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How to teach your horse to travel in a straight line.
Get It Straight
by Kristin Hermann
Horseplay Magazine, Sept. 1991

Straightness in dressage.

We want our horses straight for correct gymnastic development. From the very basic levels of dressage, judges will comment on the horses straightness as it is ridden up center line twice in each test.


A rider and or trainer desires straightness for many physiological reasons, but mainly to ensure the bilateral balance in the horse. We want the horse to travel equally in both directions. Only when the horse is balanced as a result of straightness is the rider able to harness its optimum power.


If a horse is crooked, more than likely those muscles inhibiting straightness are causing tension and/or creating inefficient use of the animals movement.


As the rider correctly progresses with the horse's training, the horse gains energy and moves effortlessly. This is because the horse becomes balanced and supple with dressage.


When we read dressage literature and/or take lessons, we constantly hear about straightness. Comments such as, "your horse is not straight", "your horse is falling in", or "your horse's head is tilted" are common. But what is straightness? The horse is traveling straight when its hind hooves are tracking into the prints the front hooves leave, whether on a circle or a straight line.


On the straight line, the horse's body will be straight, and the hoof prints will line up. On the circle, the horse's body is bent onto the arc of the circle, but as long as the hind legs fall into the prints of the front legs, the horse is considered straight and traveling correctly on the circle. If the haunches fall out on the circle and the hoof prints do not line up, the horse is not straight.


Ideally, throughout its top line, the horse should be straight from its tail to its poll. There are two areas where we look for straightness: from its tail to its withers, and its withers to its poll. It is not uncommon to see a horse that is crooked from the tail to withers or from the withers to the poll, or both.


Many riders will know if the horse is straight through feeling. Others may need to ride towards a mirror to see if the horse tracks straight. If a mirror is unavailable, ask a ground person to check if your horse is traveling straight. Often, on a circle, we neglect to feel if the horse is truly on the outside rein, coming through and straight. As a result, the horse probably over bends laterally in one direction and is stiff on the opposite side.


How to tell if a horse is crooked.

One should notice whether the horse's hind legs track into the prints the front legs leave. If you watch the horse move on a straight line, either towards you, or away from you, look to see if the two legs on each side line up.


You can tell if the horse is crooked from the withers to the poll by noticing if the head is tilted. This is indicated by whether or not the ears are level or crooked. The horse will tilt its head down to the side it bends more easily toward, often caused by the rider consistently bending the horse in one direction by pulling on the inside rein.


How to spot crookedness in gaits.

At the walk, observe the horse while it is on a loose rein, or watch the horse without a rider stroll around. Generally, at the walk, the horse will keep turning its head towards the side it bends more easily toward.


At the trot, a horse will commonly swing the haunches out and track crooked, whereas at the canter, the horse typically swings the haunches in. Often, both forms of crookedness go unnoticed until a rider starts consciously to ride straight lines.


How to Test Straightness

Ride the horse on a straight line about ten feet from the arena wall (the quarter line). Notice in which direction the horse tries to lean.


If the horse falls in or leans to the right, then it is not using its inside hind leg to support its weight so that it stays straight.


Falling in could be caused by the rider.  Thus, riding parallel to the wall on the quarter line can become a challenge to the rider who uses an indoor arena and becomes dependent on the wall. Riding away from the wall on the quarter line not only tests whether the horse is straight, but helps the rider learn to keep the horse straight and develop its gymnastic balance. Riding away from the wall requires better aid coordination from the rider, because the horse will not stay on a straight line without the correct aids to keep it straight.


Check rider position in saddle.

If a rider is not sitting in a balanced seat, he can cause the horse to be crooked and not track straight. Often, riders are not even aware of this. Over a period of time, their faulty position and balance are reflected in the horses body.


Riders should check their position in a mirror and/or have a good instructor to correct it. Also, the saddle must be checked for its symmetry and balance. If a rider continually sits unevenly, a saddle will also become uneven and will need restuffing.


Rhythm and Straightness

When the horse stays rhythmic at a trot on a circle is the time to develop straightness. If you are trying to slow it down while making it straight, this will destroy the horses unconstrained movement.


If a horse rushes on straight lines, put the horse back onto the circle until it stops rushing and becomes rhythmic. Then return to the straight lines. Constantly test for rhythm by riding across the diagonal, or down the quarter line and center line. Every time the horse begins to rush on a straight line, immediately return to a 20-meter circle. Eventually, both horse and rider will learn to maintain rhythm.


To make a horse straight, the rider must consciously ride straight lines with the horse. We cannot expect the horse to be straight on its own; we have to put it straight. By knowing which aids straighten the horses barrel, and then its neck and head, the rider will eventually acquire the ability to straighten the horse from its tail to its poll.


Straightening at walk, trot and canter.

Basically, the following principles to straighten a horse apply whether the horse is walking, trotting or cantering. It is best to learn on the quarter line so the rider can check if his aids are being effective.


It will help with all straightening work if the rider focuses his eyes on an object directly in front of him and stays on a direct line toward that object. Remember to give your horse enough room to turn at the end of the arena.


If the haunches fall out, such as at the trot, it requires bringing the outside leg back to push the horses haunches in line with the shoulders. The outside rein has to be used simultaneously to keep the horse from coming away from the wall or the straight line you are traveling on. The inside leg keeps the horse from moving its body too far to the inside, as well as maintaining the rhythm of the gait. The inside rein maintains contact.


Straightening from withers to poll.

To absorb more contact use a direct outside rein by bringing the elbow back towards your hip. Your leg aids, especially the outside leg, have to be on the horse so the extra outside rein pressure does not take the horse in that direction. As the outside rein lines up the horses neck and head to the center of its shoulders, the inside rein has to give forward to allow the horse to straighten. If the inside rein stays tight, the horse will not be able to move its neck to the center.


Straightening the whole top line.

All the above straightening aids, from the tail to the withers, and the withers to the poll, have to be used simultaneously. For example, as the outside rein straightens the horse that turns its head to the right, one might have to push the haunches that fall out back in with the outside leg.


One must realize that straightening a horse is not a routine exercise, set aside from ten minutes of a horse's 25-minute workout, but a constant correction throughout each movement. In other words the awareness and the ability to ride a horse straight must be practiced and dealt with during each step you and your horse take.


Using Circles to Straighten your Horse

Ironically, circling will also help to straighten a crooked horse or a horse that is over bent in one direction. A horse that over bends to the right can develop straightness by being worked on a circle to the left.  This is because a horse that over bends to the right has contracted muscles on his right side. Therefore, working a horse on a circle to the left helps the muscles on the right side get longer, provided the rider does not let the horse stay bent to the right as it travels to the left.


A more advanced horse can be ridden in a counter position that is, the horse tracks on a circle right, but the rider has the horses body positioned to the left.


One must remember not to exercise the horse excessively in one direction thinking that this will help it become straighter faster, but to work both sides equally.

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