How to Improve Your Horse’s Straightness and Collection
These two aspects of a horse’s way of going are linked.
If your horse isn’t straight, you cannot hope to achieve true collection and progress up the dressage ladder.
In this article, we take a look at how you can make your horse straight. We also discuss one way in which you can develop collection across all the training levels.
What is straightness?
Your horse is straight when his body travels along one track from his poll to his tail.
When the horse is moving along a straight line, his footfalls follow one track only.
On curved lines and around circles, the horse’s hind legs precisely follow the track made by his front legs.
When moving laterally, the horse’s hind legs should follow the direction of movement and should never be displaced out from underneath the horse.
Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 5 – Straightness
How to tell if your horse is straight
When your horse is straight, you will have an equal weight of contact in both your hands. You should also feel an equal weight in your seat bones and stirrups.
Ride a center line or circle and ask a helper on the ground to check that your horse has only left one track of footprints.
Look at your horse’s head, and check that his ears are level and his head is not tilting at the poll.
Problems in achieving straightness
Unfortunately, all horses are naturally crooked in the same way that people are right or left-handed.
That means that your horse is most likely stiff on one side and hollow on the other.
So, if your horse is hollow to the right and 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 riding squares instead of circles because the horse can’t bend
- Rider is unable to ride accurately-sized and placed circles
In contrast, a supple horse can move his neck, haunches, and shoulders equally in both directions.
Only a supple horse can be truly straight.
The benefits of a straight horse
There are many benefits to making your horse straight, including:
- A crooked horse may suffer from muscle pain and tightness, potentially leading to physiological changes to the bones and joints. A straight horse will be sounder in the long term.
- Unless your horse is straight, you won’t be able to make him truly supple through his back.
- If your horse is straight, he will be more likely to remain in front of your legs and accept the contact with the bit.
- To achieve collection, your horse must first be straight. A straight horse will be able to take more weight on his hindquarters instead of swinging them out.
- A straight horse will achieve higher marks in dressage tests, including in the submission collective mark.
- A straight horse will be able to take more weight on his hindquarters, making his paces more expressive.
So, working on straightness will ultimately help you to achieve collection.
Collection is determined by how much weight the horse can carry on his hindquarters.
When you can collect your horse, you’ll be able to ride him in a more uphill balance, as required for the level of training.
Also, transitions will be smoother and more fluent.
Collection is achieved through the progressive strengthening of the horse and correct riding.
Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 6 – Collection
Degrees of collection
There are several degrees of collection, as appropriate to each stage of the horse’s training.
First-degree collection is what you’ll observe in a young horse.
Transitions are usually progressive, rather than direct, allowing the horse to keep his balance.
Halts may not be completely square behind, and that’s acceptable for a four or five-year-old horse at the beginning of his dressage career.
From a judge’s perspective, a horse who remains on the bit into and during halt, and then takes a couple of steps of walk before continuing in trot, should still be awarded a mark of seven or even eight. However, in a medium test, that horse wouldn’t score more than a six.
A horse who is working with second-degree collection will be able to make direct transitions and show a degree of collection and shortening throughout his whole body.
A horse with third-degree collection should carry at least half his bodyweight on his hindquarters.
The horse’s carriage will be more uphill, transitions will be smoother and more fluent, and the horse will appear light on his feet.
Horses working with third-degree collection can show the beginnings of piaffe and passage.
Fourth-degree collection is the most advanced level of collection and is seen in horses working at Grand Prix level.
Strengthening exercises for your horse
Collection can only be achieved through systematic training to increase the horse’s strength.
Problems such as coming wide behind or shortening the frame and steps without carrying the weight behind are usually caused by a lack of physical strength.
