On the surface, straightness sounds very simple; you want your horse to be able to walk, trot, and canter in a straight line. But as with everything in dressage, it’s not as simple or as straightforward (pun intended) as it first seems.
So, in this article, we take a look at straightness within the dressage scales of training, why straightness is important, the two types of straightness, and how to achieve straightness.
RECAP: The scales of training
The dressage scales of training are usually depicted as a pyramid, as illustrated below, and encompass six scales in total.
Each scale is designed to be approached in a set order, starting with rhythm (scale 1) and finishing with collection (scale 6) with each scale building upon the next.
Overall, the scales provide a systematic and logical framework for training the dressage horse. When they are used correctly, they create an equine athlete that moves in perfect balance and harmony with its rider and makes the most of the paces they naturally possess.
Straightness within the scales of training
Straightness is the fifth and penultimate scale, topped only by collection (scale 6).
You would assume that straightness would be something to teach the horse as soon as possible and, therefore, for it to appear further down the pyramid with the foundational scales. And to some extent, you would be right, because although it is fifth on the scale, straightness is quite integral to achieving the earlier scales.
In other words, the scales are all interrelated, and this is the most obvious example.
Because for the horse to work in a good rhythm (scale 1), swing through a supple back (scale 2) into an elastic and even contact (scale 3) with active hindquarters (scale 4), there must be, at least, a basic level of straightness.
Only once those first four scales are established, can you then work on refining the fifth training scale of straightness.
So, although straightness may not be a priority in the earlier stages, you do need to pay attention to it from the word go.
Straightening natural crookedness takes months and years of persistent work, and although you may not achieve it until the horse is relatively advanced in training terms, you will need to work on it as an underlying issue pretty much as soon as your basic controls are established.
Why is straightness important?
All horses are born crooked, in the same way that you are right or left-handed.
When left to their own devices, horses will always move in the way that is the easiest and most comfortable for them, therefore, constantly contributing to and exacerbating their own asymmetry and crookedness. In other words, their strongest muscles will continue to get stronger, and their weaker muscles will continue to get weaker.
Through straightening, we are essentially trying to make our horses ambidextrous, and here are the two main reasons why.
1 – To promote soundness and longevity
By developing even weight distribution on both sides of the horse, we promote equal wear of the muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments on both sides of the horse’s body.
This helps to keep the horse sound, reduces the chance of injury, and promotes a longer working life.
2 – To prepare the horse for collection (the final scale)
Only a straight horse will be able to use both his hind legs equally and take an even weight in the contact.
This enables him to engage his hindquarters sufficiently under his body and transfer more of the weight carriage to them, lightening his forehand and achieving true collection.
Factors that contribute to asymmetry
In our constant quest for a straight horse, we must be aware of the many factors that can contribute to our horse’s natural crookedness. Here’s a list of a few of them.
- Pulling forage from a net in the same direction.
- Some stable vices, such as box-walking in the same direction.
- Conformational issues.
- Past injuries.
- Uneven and/or poor farriery and hoof care.
- Doing everything from one side of the horse e.g. leading, tacking-up, and mounting.
- Uneven flocking of the saddle.
- Uneven stirrup lengths.
- A crooked rider.
- Working the horse on one rein more than the other.
Once you have addressed and minimized the effects of the above factors as much as physically possible, you can then go about improving your horse’s straightness in the ridden work.
What exactly is straightness?
The FEI defines straightness like this:
“The horse is straight when its forehand is in line with its hindquarters, that is, when the longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track it is following.”
There are a few critical points in that definition that we want to break down.
1 – “…forehand is in line with its hindquarters…”
The word ‘straightness’ is a bit of a misnomer because a horse can be bending through his body but still be described as being straight. A better word to use would be ‘alignment.’
So the horse’s forefeet must be aligned with the horse’s hind feet on straight and curved lines i.e. the horse’s hind feet land in the hoofprints left by the horse’s forefeet.
2 – “…the longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track that it is following.”
To simplify this just a little, picture your horse’s spine and line that up to the line you are following. That’s essentially what this part of the definition means.
Now, if you’ve been reading these ‘scales of training’ posts in order, then you’ll remember we covered longitudinal suppleness (which is suppleness over the horse’s back and topline) within scale 2 -suppleness.
In essence, straightness and suppleness are tightly linked; for the horse to be straight, he must also be supple, and vice versa.
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, easier for him to stay straight.
The two types of straightness
Now, to make things a little more complicated, you have two types of straightness:
- Absolute straightness.
- Functional straightness.
Let’s look at both of them individually.
1 – Absolute straightness
This is what we have just described above and it’s what you are trying to achieve on a centerline.
