Straightness is the fifth of the dressage Scales of Training and is one that presents many riders with a challenge, especially in the canter.
But why does your horse bring his quarters in when cantering, and how can you stop him from doing that?
Keep reading to find out!
Why does your horse bring his quaters in?
Horses typically bring their quarters in when cantering in an attempt to balance themselves rather than placing their hind legs further underneath their bodies. Some horses also bring their quarters in during the upward transition into the canter, again to avoid having to carry more weight on their hindquarters.
Due to the natural sequence of the canter, it’s much easier for the horse to come crooked than to sit on his haunches and use his hocks. So, he brings his quarters in from the track and canters like a crab.
The horse may do this because he is unfit and lacks the physical strength to carry himself in the canter, or it may be due to poor training. A horse that is stiff and tight through his back will also tend to canter with his quarters in.
When the horse works in that way, he will be less supple through his back. That makes the horse difficult to connect and engage, so he will also lack power and balance.
Straightness in canter
As opposed to walk and trot, canter brings an added complication to straightness.
Figure 1 above shows absolute straightness, which is what we aim for in the walk and trot. You want your horse’s spine to be totally aligned to the straight line along 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.
However, your horse’s shoulders are narrower than his hips, and as mentioned, 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 illustated in Figure 2.
Functional straightness, depicted in Figure 3, describes when you have the two hooves (front and back of one side) traveling along the same line and is what you should strive to achieve in canter so that the two feet on the leading side are aligned (in one track), and the horse’s nose is positioned above his inside knee.
How to stop quarters-in during canter
So, how do you prevent your horse from bringing his quarters in when cantering?
First of all, don’t bring your inside leg back and try to push the quarters out onto the track. That won’t work! The horse may lean against your leg, try to bend around it, or you’ll be playing quarters ping-pong pushing the quarters from one side to the other.
Instead, aim to straighten the horse by bringing his shoulders in to meet his quarters. You can do this by riding him in shoulder-fore.
In your overall training, you need to improve your horse’s strength, fitness, and flexibility so that he can become more supple and properly engaged through his back and quarters.
Here are a few exercises that you can incorporate into your daily schooling regime that will help your horse to stay straighter in the canter.
Exercise 1 – Shoulder-fore
This exercise is simple but very effective in keeping your horse straight in the canter.
Start by riding the horse around the arena in an active working trot.
As you ride through the corner approaching the long side, ride a 10-meter circle. (Or a larger circle if your horse is still in the very beginning of his training)
As you come off the circle onto the long side of the arena, half-halt, and put the horse into shoulder-fore position.
After a few strides, ride a half-halt to rebalance the horse and then ask him to canter. Keep the horse in shoulder-fore for a few strides on the straight long side. Don’t ask for too much at this stage.
Ride back onto a circle. Make a transition to trot and then repeat the exercise on the next long side.
You can use a long dressage whip to back up your leg and help to keep control of the horse’s quarters.
As your horse gets stronger, you can ask him to canter further along the straight long side, keeping his quarters firmly on the track and aligned with his shouders.
Related Read: How to Ride Shoulder-Fore
Exercise 2 – Spirals
Lateral work is especially useful in building muscle and helping to improve the horse’s balance and straightness.
Also, simple lateral movements such as leg-yield encourage the horse to work through his back and hindquarters, helping to build his strength and suppleness.
You might find it helpful to place a cone in the center of the circle to provide you with a focal point.
Ride your horse on a 20-meter circle in a working trot.
Ask the horse to leg-yield inward toward the center of the circle. Make the process gradual.
Keep spiraling in until the circle is 10-meters in diameter.
Now, push the horse outward, gradually leg-yielding out until you’re back on a 20-meter circle.
Repeat the exercise on the other rein.
Related Read: How to Leg Yield
Exercise 3 – Transitions
Transitions are excellent tools for encouraging your horse to use his inside hind leg to carry more weight and gradually build his strength.
This exercise teaches your horse to stay straight when making transitions upward into the canter and has the added benefit of making the horse’s balance more uphill.
You can ride the exercise from a walk or trot, depending on your horse’s experience and ability. However, horses often find it easier to keep their balance into the canter directly from a walk.
Establish an active medium walk. For this exercise to be fully effective, the walk steps must be active, and the horse must be responsive to your aids.
Take up a 20-meter circle at A or C.
Put the horse into shoulder-fore position.
Ask the horse to canter, holding him with your seat and legs so that he maintains the shoulder-fore positioning through the transition.
Ride down the long side of the arena, keeping the horse’s shoulders slightly in from the track so that his quarters remain on the track and don’t come in.
You can use that same basic technique when riding a dressage test. Just before you make the canter transition, put the horse into a slight shoulder-fore position. That will prevent the horse from bringing his quarters in when he makes the transition and helps to set him up to stay straighter in the canter.
Quarters-in in canter is a big mark-loser in dressage tests as it tells the judge that the horse is not supple through his back and is, therefore, not engaged or balanced.
Usually, crookedness in the canter happens because of the natural canter gait sequence and because the horse is not physically strong or fit enough to take the weight behind. So, the horse evades that effort by swinging his quarters off the track.
You can use the exercises outlined in this guide to gradually increase your horse’s strength, suppleness, and engagement. However, for immediate improvement, you can use shoulder-fore positioning to keep your horse straighter in the canter.