the above described indicators of crookedness and she is dependent on her feel in the saddle to determine crookedness and correct it. Just about every rider can feel the difference in the connection with the mouth of a crooked horse. The often resulting tilt in the head is also visible to the rider and helps to remind the rider to correct the loss of straightness in her horse. Many riders, however, cannot decide about their horse’s straightness by listening to their seat.
To me the best way to develop that feel is to ride an advanced horse on small circles. At that exercise the support of the horse’s inside hind leg stepping under its center of gravity becomes quite obvious. I do recommend having a knowledgeable person on the ground because a horse that is capable of traveling straight may not choose to do so on a small circle unless the rider asks it to. Only if the inexperienced rider knows that the horse is traveling straight does she also know that what she feels is correct. Until a rider has felt this support of the inside hind leg and the following strong push from that leg, she may not be aware that her horse is traveling with the hind leg out and consider the weaker push to be the norm. The drift of a crooked horse over the outside shoulder is often interpreted as an unwillingness to turn. This usually leads to a horse being pulled around the circle by the inside rein and a downward spiral has begun that, unless corrected immediately, tends to lead to a fight that the rider cannot win. Since she has not recognized the cause of her dilemma, the crookedness of her horse, she will not remedy it, and by pulling on the inside rein she has made it impossible for the horse to obey. Another indicator of crookedness a rider can feel is that her seat is being put to the outside and she has to struggle to stay centered in the saddle. If the rider is not made aware of this problem in her seat, sitting off to one side can then become habitual. I have seen such a habit developed to the point that when the rider is asked to sit in the middle of the saddle she finds it strange and believes that she is going to fall off.
Another good method of learning the feel for our horse’s movement is the instructor literally talking her students through the process of helping their horses to travel straight. This must be constant but positive. Not to be able to feel what is happening under her saddle can be frustrating and most students are trying their best. The very trying, if done while upset, will not allow the student to feel and the level of frustration will only increase.
I have had good success in teaching students to feel their horse’s movement by first helping them to correct their horse on a large circle until it traveled straight. Here they learn the aids to control the hindquarter and the shoulder. They become aware of the outside leg and its effect when placed behind the girth. I often hear, “But Paul,” when I ask to place the inside leg behind the girth if the horse traveled with its haunches in. That is not what they read in the book. The book only spoke of horses that traveled straight and made no mention of straightening the crooked horse. I like what I either heard Dr. Klimke say or what I read in one of his books. He wanted the rider to do what she had to do to correct a problem and then she could return to the proper form. This exercise with she student on the twenty meter circle is also very helpful in familiarizing the student with the effects of the outside rein. All this time I ask the student to listen to her seat. If necessary I will put the horse on a lunge line and have the student close her eyes (students with a secure seat only, please). This will allow her to concentrate on her seat and feel her horse with it. Then I will ask her specific questions regarding her horse’s movement and give her immediate feedback about the correctness of her answers. This also helps to get the more passive student involved in her own progress.
Next, we spiral in and out. To what degree we can guide the horse on a smaller circle depends on its suppleness and we must stay within that limit. By gradually decreasing the size of the circle the horse must, in order to stay straight, also increase its bend to the same extent. The student learns how important it is to maintain a positive contact with the inside leg at the girth while asking for the greater bend with the outside leg placed behind the girth and a sponging of the inside rein. It does take three points to bend anything, including a horse! In order to avoid over bending the horse the outside rein must limit the bend in the neck while the student must take care not to push the hindquarters into the circle with too strong an aid of the outside leg. If the student managed to keep her horse straight during the exercise the horse will have most likely put her weight increasingly on the inside. I do, however, continue to remind the student of her weight distribution to impress upon her that her position in the saddle is of great importance to turn the horse.
This is altogether a situation where the instructor should not just observe, be silent, and allow the student to experiment. She wants the student to feel correctness and I believe the more moments of right balance the instructor can provide for the student the quicker the student will be able to recognize the feeling of straightness in her horse. Once I have explained the aids to the student, I only tell her whether her horse travels straight or not and then let her decide how to correct it if necessary. I will especially point out the moments of balance in her horse so that she knows what it feels like when it is right.
When spiraling back out the student gradually reduces the bend of the horse and guides it back to the twenty meter circle with the outside rein. Her inside leg at the girth keeps the horse going forward and also maintains the bend necessary for the size of the circle it is traveling. The rider can also guide the horse back onto the larger circle by means of a leg yield. I like this exercise for two reasons: One is that it teaches the student to use her weight correctly to help the horse maintain its balance. Should the student distribute her weight to the outside, the horse would be thrown off balance and shift its weight to the outside shoulder in order to stay upright. The student then would be unable to preserve the accurate circle line and find herself having to regain her own balance as well as that of her horse. The second reason I like this exercise is that it prepares the horse so well for a canter depart. The horse is properly bent, it is on the outside aids, and all I need is to half-halt and ask with my inside hip and leg for the canter. I use this exercise especially with young horses. With them I time my aids for the canter just before I reach the rail and rarely will a horse miss its lead.
