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Why straightness is the key to effective dressage training *H&H Plus*


  • Most horses are born with a preference to one side. Andrea Oakes investigates how you can combat this, and the importance of straightness in training

    Going straight doesn’t sound so difficult, in the grand scheme of dressage. So why is straightness up near the top of the training scales, just one step beneath collection?

    To understand its complexity, it’s worth a quick refresher in what the term straightness means in the context of training. Put simply, the hind feet of a horse who is travelling “straight” should track directly into the hoofprints of his front feet — not just when he is moving on a straight line, but also on a curve or circle.

     Trainer Andrew Day likens true straightness in motion to hitting the “sweet spot” in a racket sport — an optimum point, where the horse generates the most power for the least effort.

    “This longitudinal alignment is best seen as the opposite of crooked,” explains Andrew. “It represents the full and unhindered thrust of the horse’s hindlegs, which propels his centre of balance forwards equally into both reins.”

    Unfortunately, nature throws a spanner into the works.

    “Horses are born curved,” explains Andrew. “Whereas the human foetal position is like a crouch, a horse in the womb has a lateral bend. While this largely rights itself once the foal is freed from uterus, and during the first few years of growth and development, a horse will always have a slight spinal preference.

    “The job of the rider is to recognise the horse’s preference and to teach him to move evenly through both sides of his body,” adds Andrew.

    International grand prix rider Anna Ross adds that just as humans are right- or left-handed, horses typically have a stronger side.

    “Couple this with the fact that a horse’s back-end is wider than his front, and it’s easy to see why riding in a straight line is more complex than it first appears,” she says.

    “As a rider, you have to be a bit like a horse’s personal trainer — making sure his strong side doesn’t get stronger and his weak side weaker.

    “He must load evenly through the hind limbs, so his hindlegs follow his forelegs and don’t cross the tracks,” she explains. “Most youngsters look like they’ve had one too many as they start to bear the load of the rider, but from the very start they should be encouraged to move forwards and straight in front. A green horse will fall in one way and out the other, so straightness must be continually refined as he develops.”

    Crookedness

    Failing to address a horse’s natural crookedness means the issue will become more exaggerated as his training progresses.

    “This will create ingrained and profound asymmetry,” explains Andrew. “The crooked horse will be noticeably heavier on one side of the mouth, with a marked preference for bending in one direction and a tendency to fall (drop through the shoulder) one way.

    “A horse who carries his quarters to the left or right is like a rear-wheel drive car with one back wheel smaller than the other,” he adds. “The car will not follow a straight line, just as an uneven ‘push’ from behind will have repercussions for the whole horse.”

    Anna stresses the importance of being proactive in taking charge of straightness.

    “It’s crucial a rider doesn’t follow the horse down into the hollow side,” she says, describing the tendency for the riding position to collapse on the horse’s weaker side.

    “Mirrors are useful in checking your shoulders are straight and your feet are level, while eyes on the ground in the form of a trainer or friend are always worthwhile. Some riders get away with sitting crooked at quite a high level, but this will come back to haunt you.

    “Crookedness in the horse will reveal itself in extremes of collection and extension,” she adds. “I’d say 99% of problems in flying changes come from lack of straightness. It also becomes apparent in piaffe and passage steps if the horse is pushing more on one side than the other.

    “Since most straightness issues are at the back-end, not the front, correctly ridden renvers [haunches out] will sort out many things,” Anna advises. “Simple transitions on the three-quarter line can be used to check for drift either way, while counter canter helps to stretch out the side a horse naturally curls into. Try riding very correct leg yields, both ways, making sure the horse is not bending his neck too far to the inside and falling out through the shoulder.”

    A lack of symmetry

    Straightness can only be built on the previous levels of training: rhythm, relaxation, connection and impulsion.

    “It’s not easy to straighten a horse if he is not accepting the bridle properly,” says Andrew. “Yet if he is not spinally aligned, he can’t find comfort in accepting the bridle.

    “The longer it goes on, the longer it takes to unravel,” he adds. “If an inexperienced rider then adopts the opposite symmetry, the whole thing is compounded — often leading to lameness and veterinary problems.”

    A horse’s lack of symmetry will have an effect on a less experienced rider — and vice versa. This “chicken and egg” element of straightness is something a rider should learn to be aware of, according to British Dressage UKCC level three coach Alison Short.

    “I bring awareness to riders in the early stages of training, by introducing symmetrical warm-up exercises,” she explains. “Once a rider understands the impact of their weight and any unsymmetrical aids — the inside leg slipping back on one rein, for example, or a rein aid that is fixed or low on one side — they can learn to recognise this and make educated decisions. After all, if you only coach someone once a fortnight, they have up to a dozen opportunities to ride ‘one-sidedness’ into a horse.

    “With each exercise, I encourage the rider to think about setting both themselves and their horse up with symmetry,” adds Alison. “They learn that straightness should result from their posture and leg aids, as opposed to their hands. More contact in one rein than the other is not straightness — that’s crookedness being held straight.”

    Alison explains that rider asymmetry can be identified and addressed out of the saddle, using exercises such as side-to-side twists, with hands on hips, and hip flexor stretches. “Ideally, a rider will iron out their own issues so as not to hinder the ongoing development of straightness,” she says.

    Andrew adds: “It’s a topic that needs to be revisited throughout the horse’s education, up to the very highest levels. Straightness never falls off the agenda.”

    Try this exercise to build a ‘feel’ for straightness

    “Riding identical exercises on both reins, with periods away from the track, gives you a window into what’s happening,” says Alison Short. “You can then identify any asymmetry and take steps to correct it.

    “Start by walking a 10m circle at A (see diagram), keeping your outside leg present but your inside leg dominant. Maintain a flexible contact with the inside rein and note when the bend is correct to the size of the circle — the inside rein won’t quite make contact with the side of the horse’s neck, but the outside rein will.

    “Move the walk forwards down the three-quarter line, keeping your body straight on that line. Assess which of your legs you may need to use to stay straight, using quick taps with the leg rather than a bear hug. Aim for an elastic contact, with symmetry between the horse’s neck and both reins.

    “Then ride a 10m circle at C, asking the same questions you did at A. Repeat this at trot, twice, then change the rein and complete the whole exercise in the new direction.

    “You can add to this routine by giving and retaking the reins individually, which will help to evaluate true straightness. Riding canter transitions on the three-quarter lines is a great way to check straightness and will pay dividends towards simple and flying changes.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 6 February 2020