Lack of straightness is one of the most important issues I address with my students, whether they are professional or amateur riders. Straightness is an evenness between right and left. It not only applies when riding on straight lines, but on bending lines and in lateral work as well. Our job as dressage riders and trainers is always to make the horse as equal laterally as we possibly can.
Naturally, the horse is crooked and wants to carry the haunches to one side while on the other side he is stiffer to bend. In my experience, horses are stiffer to the right because we do all the training from the left side since they are babies. These horses go best to the left most of the time and might be stronger in your hand on the right rein than on the left.
The biggest benefit of riding your horse straight is that it promotes his health. If the horse is crooked, riding could cause uneven wear and tear on his legs. This can create lameness issues for the horse because he is always bearing more weight on one leg than another. Also, in competition the first movement you do in any test is to go down the centerline and the judge can see your straightness directly. If you go down the centerline with the haunches or shoulders off the line, right away you show the judge that you don’t have the horse straight, which is not a great first impression.
Everything in the test is set up symmetrically so during the test you must demonstrate the importance of straightness and evenness.
Stiff Versus Hollow
The stiff side is the side that is more difficult to bend. In the example I’ve offered, the horse is stiff to the right because he is harder to bend right. He is shorter through the whole left side of his body and it is hard for him to stretch it out on the outside of the bend. To the left, the haunches want to be more to the inside and the bend is easier. This is called the hollow side.
The Rider’s Role
You can think of the rider on the horse like a backpack on your back. If the rider is always leaning one way, the horse is always trying to put his weight under you like you would with an unevenly loaded backpack. Therefore, the rider’s evenness in the seat directly affects the straightness of the horse.
The best riders in the world sit square, straight and balanced on the horse. I like to remind my students that if you want the horse to be in self-carriage, you must be in self-carriage. You should hold your own body weight balanced, without tipping one way or another, otherwise the horse will not be able to be straight.
Aspects of Straightness
The USDF Glossary of Judging Terms defines the aspects of straightness as:
1. Proper alignment of the horse’s body parts from tail to poll (e.g., not a popped shoulder or twisted neck).
2. On straight or curved lines, parallelism of the horse’s longitudinal axis to the line of travel, with the hind hoof prints in line with the front hoofprints (e.g., haunches not left or right of centerline or circle line).
3. In two tracks/lateral work, parallelism of the horse’s longitudinal axis to the line of reference (e.g., haunches not leading or trailing in leg yield).
4. Directness of line of travel—the horse not deviating or wandering left or right of the desired path of travel (weaving).
Try Shoulder-fore, Shoulder-in and Haunches-in
The horse, by nature, is narrower in front than behind. You must narrow the haunches to make the horse truly straight. Start with the shoulder-fore, which is when the front legs track normally, the outside hind leg follows the outside front leg and the inside hind leg steps between the front legs. Practice riding shoulder-fore toward a mirror or toward someone who can tell you if the inside hind leg stays between the front legs. Then the horse is straight.
Once you have established shoulder-fore, you can start working shoulder-in and haunches-in exercises.
Shoulder-in is an exercise of three tracks with bend, with the horse’s inside front leg on the inside track, the outside front leg in front of the inside hind leg and the outside hind leg on the track.
To ride shoulder-in:
• The inside leg and rein ask for flexion to the inside, but not a neck bend.
• The inside leg sends the energy down the track.
• The outside rein controls the outside shoulder to bring the shoulders in and keep the horse from overbending. The point of the shoulder-in is to develop an outside rein that can control the shoulder.
• The outside leg is back and passive.
The haunches-in is a three-track exercise with the inside hind leg on the inside track, the inside front leg in front of the outside hind leg and the outside front leg on the track.
To ride the haunches-in:
• The outside leg is back to bring the haunches to the inside.
• The inside leg and rein ask for flexion but, again, not neck bend.
• The outside rein keeps the shoulders traveling straight down the track.
• The inside leg on the girth keeps the bend in the barrel.
Start at the walk with the shoulder-in and haunches-in. Make sure you have control of both the shoulders and haunches and can position them where you want them and not where the horse wants to position them. Then try it from a quality collected trot or collected canter, but understand that the horse cannot perform shoulder-in in the canter, only shoulder-fore and haunches-in.
Work first on a big circle to make sure you can keep the positioning of the movement with the horse upright and not leaning to the inside like a motorcycle turning. From the circle, try the movement on the long side, making sure you can keep that body control. The next goal is to have the movements working equally on both sides because naturally one side is more difficult for the horse.
Your job is to make the horse as even on both sides as possible, therefore improving his straightness. This will improve all aspects of your ride as well as your horse’s health and your competition scores.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Dressage Today.
Katherine Bateson-Chandler is an internationally successful dressage rider and trainer. Currently she trains each summer in Europe with 2012 British Olympic team gold medalist Carl Hester and gains international exposure competing in Europe. At age 16, she started working as a groom for Robert Dover at his New Jersey and Florida farms and was his wing woman at two World Championships and two Olympics. She represented the U.S. herself at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010. She has her own training business based in Wellington, Florida.