Straightness is the fifth of the dressage Scales of Training and is crucial to your horse’s overall way of going and physical development.
But how can lateral work improve your horse’s straightness? Surely, making your horse go sideways will prevent him from being straight?
In this guide, we explain why suppleness is an essential element of straightness in the dressage horse and how lateral work can help.
What is straightness?
A horse is said to be straight when his body is aligned to the path he is following.
So, when the horse is moving on a straight line, such as the centerline, his body is aligned in a straight line from nose to tail with his hind feet following in the tracks left by his front feet.
When moving on a curved line, such as a circle, the horse’s hind feet should still follow the tracks left by his front feet. Although the horse should bend uniformly to follow the arc of the circle, his body should still be in alignment, and therefore, straight.
How does straightness feel?
When riding straight lines, you will have an even weight in both reins, and your bodyweight will feel evenly distributed in both stirrups and seat bones.
Also, you will be able to ride circles, loops, and turns equally comfortably on both reins. Your horse’s ears will remain level, and there will be no tilting at the poll.
In both instances, if you’re riding on a freshly rolled arena, you should see only one set of tracks.
How to feel crookedness
Just as people are right or left-handed, horses are naturally stiffer to one side than the other.
So, if your horse is stiff to the left, he will find it more comfortable to carry his shoulders out to the left and his quarters to the right.
Common issues for riders with horses that are not straight include:
- Horse’s quarters coming in on straight lines
- Horse falling through the outside shoulder around circles and through corners
- Horse leaning in on a circle and through the corners
- Horse bringing his quarters in through transitions
- Horse bending the wrong way around circles
- Rider is unable to ride accurately-sized and placed circles
Straightness and suppleness
For a horse to be straight, he must be supple.
A supple horse can move his neck, haunches, and shoulders equally in both directions without resistance, and his whole body is loose and flexible.
This makes it easier for the horse to keep his longitudinal axis in line with the curved or straight track that he is following, and therefore, straight.
So, to help straighten the horse, you need to improve his suppleness.
Almost every lateral exercise can be used to help make the horse more supple and, therefore, straighter, and they include:
These exercises develop symmetry in the horse’s body and limbs, encourages thoroughness and elasticity, and promote a more uphill cadence.
Although the more advanced exercises mentioned above might be too challenging for young horses and those that are new to dressage, there are two very simple lateral exercises that anyone can use; leg-yield and shoulder-fore.
As your horse becomes more confident in the work, you can mix things up and make the work more difficult by riding the exercises in different gaits and/or increasing the angle.
Leg-yielding is every horse’s first introduction to lateral work. No collection is required, and unlike the other lateral movements, the horse stays straight with just a slight flexion away from the direction of movement.
This lateral movement is a great way of suppling the horse so that he can be straighter. It’s also the perfect introduction to the sideways aids so that you can teach your horse the more challenging lateral exercises later.
Exercise 1: Stairs
Start riding this exercise in the medium walk until the horse gets the hang of things, and then ride the exercise in an active working trot.
Start by riding down the centerline, ensuring that the horse is straight between both your legs and hands.
Now, leg-yield your horse sideways for just three or four steps.
(Related Read: How to Leg Yield)
Keep the angle shallow and leg-yield toward the track.
Next, ride the horse straight again for a few strides.
Leg-yield again for three or four steps toward the track.
Repeat the exercise sequence until you reach the track and then ride the exercise in the opposite direction.
Exercise 2: Spirals
This exercise is slightly more challenging than Exercise 1 and involves riding leg-yield on a circle.
Ride a 20-meter circle and leg-yield in gradually until the circle is around 15-meters in diameter.
Make sure that the horse does indeed leg-yield inwards rather than just drift or fall inwards.
Now, leg-yield out again onto your 20-meter circle.
Use your inside leg riding into your outside rein, and making sure that you don’t allow the horse to slide out through his shoulder.
As the horse becomes more supple, spiral inward onto a smaller circle of up to around 10-meters.
Take care that the rhythm and balance are consistent. If the horse struggles to keep his balance or the rhythm suffers, make your circle larger again.
Shoulder-fore is a simpler version of shoulder-in and is an excellent straightening exercise.
The angle required for shoulder-fore is only around 10 degrees, compared with shoulder-in, where the angle is closer to 30 degrees.
In this exercise, the horse is required to take more weight onto his inside hind leg and have a slight uniform bend throughout his body. The shoulders are brought slightly in off the track, and the hind legs stay on the track moving straight.
Exercise 3 – Simple shoulder-fore
Ride down the long side of the arena as though you want to ride a 10-meter circle at the first letter.
Prepare your horse for the circle by riding a half-halt to balance him and bringing his shoulders slightly off the track.
Now, instead of continuing onto the circle, ride the horse down the long side, keeping the shoulder-fore position.
(Related Read: How to Ride Shoulder-Fore)
Direct your inside hip down the fence, effectively telling the horse to remain bent but go straight. Use your inside leg to generate impulsion, and maintain a small degree of inside flexion.
After a few meters, straighten the horse and ride the exercise again on the next long side.
Ride the exercise on both reins.
Straightness is essential in the dressage horse. Without it, the horse cannot be connected through his back, and without connection and thoroughness, the horse cannot be engaged.
A lack of engagement leaves the horse on his forehand and lacking balance. Ultimately, without straightness, true self-carriage and collection cannot be achieved.
For the horse to be straight, he must also be supple. Lateral exercises are a great way of improving suppleness and, therefore, straightness.
Use the simple lateral exercises described above to get you going. Once your horse is confident in those movements, you can introduce more challenging, advanced lateral work to further refine and improve your horse’s straightness.