Why Isn't He Straight?
Like you, your horse is naturally left- or right-handed (or, for him, left- or right-hooved). And, like you, he has a stronger and a weaker side. Whether this was determined by the curve of his body in uteroor some other factor, we really don't know. But we do know that this difference causes or allows his fairly movable shoulder (which, without a stabilizing collarbone, is attached only loosely to his skeleton by means of muscles or ligaments) to fall or bulge off the line of travel toward his strong side. At this, his weak side collapses, his weak hind leg carries less weight, and the weight on his strong-side rein increases while the feel on the weak-side rein decreases to nothing, leaving that rein "empty." In this crooked, crab-like position, not only does he give you uneven contact, but he's heavy in front; his hind-end engine can't propel him "uphill;" you can't find a centered, balanced place to sit; he doesn't bend; his figures aren't round, and his straight lines are angled.
Fortunately, there is a solution: strengthening your horse's weak side to make both sides equal. It's not easy, especially when you're in the beginning stages of learning how to ride, but it is simple: Just get control of his shoulders, align them in front of his haunches, and ride him that way. As he straightens, he strengthens. AS he strengthens, he straightens. He lightens in front, he willingly and confidently steps into both reins and gives you even contact--and whether he's on a curved or straight line, he's "vertically aligned," with his body (from nose to tail) lined up like cars of a train.
Where Is He Crooked?
To identify your horse's strong side--let's say it's the left--check for:
- Stiffness or rigidity when he turns his head left
- Pulling or heaviness on the left rein. (If you feel equal heaviness in both reins, he's just boring down and putting all his weight on the forehand--a different problem altogether.)
- Bulging or leaning on the left shoulder
- A head-tilt that raises his left ear
- The feeling that you're being pushed to the left.
To identify his weak side--in this case, the right--check for:
- Haunches falling right
- Little or no right-rein contact
- Right-sided collapse, looseness, or rubberiness
- A head tilt that lowers his right ear
- The feeling that you're pulling your right leg up and back or can't quite reach your right stirrup. (Check your length--you may have shortened a hole in an effort to reach your stirrup more comfortably.)
You'll Succeed if You...
- Don't focus on your horse's mouth. Heaviness or stiffness on one rein is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.
- Pretend your horse is a wheelbarrow. Anybody who's done chores around the barn knows that when you look down at a wheelbarrow or hold the handles so they're not level or uneven, or go too slowly, the wheelbarrow tips over. So look straight ahead--not down at your horse's poll, your hands, or the ground. Keep your hands equally and evenly balanced in front of you. Sit upright with shoulders, hips, and heels aligned. Push your horse energetically forward. And drop your stirrups or cross them over the pommel: it's the best way to get equal weight on both seat bones and to feel your legs evenly and equally stretched down.
- Start at the walk. Yes, the walk has pitfalls. It is THE gait without natural impulsion or suspension, so your horse can fizzle underneath you. And you may be tempted to get overly fussy with your hands in an effort to pull him together and create a head position. But because the walk is a slower gait, with less going on, it's the easiest gait for focusing on one thing (in this case, straightness). It'll also help you feel safer and more secure working without stirrups.
- Avoid the rail. If your horse is typical, the rail is like his security blanket or a magnet--he loves to get there, lean there, and get crooked. Far better, for now, to work on the center line, where he has nothing to lean against. And if the center line has a mirror at the end--so you can see when his head, neck, and hindquarters are (and aren't) lined up--so much the better. (If there's no mirror, ask a knowledgeable friend to sit at C and give you instant feedback.)
- Work more to your horse's strong side. In other words, if he's leaning or bulging left, spend more time tracking left. Your inside (left) leg can more easily move his bulging left shoulder toward his weak outside (right) rein, and your outside (right) leg slightly behind the girth can more easily hold his weak right hind and keep it from swinging out.
- Get to work NOW! Every day you ride your crooked horse, his crookedness becomes that much more established in both of you, until crookedness almost feels natural. And I promise you this: No crooked rider has ever fixed a crooked horse.
Let's Get Straight
Establish an energetic walk on the left hand (again, assuming your horse is strong on the left and weak on the right), with your horse marching energetically forward into the reins. Turn up the center line, facing toward the mirror or your friend; keeping your eyes straight ahead, slightly open the right rein to invite your horse's shoulder to come right; bring your left rein slightly against his neck (without crossing over the withers--if you do, your wheelbarrow's going to tip) to keep his shoulder from bulging left. Keep your right leg slightly behind the girth (if you need that little extra aid) so his right hind doesn't step out, keep your left leg on the girth, and rhythmically squeeze-and-release both legs to encourage him to go straight forward.
Your main focus is on riding your horse's shoulder straight in front of you. Avoid focusing too much on his haunches--which is why I just said to keep your right leg only slightly behind the girth. Overall. you want your legs in equal position: When both your legs are moving him forward into contact and you ride his shoulders straight ahead, his haunches will follow--they're attached to his spine, so they can't get lost!
As you ride, imagine your horse is a train. His head is the locomotive; when it's straight, the rest of his body--like the passenger cars and caboose--follow in line If you prefer, visualize something--let's say it's a carrot--dangling by a long string from his forelock; it should drop straight down between his forelegs. Or look into the mirror to check (or have your friend tell you) whether your horse's head and neck are centered squarely on his shoulders and his hind legs are following in the track of his front legs.
Your horse may throw his head in the air. Don't worry about it, and don't fiddle. The more you do with your hands, the less engine you have. Just keep your hands level and quiet. I can almost guarantee that once he's marching straight forward into the reins, he'll become more comfortable and confident and will voluntarily lower his head into a nice, even contact.
The editors thank U.S. Dressage Federation-certified instructor Becky Langwost and Maxx for demonstrating this month's lesson.
This article originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.