Updated: May 20, 2021
A horses straightness is something that crops up regularly in every test you will ever do in dressage. The start and end of every test focuses on straightness, as do your halts, your circles (i know its weird, we'll get to them!), your transitions, diagonals...the list goes on!
Not only that but it is so important that it is included as one of the main building blocks of dressage, the scales of training (well come back to that later.). Finally, a horse that is straight will produce better quality work and straightness will reduce the risk of injury as the horse will be using both sides of their body evenly rather than overworking a specific limb.
What do you need for a straight horse?
For those of you that are unsure, the scales of training are the fundamental basics that every horse must have and they are in order too, so theoretically you cannot have achieve one scale without having already achieved the previous scales. But as your horse progresses through the levels the degree to which you need each scale increases. For example, the level of suppleness that is required at prelim is far less than that of a horse at grand prix, and the same applies for all the scales. I have done individual podcast on each scale which you can listen to if you want to learn more about a specific one
The scales go like this:
So, from this then we can assume that we cannot have a straight horse until they have some degree of rhythm, suppleness, contact and impulsion. In other words, your horse needs to be pushing with his hindlegs (impulsion) over a supple, soft back into an even contact.
How do you know if your horse is straight?
A lot of the time both a rider or horse straightness is generally harder for the rider to pick up than someone on the ground watching them. This is because a horse and rider combination wont suddenly be crooked (unless obviously there is an injury or change of saddle or something else going on). Generally, if its a training issue it will evolve over time and so, the rider may think they're straight when in fact they are crooked. When you change this to create a straight horse and rider, it can be that what ends up happening is the rider feels they are not straight when they actually are and vice versa, they may feel they are straight when they actually aren't. This is why mirrors, videoing your training or someone on the ground is so beneficial to help the rider see the crookedness.
So, ride a couple of centre lines and use your mirrors, ask someone to video your centre lines. Ride a few so you can then establish firstly if your horse is crooked and secondly if there is a pattern; are they always swinging their quarters to a certain side.
Once you know this you can look at what to do to improve it.
How do you improve your straightness?
1. Make sure you are straight
Some people argue that horses, like us have one side stronger than the other, others say that horses are naturally straight but that it is a riders crooked-ness that creates the lack of straightness. I think i need to research this a bit more to come up with a definitive answer but one think i do know for sure is that a crooked rider definitely creates a crooked horse because if you imagine you have a rider that leans too much to the right, that horse will have to compensate for that and wont be able to move straight.
So, before we even look at training our horse to be straight, we need to make sure that we are not the cause of the problem. Again, this is where videoing comes in handy. Ask someone to video you on your horse from behind and side on. If you see crookedness then address that either with a instructor to help your position, or by using exercises to strengthen your weaker side or you might find that just by being aware of your habit that you are able to make changes to help your horse.
2. Straightness in the walk
The walk is by far one of the hardest paces to keep the horse straight because it is a slower pace so you don't have the same amount of impulsion as in the trot and canter. Thinking back to when we talked about the scales of training you need rhythm, suppleness, contact and impulsion for a straight horse. So, start by making sure your horse feels soft and relaxed then really focus on making sure your horse is pushing forward in the walk and really pushing forward into an even contact.
Again, we need those 4 building blocks of rhythm suppleness, contact and impulsion to be able to create a straight horse so if you struggle with any of these 4, focus on that first, then come back to looking at your straightness.
3. Straightness in the trot
With the trot you have a bit more impulsion on your side. The same theory works though, make sure your horse is pushing from their hindlegs , through their body, into an even contact. Imagine its like squeezing a tube of toothpaste, so squeezing with your calves and imagine your pushing the energy from the hindlegs through the horses body into the contact, just like you're squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the cap on, and that pressure builds up, that is what the contact is like. Practicing down your 3/4 lines is a great way to practice your straightness too!
4. Straightness in the canter
Canter can be a whole different ballgame when a horse is unbalanced. Generally, if a horse struggles to balance themselves in the canter they will swing their quarters to the inside to avoid having to sit on their hindlegs.
To fix this, you will want to take a half halt with the outside rein to encourage the horse to rebalance and carry their weight on both their hindlegs. If you want to learn a bit more about the half halt as an aid, when to use it, what aids to use and its uses in training and in a test click here for our article on the half halt. head to ep 29
5. Straightness on a circle
There is a big misconception that straightness only relates to when you are on straight lines and this is very definitely not true. Straightness on a circle means that the horse's hindlegs are following their front legs. This will help them to be more balanced on the circle and will stop a horse falling out or in on a circle.
To find out if your horse is straight on a circle ride a 10m circle in the middle of the arena, away from any walls. Ride a couple of these circles and think about whether you feel that your horse wants to make the circle smaller or bigger. Do the same on the other rein. This exercise will help you understand whether your horse always likes to fall onto the left or right shoulder or whether they always fall in or out. Finding the pattern will help you establish where your problem is and then we can go from there.
Again, when it comes to improving the straightness on our circles, we first need to make sure it is not us as the rider that is creating the problem. For example, riders that are stronger with their right rein may find that the horse always falls out on the right rein and in on the left rein. This is just an example, but its really important to make sure that your crookedness isnt creating your horses crookedness. In which case, you trying to improve your horses straightness wont see much improvement until you correct your straightness first. You might even find, once you are straight that the problem has gone away entirely.
When it comes to improving your horses straightness on a circle we have written a whole PODCAST on the inside leg to outside rein connection, its an incredible tool that will help you to create a straight horse on a circle.