However, sometimes problems such as these can be caused by physical discomfort. So, be sure to regularly do the following:
- Check your horse’s back, especially if he tends to trail his hocks and become hollow in halt
- Make sure that your saddle still fits and doesn’t need flocking
- Check that you are sitting in the center of the saddle and not too far back
- Warm-up your horse in a long, low frame to stretch and loosen his muscles
- Massage your horse’s back daily after schooling
Using counter-canter to improve straightness and collection
Counter-canter is extremely useful in helping to develop greater straightness and collection and can be instrumental in improving the true canter. So, using this exercise in your schooling sessions is a win-win!
In true canter, the horse is positioned slightly toward the leading leg. That positioning defines the “inside” of the horse. In canter, the horse’s inside hind leg takes more of his weight, as it steps further under the horse’s body, toward the center of gravity.
In counter-canter, your focus should be on encouraging the horse’s outside hind leg to step under the horse’s body, thus encouraging the horse to carry more weight on his hindquarters. That will improve the horse’s balance and facilitate better impulsion.
How should counter-canter feel?
Counter-canter should feel just like a good quality collected canter.
You should feel as though your horse is moving uphill and in a good balance. The horse’s back should feel loose and supple, allowing you to sit easily, comfortably, and correctly.
When you’ve achieved this feeling, you will be able to ride effective half-halts, keep your horse straight, and maneuver your horse’s shoulders without difficulty.
Riding the counter-canter
When riding counter-canter down the long side of the arena, you will ride it in exactly the same way as you would ride a true canter.
However, as you approach a corner or ride onto a circle, you’ll need to displace the horse’s shoulders slightly to the inside, ensuring that the quarters follow the track of the shoulders.
Be sure to keep your horse’s body aligned with his shoulders in front of his hips and his neck centered as it emerges from the shoulders.
This is crucial because the horse’s hind legs must stay in line with his front legs to make sure that he stays straight.
Rider faults to be aware of
In counter-canter, the horse must stay in front of your inside leg, while responding correctly to your outside leg aid.
A common problem that’s caused by the rider is to push the horse’s hindquarters away from the outside leg. That causes the horse’s hind legs to swing out, rather than bringing the shoulders to the inside.
Make sure that your horse is moving forward from your outside leg. When the horse is in front of your outside leg, he will use his own outside hind to create power and keep him straight.
Just as you would do in true canter, you should keep your inside leg on the girth and your outside leg slightly behind it. Keep your horse supple to the inside rein so that you can keep him securely into an elastic outside contact. You can then use the outside rein to move the horse’s shoulders in the new direction.
To help you get to grips with counter-canter, here are two simple exercises that you can include in your horse’s schooling.
Exercise #1 – Introducing counter-canter
First of all, you need your horse to understand that he must maintain the canter lead, even though you’ve changed direction.
Make the learning process easier for both of you by riding lines that give you plenty of time to go back to the direction of the true canter lead if your horse starts to lose his balance.
- On the left rein, ride down the long side in true left canter from H to K
- At K, ride a half ten-meter circle, returning to the track at E
- At S, ride a half 20-meter circle to R in counter-canter
- Change the rein, and repeat the exercise on the opposite rein
Exercise #2 – Using the outside leg aid
The following exercise is a good one to include in the early stages of your horse’s counter-canter training because it teaches both of you the importance of the outside leg aid.
- On the left rein, ride down the long side from H to K
- Ride through the corner at K and make a transition to walk
- Ride a halt one meter past the first quarter line. Keep your horse positioned to the left
- Ride a large turn on the haunches through the corner in an arc that takes you back to K
- At K, keep your horse positioned to the left and pick up left canter
- Change the rein from E to M
- Repeat the exercise
For more exercises, check out our latest book, The BIG Book of Dressage Exercises available on Amazon.
Straightness and collection are the final two elements of the dressage Scales of Training. As you’ve learned in this article, these two facets are intrinsically linked, and improving one will help to achieve the other.
Once your horse is truly straight and supple to the bend, you will be able to work on strengthening him until he is able to take his weight back onto his hindquarters and achieve true collection.
We’d love to know how your horse is progressing in his training toward achieving collection. Share your experience with us in the comments box below!
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