All the points of the Skala of Dressage are important. But one that always troubles me the most is straightness.
Like a human being every horse is crooked by nature. Which gets worse when we crooked people sit on their backs. And it is your duty as a rider to make him more straight. Not simply because he won’t be able to do his work properly if he’s not straight, but also for his health. If he’s crooked you won’t be able to change his balance, he will put uneven pressure on his legs, which will wear them out. He needs to have both sources of power, his hindlegs, under him the same way to be able to collect properly.
If this straightness is such an important thing, why is it on the fifth place in the Skala? Because you need to be able to control the speed and the direction before you can straighten him. He needs to know a slight touch with two legs means: go forward. And a little more pressure on both reins means: stop.
Straightness is actually quite a confusing term. It has nothing to do with being straight as a rod. It’s all about suppleness to both sides and same strength in both hindlegs, that will have to carry equally. A truly straight horse will let his hindlegs follow in the same track as the frontlegs, on the straight and on a circle. Sounds easy enough, but this will keep you busy for the rest of your career as a rider…
How does this crookedness feel? Like he bends easier on one side then on the other. Trainers call this the hollow side. Or he’s leaning on one rein more. Or he’s only striking off in left canter, but refuses the right (or the other way around).
If you watch a crooked horse, you’ll see several things. If he’s hollow on the left side (which most horses are is my conception), his left hindleg tends to step aside from his body, whereas his right hind goes under. The left leg has more movement, the right leg is stronger, and therefore is placed under the body, to carry more of the weight. If you follow this through the body, because he’s bend like a banana, in this example he leans on his right shoulder. If he’s on the forehand, you will feel more pressure on the right rein. In canter, the outside hindleg is the leg that pushes the horse forward. In this example, the left hind is the ‘weaker’ leg. So if you want to do right lead canter, his weaker hindleg has to work harder, which he doesn’t want. Also as he’s leaning diagonally on his right shoulder and there is more pressure in your right rein, he won’t be able to move that shoulder and frontleg forward easily, which is necessary for the right lead canter.
As a rider crookedness is felt foremost in the uneven rein contact. On the hollow side, the contact on the inside seems nice and light. A lot of horses actually bend their heads a little this way. But don’t fool yourself. It’s no true contact. He just doesn’t connect, so there is no communication. He is leaning on the outside rein. His inside hindleg doesn’t go under his body, but is placed beside it. Because of this crookedness you will be pushed to the inside, making matters worse with your position.
It is very hard to feel if you are sitting straight. It helps to have mirrors in the school and a thorough trainer who tells you. Sitting straight can actually feel crooked and what doesn’t help is that the horse is used to his crooked body and won’t be overly happy if you start to do something about it. So he will try to push you back to the side that makes him feel more comfortable and protest if you don’t. Protest in most cases means going slower of faster. If so, a lot of riders get busy correcting that and forget what they were doing in the first place, which means the horse will do it again, as he got the result he wanted…
But it is important that you won’t be able to straighten a horse if you are not sitting straight yourself. So you got to be prepared to work on this, even if it feels awkward. If you have a problem with your position, have your saddle and your stirrups checked.
How to straighten a horse is a slow process, that needs determination. I’ll get back to it many many times with lots of exercises, until you are completely bored with me.