In a similar fashion the trainer can employ changes out of the circle or through the circle. Other effective exercises are the various serpentines. Like with simple circles or spirals the trainer must ride the horse straight in order to help the horse become equally supple on both hands. That, of course, means that the rider must ride concentrated at all times. Shoulder-in and travers are very helpful but require a certain degree of collection as well as a strong desire to go forward from the horse. I would not ride them until I know my horse will respond well to driving aids. The good news is that by riding the horse straight the horse will respond quicker to the bending aids and maintain straightness better. Even more good news is that besides improving the horse’s balance on both sides, the rider will soon notice an improvement in the expressiveness of the horse’s gaits. It also prepares the horse to collect further for more difficult exercises.
There is also, however, some bad news. This process of straightening is never over. Your horse may be the overwhelming favorite to win the next Olympics but you still will have to make sure he travels straight every day. His easier side will always be easier for him. You can notice it every time you start a new exercise. He will perform better on his preferred side until you again have, through practice, evened it out. I take advantage of this by introducing new movements or combination of movements to him on his naturally better hand. Since it is easier for him, he can work with less tension and he will be able to concentrate more on the rider. Another instance when a horse loses his acquired evenness is during a layoff. Whenever he is ready to work again you will find that he again prefers one side over the other.
Those of you who have read some of my other articles know that I believe riding is a thinking person’s sport. So, in this situation the trainer does not want to just plop herself in the saddle and start, “straightening bend work.” She has thought it out and has developed a plan. The following is about her thought process: “The horse is crooked to the right so the muscles on his right side are shorter or more contracted than the ones on the left so I must stretch the muscles on the right.” The reason for this unevenness is unknown. I personally like the theory of the positioning of the developing foal inside the mother the best because it makes the most sense to me. “The muscles on the left side of the horse are weaker since they are contracting less and I must help the horse to strengthen them. So no matter what hand I ride him on he will want to either move his hindquarters to the right or his shoulder to the left or a little of both. Since he is still pretty weak and not very supple I will start with large circles and straight lines. Since it is easier to keep the hindquarters from moving out than from coming in I will start on the left hand. I will also locate my circles at the ends of the arena since there I have the rail to help me in controlling the hindquarters three times instead of twice at the center circle. The best way to supple something and make it more flexible is to bend it back and forth instead of just bending it more and more in one direction. I must change hands frequently. My favorite way to accomplish that is to change through the diagonal of the arena since it allows me the most time and space to change the bend in my horse. This is very important since I do not want to start my new circle with my horse off balance. As for my straight lines along the rail, it sure would be nice to have the rail like they have in Europe, slanted back towards the top. I could ride him close to the ground rail and still have room for my leg and stirrup. That rail would not allow my horse to swing his hind out on the left and I could rest my leg. Some horses initially will even refuse to give to the outside leg and it takes the rail to make him understand what I want. Another way for my young horse to avoid my corrections is to travel too fast. Find his best trot and work him at that speed. When in doubt, take what he offers and add just a little to it. Rhythmic movement, suppleness, and a stretch into the bit are the most important criteria for his work at this time. I believe that it is easy to see how improved balance will help him attain all three of these goals.”
This is perhaps a good moment to take a little closer look at the order in the training scale. I have written about it in previous articles titled, “The Training Scale,” and you can find them in the October 2004, through February 2005, editions of the HDS newsletter or go to my website, www.tex-overfarms.com, and look for them under, “Articles.”
So far we have discussed the reasons for crookedness in a horse and we have decided that an effective way to straighten a horse is to ride it on bent lines and make sure that it travels correctly on those lines. We also determined that in order to be able to accomplish that the rider must have acquired a seat that allows her to feel the crookedness or straightness in her horse. We have decided that this is a prerequisite to succeed in helping the horse overcome its natural crookedness. There are two more questions we must answer in order to gain the most benefit from our efforts: On which side do we start, and in which gait do we choose to ride most of the exercises? If this were a test it would be a question that has several correct answers and they all must start with, “That depends.” It depends on the preferences of the horse and of the rider.
Let us call the side to which the horse is crooked his strong side because the muscles on that side are stronger. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to start on his weak side because I find it easier to control the hindquarter wanting to drift out than the hindquarter that turns in. I am also right handed so my right side seems to be better coordinated and stronger. Since most horses tend to move the hindquarter to the right, my stronger right leg can control that notion better. You may be stronger on your left, so for you the left side might be your first choice. Some riders have a hard time with the rein of the strong side when it is the outside. Check with your stick horse and you will see that if your horse is crooked to the right it is the right rein. If you then travel to the left, your horse wants to hang on the left or inside rein. Often I see the outside rein hang loose and the rider accommodating the horse with a strong inside rein. To take a positive contact on the outside rein without too much pressure, in this case on the right rein, takes a great deal of skill and coordination. It is, however, necessary in order to move the horse off the inside rein. It seems to make that task a little easier for my students when I first ask them to work towards an even contact on both reins and then lighten the inside contact more and more. All the time keep asking the horse to stretch forward into the bit and thus turn the contact into a connection. The first rule still remains that you must ride from the back to the front. Again my advice is to work from your strength but please realize that you must change rein frequently.
