Originally posted on Academie Duello’s blog in September 2011
We are almost at the top of the training pyramid now, and you’d think something as straightforward-seeming as ‘straightness’ would be lower down – at the bottom even. However, straightness does not mean simply travelling in a straight line: it is determined by the balanced working of muscles on either side of the body, whether the horse is travelling on a straight line or a circle.
Like humans, horses have ‘handedness’ and favoured sides. Just a dancer may pirouette better on the left than the right, or a fencer is better with one hand than the other, all horses find it easier to flex, to pick up leads or to turn to one side or the other. Straightness, therefore, only comes when a horse has been trained to work equally and evenly on both sides of his body, regardless of his natural crookedness.
Some versions of the training pyramid reverse the order of straightness and impulsion, based on the valid fact that a horse cannot utilize her impulsion fully if her body is not straight. That is, the driving force of his hind legs is dissipated if they do not track evenly to his centre of balance, in much the same way a fencer’s lunge is less effective if her body is not properly aligned. However, straightness is much more difficult to achieve than impulsion, which is why most versions of the pyramid place it higher.
It is fairly easy to determine your horse’s crookedness. Does he drop his shoulder and fall on the forehand on the left canter circle but not the right? Does he pop his haunches or his shoulder out when moving in one direction? When riding in a straight line can you see one of his eyes? Does he leave two clear sets of parellel tracks, meaning his hind feet are following the fore directly? Be sure, though, that the crookedness you notice is your horse’s and not your own: if you’re not sitting squarely, the uneveness in your seatbones, hand, legs or shoulders can make your horse seem crooked, or worse, influence greater crookedness.
While achieving true straightness is beyond most average riding horses there are small things you can do every ride, even out on the trail. Every time you notice your horse is not tracking straight, ‘nag’ him with a little leg bump or tweak his nose over with a gentle rein. These are not big motions, just subtle reminders. When your horse straightens a bit – even if not all the way – reward him by letting him walk freely.
Many tiny adjustments during your ride will create straighter habits in your horse, and remind you to be straight as well, in your reins, your shoulders, your seat and legs. And that’s better body mechanics for both of you.