Straightness is the most difficult of the scales to place in terms of order. Although it is ranked #5, (after Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact and Impulsion), it cannot be totally ignored at the earlier stages.
Try to think of straightness in the following terms:
- ‘Straightness’ is rather a misnomer – a better word to use is ‘alignment’.
- The forefeet must be aligned with the hind feet on straight and curved lines.
- The horse should have equal bend (and hence, alignment) on both reins.
So you can see that this sounds a lot like scale no. 2 suppleness, and is also integral to gaining equal contact (no. 3) in both hands, and developing impulsion (no.4), which depends on both hind legs thrusting with equal power and in the same direction.
However, prioritising straightness too early is a mistake, because without the earlier scales in place you will not have the necessary tools to address it . Any attempt to straighten the horse too early will rely on rein aids, resulting in backward riding and consequent stiffening and blocking the hind legs from stepping forward under.
All horses are born crooked, and straightening them is a never-ending task; without monitoring, their natural crookedness will reassert itself.
Straightening natural crookedness takes months and years of persistent work, and although you should not prioritise it until your horse is working well at Elementary level, you should start chipping away at it as soon as your basic controls are established.
Why is straightness important?
- Through developing even weight distribution on both sides of the horse, we help him to maintain health and soundness for ridden work, by promoting equal wear on the muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments of both sides.
- Increased straightness will further develop suppleness and throughness. (Conversely, only a supple horse can be genuinely straightened.)
- Impulsion will be limited if the hind legs push to one side, instead of forward, or the horse predominantly carries weight on one hind placed under the centre of his body, while the other always avoids carrying by stepping out to the side.
- Balance is more difficult when the horse does not work the same way on both sides.
- To prepare him for collection (scale #6). Only a straight horse using both hind legs equally, and taking even weight in both sides of the contact, can engage his hind quarters sufficiently under his body (assuming he is correctly supple over the top line and working ‘through’), to transfer more weight carriage to his rear end, and so lighten his forehand (i.e. collection).
- Very often, even at high levels of competition, horses swing the hind quarters out on small circles (and in shoulder in). The inside hind may even cross out, over the track of the inside hind. This totally avoids the point of the exercises, which is for the inside hind to step under the body and carry more weight, thus increasing engagement and leading to collection.
What exactly IS straightness?
The FEI defines straightness like this:
“The horse is straight when its forehand is in line with its hindquarters, that is, when the longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track it is following.
Straightening a horse means also that the horse must be able to be bent and flexed on both reins equally.”
To simplify a little, just picture your horse’s spine, and line that up to the line you are following.
Absolute straightness is what you are trying to achieve on, let’s say, a centre line. You want your horse’s spine to be totally aligned to the straight line along which you are riding; from his head, along his neck, along his back, and into his hindquarters and tail, with no part of his body deviating off the line. As anyone who has ridden a dressage test can tell you, this is easier said than done, but that is your goal.
Functional straightness needs a little more explanation. Your horse’s hips are wider than his shoulders. This means that if you riding on soft ground and you look at the imprint of his front and hind hooves, you will see that the front feet land on the ground slightly closer together than the hind feet, so although we talk about alignment as the front and hind hooves travelling in the same lines, this is not quite possible. When he is functionally straight, his spine is aligned to a curve with his hooves staying evenly spaced on either side of the line, the front feet being slightly closer together than the hind feet.
Signs of crookedness
- Head tilting
- Hind quarters swinging out on curved lines
- Hind quarters carried to one side on straight lines
- Crooked rein back
- Working more fluently and correctly on one side than the other
- Bend and flexion not the same on both sides
The Rider’s Influence
While horses are by nature uneven on the two sides, rider crookedness has a huge impact on the horse’s ability to be straightened.
Riders often sit crooked, with uneven weight distribution in the saddle, and may be unequal in their use of the aids, plus a crooked horse can make a rider crooked even if they were straight to begin with! To address these issues, riders should be willing to undertake training, including off-horse exercises such as Pilates, Yoga, and physiotherapy.
Training for Straightness
- At first, simply ride positively forward in straight lines and on big circles – think of it as if you were driving a car towing a trailer that begins to snake from side to side – forward acceleration is the only way to achieve straight travel; ‘corrections’ will only enlarge the swinging effect. This is particularly relevant to riding down a centre line.
- Keep developing the equality of suppleness on his two sides.
- When more established, riding circles in counter-flexion, particularly in canter, helps to position the shoulders in front of the haunches without any backward direction to the contact.
- Counter canter is useful, provided he is kept with an almost straight neck.
- Shoulder in is one of the key exercises, but will only be effective if performed correctly with body bend so that the hind legs travel straight along the track when the forehand is moved inward, and not leg yield along the track, where his inside hind leg crosses over in front of the outside hind.
- Canter should be ridden in shoulder fore.
- To straighten your horse, ALWAYS position his shoulders in front of his haunches. NEVER try to push the haunches back into place – this results in dis-engagement and may encourage his hindquarters to swing from side to side.
Straightness in canter
As opposed to walk and trot, canter brings an added complication to straightness. Due to the nature of the canter sequence, where the legs on one side (the ‘leading’ side) are always moving in advance of the legs on the outside of the body, the horse’s spine is predisposed to curling up towards the leading leg. This is why judges often comment that a horse is ‘quarters in’ in canter.
To prevent this natural crookedness, canter should always be ridden with a slight feeling of shoulder fore, so that the two feet on the leading side are aligned (in one track), and the horse’s nose is positioned above his inside knee. Remember that difference in the width of your horse’s shoulders and hips? Then you will see why you must move the shoulders slightly in to put the front hoof directly in front of the corresponding hind hoof.
Straightness is essential if the horse is to complete the scales and achieve the goal of training, which is the ability to collect, i.e. redistribute the weight carriage of horse and rider more towards the haunches, to lighten and mobilise the forehand, removing the excess weight from the more vulnerable front leg joints, and so promote health and soundness.