Straightness as Body Building

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Horses are crooked by nature. This means that they prefer using one side of their body over the other or they prefer moving in one direction over another. This is analogous to people having a natural preference for using their left hand or their right hand. The rider's job as the horse's trainer is to make the horse equally strong and equally flexible on both sides. When that happens, the horse is able to travel "straight."

Most competitions require horses to perform in both directions. This allows the judge to determine if the horse's physical development is equal on both sides and whether or not it can travel straight. Dressage tests and reining tests require movements that are mirror images of one another to demonstrate the horse's gymnastic ability (or lack of it) on both sides.

The term "straight" does not refer to a line such as an arena wall or fence. It refers to the positioning of the horse's body. The horse is "straight" when its hind feet track into the footfalls of its front feet. The inside hind foot steps in the same track as the inside front foot whether the horse is moving on a straight line or a curved line. This can be physically challenging for green horses. The rider/trainer uses various exercises to help the horse develop an equal amount of strength and flexibility on both sides of its body so that the horse is physically capable of moving "straight."

Before the rider can begin working on straightness the green horse must be:

  • working in a steady rhythm in both directions;
  • working in a relaxed manner;
  • moving forward freely;
  • stepping into an elastic steady contact with the bit; and
  • carrying itself in balance.

Until the horse has mastered these initial steps on the training tree, it will not be able to achieve straightness.

To get the horse to travel straight, the rider needs to develop steady, elastic contact with the bit on the outside rein. There may be light contact on the inside rein to position the horse's head, but it is very light. The outside rein is the rein that directs the horse to be "straight" while the inside rein remains passive or has very light contact to position the horse's head to the inside of a bend.

Remember that the horse's power for forward motion comes from its hind end. To have a true outside rein connection the horse must engage the hindquarters and step into the outside rein contact. Simply taking or pulling on the outside rein is not a true outside rein connection. The rider must feel the horse seeking contact with the hand and catch the energy as the horse steps forward into the outside rein to make a true connection. This contact creates some weight in the rider's hand, like a firm handshake, but there should be no bracing or pulling. The contact has a soft yet heavy feel and the degree of weight the rider feels depends on the horse's training level. The more balanced or collected the horse is, the lighter the contact will feel.

Common problems that crop up when riders are working on straightening their horses include:

  • There is a loop in the outside rein. This usually means that the horse is not pushing off from the hindquarters and cannot step into contact with the outside rein. The rider may not be applying correct leg aids to encourage engagement of the hindquarters or the horse may not be responding to the aids.
  • The horse quickens and speeds up when you ask it to be more forward. This may be a balance problem or the horse may misunderstand the rider's leg aids.
  • The horse braces into the outside rein or pulls on the rein. Again, this may be a balance issue or it may reflect the horse's discomfort working in that direction until it develops sufficient strength or flexibility to carry itself in balance. Or the rider is hanging on the rein, trying to make the connection happen with the hand rather than engaging the horse's hindquarters and asking the horse to step into the hand.

Since the outside rein is the primary straightening rein, working on a circle where the horse is slightly bent to the inside (depending on the size of the circle) makes it easier for the rider to develop a connection on the outside rein. Riding circles and serpentines are two excellent exercises for straightening the horse.

Start asking for straightness on very large circles. The smaller the circle, the more difficult the job is physically for the horse on its weaker, less flexible side. So start with at least 20-meter circles. The horse and rider should be able to maintain straightness on a 20-meter circle before they attempt it on smaller circles. A ground person is helpful here to tell the rider whether the horse's inside hind foot is stepping into the track of the inside front foot.

The rider wants to feel an elastic, steady connection in the outside rein. Initially if a horse is very stiff in one direction, the rider may need to use the inside rein to gently position the horse's head to the inside. However, do not pull the horse's head and neck to the inside. On a circle, the horse's entire spine should bend along the circle's circumference. When the rider positions the horse's head and neck correctly, the eye on the inside of the circle will be barely visible. However, if the rider pulls the horse's head and neck to the inside, the line of the spine breaks and the rider loses the outside rein connection. The rider's goal is to collect and direct the forward energy coming from the hindquarters using the outside rein while using very light inside rein contact only as necessary to maintain the correct bend on the circle.

Serpentines, a series of linked half circles, are a more advanced exercise. Through several strides, the rider must make a smooth change to a new outside rein as the direction of travel changes. As the horse and rider finish one half circle and turn onto the centerline of the arena, the rider's eyes and torso turn to follow the new line of travel. The rider momentarily squares the shoulders and torso taking up contact on both reins and putting equal weight in both seat bones. Then, as the rider's eyes and torso again turn in the new line of travel along a new half circle, the shift in the position of the rider's shoulders and seat bones alerts the horse to the change of direction. As the rider continues using rhythmic leg aids to ask for forward motion, the horse now steps into the new outside rein and contact on the new inside rein lightens.

Straightening is an essential body building exercise for all horses that helps them develop equally on both sides. In the beginning, the horse's one-sided muscular development will present physical challenges. As the horse's muscles gradually become strong and flexible on both sides of its body, the horse will become more comfortable and the rider will be able to use the aids more subtly. Crooked, one-sided horses are more prone to lameness. The horse that travels straight stands a better chance of staying sound not only during the competition season but also throughout its lifetime.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I love the Meredith Manor program. It's given me so much in terms of skill and confidence, it's incredible!
Katie O'Toole: 2007 Riding Master VI Graduate