You want your horse’s spine to be totally aligned to the straight line which you are riding, from his head, along his neck, along his back, and into his hindquarters and tail with no part of his body deviating off the line.
This is also the type of straightness that you are trying to achieve in the early days of your horse’s training whilst you are working on establishing the first four training scales of rhythm, suppleness, contact, and impulsion.
Although this is a basic level of straightness, as anyone who has ridden a centerline in a dressage test can tell you, this is easier said than done, but that is your goal.
2 – Functional straightness
This is a more advanced type of straightness which is based on the fact that your horse’s hips are wider than his shoulders. (Have a closer look at the image above illustrating absolute straightness.)
Functional straightness describes;
when you have moved the horse’s shoulders slightly to the inside so that the horse’s inside hind leg tracks in line with the horse’s inside front leg (see diagram)
when you have moved the shoulders a little more to the inside and positioned the horse in shoulder-fore so that his inside hind leg tracks between his two front legs.
Both of these positions encourage the horse to narrow the tracking of his hind legs and enable him to step further underneath his center of gravity with this inside hind leg, therefore, making him functionally straight.
How to achieve straightness
Your horse’s straightness is something that will be developed gradually over time through the use of circles and lateral exercises, but to help you with that progression here are three steps to straightness.
Step 1 – Make sure you’re in alignment
Before we demand that our horses are straight, we must first make sure that we, ourselves, are straight.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you have equal weight in both stirrups and seat bones?
- When bending and turning, are you able to shift your weight to the inside without collapsing at the hip and/or leaning inwards?
- Do your shirt buttons or zipper line up with your horse’s mane? (Your shoulders matching the angle of your horse’s shoulders.)
Related Read: How to Sit Up Straight
Once you can answer yes to those questions then you can move on to step 2.
Step 2 – Straighten the front of the horse
Next, you must make sure that your horse’s neck is aligned to the rest of his spine.
In other words, the horse’s neck must come directly out of his shoulders and conform uniformly to the straight or curved track that he is following.
For example, a horse with too much neck bend will be misaligned. The horse’s back will be unable to relax and the energy from his hindquarters will be misdirected into the horse’s outside shoulder, causing him to fall out.
Step 3 – Straighten the back of the horse
For a basic level of absolute straightness, which is what you are aiming for at the beginning of your horse’s training, you simply want your horse’s hind feet to follow his front feet.
To achieve this, ride your horse forwards (without rushing him) from both legs equally into an even rein contact. A horse that is behind the leg and dawdling is more likely to lose straightness.
When riding circles and turns, ensure that you are asking your horse to bend correctly, thereby maintaining his straightness and preventing him from leaning, falling in, or falling out.
- How to Stop Your Horse From Leaning (Motorbiking)
- How to Get Your Horse to Bend
- How to Use Circles in Dressage Training
Because your horse’s hips are wider than his shoulders, this means that your horse is inclined to step outside of his center of gravity with his hind legs, which can push him onto the forehand.
Your goal, as the rider, is to encourage the horse’s inside hind leg to step further underneath his center of gravity (which is below where you are sitting in the saddle) and to take more weight.
To achieve this, you need to move your horse’s shoulders slightly to the inside to achieve functional straightness, as described above.
Note: Do not try to push the horse’s quarters out to meet the horse’s shoulders, always move the shoulders to meet the quarters.
This step is especially important in the canter because, unlike the walk and trot, canter brings an added complication to straightness.
Due to the nature of the canter sequence, where the legs on one side (the ‘leading’ side) are always moving in advance of the legs on the outside of the body, the horse’s spine is predisposed to curling up towards the leading leg. (This is why judges often comment that a horse is ‘quarters-in’ during canter.)
To prevent this natural crookedness, canter should always be ridden with a slight feeling of shoulder-fore, so that the two feet on the leading side are aligned, and the horse’s nose is positioned above his inside knee.
This step makes the horse functionally straight.
Straightness is probably the most difficult of the scales to place in terms of the order.
Although straightness is far along in the list of training scales, it must be addressed as soon as possible and a basic level of absolute straightness achieved, rather than being ignored during the earlier stages of training.
As the training progresses and once the other scales are established, the horse’s straightness can then be refined.
Remember that the horse is naturally crooked and without constant monitoring, this crookedness will reassert itself. In the same way that you will always favor your right hand if you are right-handed, your horse will always favor his easiest side.
If you are to complete the scales and achieve the ultimate goal of training, which is the ability to collect, then straightness is essential.
If the horse is not straight then he will not be able to re-distribute the weight carriage more towards the haunches and he will not be able to lighten and mobilize the forehand, removing the excess weight from the more vulnerable front legs, and so promote health and soundness.