Whether to trot or to canter is the next question. To me the walk is the gait to rest and I do not consider it for working. If you read the old but still helpful reprints about training you will find that a few centuries ago there was a school of thought that recommended not asking a horse to canter until it was well balanced at the trot. That idea was more the result of the type of horse they rode at that time than a special technique of training. These horses would now be described as plow horses that favored the trot by far over the canter. While we no longer ride such heavy horses our thinking should still be the same as theirs. The gait to use is the one the horse prefers. You can easily tell your horse’s preference in the warm-up. Today many horses will relax much quicker at the canter than at the trot. We have bred so much, “blood,” into our horses and often ride Thoroughbred horses and recognize their leaning towards the canter is undeniable. So, work from their strength and canter. Keep in mind, however, that in the gaits, like in the direction, the frequent change is imperative. Another reason I lean towards the canter is the natural slight bend the canter produces in the horse’s spine due to the leading inside leg. The canter also has the added benefit to stretch and loosen the back muscles quicker and a stiff back is hard to bend.
I mentioned earlier about the importance of the student learning the correct use of the outside aids and especially the outside rein. Almost without exception novice riders find it easier to ride a circle at the canter on the horse’s weak side. In my opinion that is a function of crookedness. The strong outside does not allow the horse to over bend in the neck and, therefore, the horse will follow the inside rein without popping the outside shoulder. Most horses will drift over the outside shoulder while cantering on the strong side if the rider does not yet have the skill to use the outside rein properly to prevent it.
The canter seat, sitting more on the inside seat bone with the inside leg at the girth and the outside leg behind the girth, the rider’s hip parallel to the horse’s hip and the rider’s shoulder parallel to the horse’s shoulder, just naturally says, “bend.” On his strong side the horse may answer with, “That is easy,” and over bend. Another difficulty to overcome is to prevent the canter on the forehand, especially on his weak side. Now I hope that you paid attention in your physics classes in school. You learned that energy travels straight and not around circles or corners. At a working canter your horse covers about the length of ten feet per jump. To describe a circle he must change direction every stride to give it a round appearance. As the circle becomes smaller he must shorten his stride or he cannot stay on the circle line. This explains the collecting effect of the smaller circles. It is imperative, however, that the horse executes the turning on the hindquarter, not the forehand. If he turns on the inside shoulder, as he will be tempted to do traveling on his weak side if the rider allows it, it is still manageable because he can literally pull himself around with his inside front leg. On his strong side he will wind up on the outside shoulder and his drift to the outside will become so strong that the only way he can manage the circle is by jumping up and out behind and in this fashion change direction every jump.
I hope that my description of the horse landing on its outside front leg after every canter jump has created in your mind a picture of struggle and strain to turn to the inside at the same time. Remember the law of energy traveling only in straight lines. The front leg is planted on the ground by the horse’s weight and the horse is to turn so it must move the hindquarter over so that it forms a new line that points over the front end into the desired direction. That brings us to another law of physics. Maybe it is a new law and in that case we can call it, “Kathen’s law.” It states that, “If two forces oppose each other the heavier one will win.” Imagine this instance as an example of that law. A man has a ten ton yacht in the water. He backs the trailer into the water, secures it under the ship, and now attempts to pull it out of the water by securing a winch to the trailer on the one side and the bumper of his Volkswagen on the other side. Then he starts the winch turning and looks real surprised as the car is slowly pulled into the lake. He clearly does not understand Kathen’s law. A horse that moves on the outside shoulder (forehand) has the yacht represent the forehand while its hindquarter corresponds to the Volkswagen. The muscles of the horse’s back and hindquarter act as the winch and cable. As these muscles contract (the turning of the winch) instead of lifting the forehand for the next graceful jump, the heavy forehand is anchored to the ground and the hindquarters are lifted up. The forward motion is more the result of a pulling forehand than a pushing hindquarter. This type of canter is characterized as, “croup high.” If now at the moment the croup is off the ground you pull on the inside rein to turn your horse, that pull will swing the haunches out, not the forehand in. I believe you all have seen such a picture, just did not know that you saw Kathen’s law in action. That was a great deal of writing just to state that when you work your horse at the canter you must have him at least in balance, preferably a bit lighter on the forehand.
Since most of us do not ride the top one percent of show horses and we ourselves may have missed the nomination to, “Rider of the Year,” I am always careful not to recommend techniques or exercises that allow the top horse athlete ridden by a short listed rider under the daily supervision of this year’s, “Coach of the Century,” to arrive at Grand Prix at age seven. You have not quite made the FEI levels yet and your horse is at that age. Please do not panic. There is enough time left. Besides, keep in mind that you have accomplished more by riding a balanced, well rounded ten meter circle than by riding a poor pirouette. For the purpose of straightening I frequently ride shoulder-fore or even shoulder-in at the canter along the long sides. It helps bend the horse and strengthen the hindquarters. Spiraling in and small circles have the same effect. All of these exercises tend to slow a horse and, therefore, it is important to ride straight and refresh the energy with a medium canter. As you then return to the working or collected canter, listen to your seat or your instructor. Did your horse stay straight? If he did without too much help from you, congratulations! You can now start your work towards some serious collection.