Straightness is a term that is thrown around a lot in riding. But what is it, and why should we be using exercises to encourage it?
Horses can’t actually travel straight. Watch the way that a dog runs and you will notice that its haunches travel to one side. This is the same for horses, because their shoulders are narrower than their hindquarters. When a horse travels “straight” in the paddock it is normally when they are “prancing” the movement isn’t particularly controlled - they are in a state of excitement with their tail and head in the air snorting. Not exactly what we want to be riding.
What straightness means under saddle is that the parts of their body that they typically go crooked or collapse through are stacked on top of each other evenly. Like if we were to stand square with our feet under hips, our shoulders stacked on top of our hips and then our head squarely on our shoulders in a relaxed stance we would be “straight”. “Crooked” would be if we stepped on foot in or out a bit further, dropped or twisted through the hips, leant a shoulder forward, kinked through the waist or neck, twisted our head and the like.
Of course this can only happen in theory because we have our own structural strengths and weaknesses and will find effort from one side easier than the other. This is seen in doing squats where we can push stronger off one leg than the other or in yoga where we can stretch deeper into a pose on one side than the other. The ultimate goal of straightness is to strengthen our weak muscles and supple our strong or tense muscles to create tone. And this is our life long journey of developing straightness in both ourselves and our horses.
When the integrity of our straightness is lost we are more inclined to injury and pain. The joints don’t stack well on top of each other along our vertebrae and limbs, this stresses the cushions between the joints, the ligaments and tendons attached to stabilize the joints and the muscles. It also increases risk of damage to the nerve and pinching of the nerve because the vertebrae house very vulnerable nerve bundles that communicate throughout the body. Increased “crookedness” also puts more stress on the bones and increases risk of bone conditions like arthritis, splints, fractures and the like because of increased concussion.”
Horses, very much like people, develop "Crooked" - a preference to weight bear through one hind more than the other, twist through the hips and pelvis more one way than the other, lean onto one shoulder more than the other, turn their head more one way than the other and so on. Most horses are strong and straight to the right and weak and supple to the left, which may actually have something to do with the way they curl in the womb. In addition we need to consider the contribution of their breeding and confirmation. For example a naturally supple thoroughbred may find their weak side is stronger because their suppleness is actually their strength.
So what are the reasons to train for straightness, if your horse naturally develops crooked?
1. Your riding will be more balanced
When a horse is encouraged to work straight, it will make it easy for you to be more balanced. When a horse is on the forehand they typically put you in front of the vertical, and you being in front of the vertical puts the horse more on the forehand. Same for crookedness, if your horse is dropping its hip it will make you collapse through that same hip and not distribute your weight evenly into both stirrups. You end up counter balancing each other and reinforcing, strengthening the crookedness.
2. You horse will improve his suppleness
Straightness and elasticity go hand in hand because straightness is truly the horses’ contractility power to flex complementing muscles along the length of its spine. Two factors come into consideration here. When a horse is “straight” it is because it can engage and ground its core, transfer its weight onto the haunches and take the weight of the forehand. The horses ability to engage its core and flex and squat through the haunches so that it isn’t balancing with its forehand and underneck muscles is what it needs to be able to go into long and though. So straightness training is developing the suppleness of topline the horse needs to develop a “rounded gait” and working frame.
The stronger and more grounded the core the more elastic the movement both in bend and in impulsion. Because straightness, engaged and grounded core and balance are all kind of the same thing. So the better the horse can balance and distribute weight the better and deeper they can bend without losing their balance.
When we train straightness in our horses, we are training for more suppleness as we introduce straight on curved lines, through changes of bend and transitions, into leg yield and our laterals without overdeveloping too much pelvic flexion or rotation either way, etc. The suppleness can safely be developed on both sides as the horse use both hind legs powerfully and elevates and extends through each shoulder evenly.
3. A straight horse will have more impulsion
Impulsion is the elevation and thoroughness of the forehand where engagement is power and flexion of the hindquarters. This can happen when the horse develops his squats evenly through his hindquarters and develops enough engagement of the core that it can start lifting the forehand, rolling the shoulder blades into place so that they can extend through the shoulder with relaxation.
Impulsion, or the forward thrust of movement, happens when you have a horse using his hind quarters. A crooked horse may use one hind leg for thrust, but this is only minimally powerful as this leg is not under the hip (wide) and a little to the side, meaning it cannot be maintained (try using one leg to thrust yourself into a run - note how we push it out to the side, how quickly we tire). A balanced, straight horse is able to keep his legs direct under his hips and can use both legs to power his forward movement easily - and therefore develop strong, maintainable engagement. Once the horse starts getting into his hocks the straightness has to continue through his back with even bend left and right to lift the forehand and allow for rotation through the shoulder blades. Impulsion can then occur as the horse learns to lift and extend through each shoulder. If one shoulder develops more than the other or the horse gets deeper into one hind than the other they will lift that shoulder higher and be penalized for an irregular stride.
4. Straightness is essential for Collection
Collection can only occur once we have successfully created rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion and straightness. Only a horse who is familiar with and accepts the aids for straightening work can collect, due to the ability to bear more weight behind instead of swinging the hind legs to one side and elevate and extend the forehand rather than leaning into the shoulder. Straightening exercises as spoken about above (straight on a curved line, straight through changes of bend etc.) also develops the strength of conditioning the horse needs for extended periods of time in collection. The more dynamic movement we create and the more easily and fluidly a horse can transition from one exercise to the next the straighter, more evenly developed and balanced they are and the easier it is to develop and maintain collection. Collection can be developed in a crooked horse but we really start to notice the way it hinders the horses ability to move forward, fluidly without restriction, with grace and ease.
5. You can improve the musculoskeletal health of your horse
Even if you have no desire to compete your horse in any discipline, straightness will help improve musculoskeletal soundness in your horse. A crooked horse tends to overdevelop some muscles and under-develop others. This increases muscle, tendon, and ligament strain, can change the conformation of your horse and increase the risk of joint and bone damage. Exercises in straightness can improve your horses’ happiness and comfort now and later in life - and after all, that's why we are here! A lot of the exercises we use can be applied on trails and open fields hacking out.
6. You will be less likely to get 'stuck' in parts of the training scale
The main thing holding you back where you are now from where you want to be is the condition of your horses’ musculoskeletal system, in combination with your knowledge of how to ride those movements. (You don’t know what you don’t know but that’s a story for another day). When we first introduce an exercise or movement to a horse they adapt quickly. Their constitutional strengths pick up and protect them from this movement doing damage to their body. From there they plateau while the rest of their musculoskeletal system adapts to this new stress (this can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years depending on your skill as a rider, previous injuries, how well they adapt, how well you manage protective reflexes etc). If you push them through before they are ready you compromise the integrity of their musculoskeletal condition and keep exposing them to stressors that they must keep adapting to, which results in only their strongest parts adapting to protect themselves from damage and their weaker parts are getting more and more left behind until they get an injury and need to spell.
What exercises are you using on your horse to encourage straightness?