Monitor Yourself to Straighten Your Horseby Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Asking a horse to travel straight exemplifies the "who is training whom" conundrum. An upper level schoolmaster with muscles equally developed on both sides of its body can help a rider learn how use her seat properly and to time and coordinate her aids correctly in order to achieve straightness. The upper level rider with an independent seat and a solid understanding of how to use her aids can help the crooked horse develop the muscles needed to travel straight.
However, the less-than-perfect horse can challenge, even frustrate, the less-than-perfect rider and vice versa. An instructor or other trained observer can help the rider with suggestions. When the rider is schooling alone, however, she must carefully monitor her horse's reactions to her aids and adjust her aids stride by stride. The rider must assume responsibility for straightness. As her own skills improve, she will enable the horse to develop its muscles correctly and become less crooked. Here are some suggestions riders can use to monitor their contribution to the straightness or crookedness of the horse.
Does my posture ask the horse to move straight or does it create crookedness?
Think of your upper body as a set of building blocks stacked on top of each other. Now envision a plumb line running from the top of your head down through your neck, chest, and into your pelvis. Is that plumb line straight or crooked? Mentally view it from the side and from the front or back. An observer on the ground is invaluable here. In order for the horse to be straight, you must sit straight on your horse keeping equal weight in both seat bones. Limbering your muscles with stretching exercises before mounting is a good practice, especially in cold weather. Checkpoints:
- Am I sitting equally on both seat bones?
- Are both of my hips equally flexible, equally strong?
- Am I carrying one shoulder higher than other?
- Do I lead into corners with my inside shoulder?
- Do I collapse my inside hip as I ride through corners?
- Do I lean forward or to the inside as I go through corners rather than keeping my torso vertical?
- Are my stirrups of equal length? Continually mounting on the same side stretches one stirrup leather longer than the other. That, in turn, affects the alignment of your upper body.
Do I use my eyes correctly to ask the horse to travel straight?
Remember the building blocks and plumb line. Your eyes influence the position of your head, which influences the position of your torso and, thus, the horse's direction of travel. The rider must learn to feel bit contact and the position of the horse's head and neck without actually looking at the horse. Checkpoints:
- Am I looking in the direction of travel?
- Am I looking at least three or four strides ahead of where I am currently riding?
- Am I looking at my horse's head position, therefore collapsing my building blocks?
Am I applying leg aids correctly and with correct timing?
You must apply leg aids with varying degrees of pressures, interpret and judge their effectiveness by listening to the horse's response, then respond appropriately with adjusted aids. Developing this finesse takes time. Correct leg position is also critical for effectiveness. The rider should drive the horse forward with the inside of the calf. If the rider's toes turn out, she is using the back of her calves to drive the horse forward. This locks the hip joints and destroys muscle relaxation.
You may need to increase your inside leg aid and decrease the outside aid, especially in the horse's bad direction, until its muscles and flexibility develop. Leg yielding from a smaller circle out onto larger one helps many horses develop their muscles.
Reinforce leg aids with a light touch of the whip if you are sure that the horse understands the aids but chooses to ignore them. Without occasional reinforcement, many horses become more and more "dead" to the leg. Each horse is, of course, an individual. So the frequency and degree of reinforcement will be different for each horse. Checkpoints:
- Is my leg "goosing" my horse forward rather than "asking" him to lift his back and engage his hindquarters?
- Am I applying leg aids rhythmically, asking for engagement stride by stride?
- Am I adjusting my aids as I work in the horse's good and bad directions?
Am I using the outside rein correctly to gather and direct the horse's energy?
The horse must move forward from the leg into the rider's outside hand. The outside rein receives the energy from the horse's hindquarters and maintains a steady but elastic contact. The rider uses this contact to influence the direction and speed of travel. The outside rein connection is the key to straightness.
Maintaining straightness through corners is difficult. The horse must bend its body more in order to keep the hind feet following along the same tracks as the front feet. Outside rein contact must remain steady yet elastic as the horse and rider move through corners. Correct use of the eyes as the rider approaches and moves through a corner initiates rotation of the head and shoulders. This rotation, in combination with the elastic connection of the outside rein with the bit, invites and allows the horse to bend correctly through the corner. Checkpoints:
- Are my shoulders and elbows relaxed so that I can maintain a steady but elastic contact on the outside rein?
- Am I bracing or pulling back on the outside rein to establish contact rather than gathering up the horse's energy as it moves forward from the hindquarters?
- Am I moving my hand to the outside to position the horse's head rather than using my leg aids to encourage forward motion into the hand?
- Am I moving the outside rein across the horse's neck, blocking its straightening effect?
- Am I throwing outside rein contact away on the corners by moving my outside hand forward?
- Am I using my eyes and the consequent change in the position of my head and shoulders to allow the horse to bend correctly through the corner?
Am I using the inside rein correctly to position the horse's head and neck?
Keep an image in your mind of the horse's head and neck rising straight up from the center of the chest. Anything the rider does to bend the horse's neck allows the horse to travel crookedly. Most horses prefer to overbend through the neck on their weak or "hollow" side. If the rider pulls the horse's head to the inside, the horse will bend in the neck, at best, or will lean on the inside rein to avoid stepping energetically into the outside rein connection, at worst. To position the head, the rider rotates the lower arm slightly to the inside from the elbow using soft contact. Head positioning is subtle. If the rider were to glance down, she should barely see the inside eye while the neck continues to come straight out of the center of the horse's chest. Checkpoints:
- Am I lifting my inside rein to position the horse's head instead of rotating my lower arm slightly to the inside?
- Am I pulling back on the inside rein to position the horse's head?
- Am I positioning the horse's head just enough to see a bit of the eye on the inside or is the horse's neck bending?
- Do I softly position the horse's head then softly release the contact to encourage him to use his muscles to carry himself?
- Am I upsetting the horse's rhythm and balance by constantly giving and taking contact with the inside rein?
- Is the horse leaning on the inside rein?
- Am I asking the horse to move energetically into the outside rein with correct leg aids applied stride by stride?
Traveling straight challenges the skills of both horse and rider stride by stride. Focus on correcting and coordinating one aid at a time before trying to coordinate them all. Work on straightness at the walk before attempting it at the trot. Work on straightness at the trot before attempting it at the canter. Work in both directions.
Developing straightness means riding what may seem like endless circles but do not get discouraged. Just keep riding and monitoring, riding and monitoring. Remember that it takes time for a rider to develop the muscles and coordination required to achieve that all-important independent seat. And it takes time for the horse to develop and condition its muscles in order to carry itself correctly as well. Do not expect everything to fall into place in a few weeks or even months. Enjoy the good strides, use the less-than-perfect strides as learning tools to make the next strides better, and just keep riding.