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.