In this excerpt from his book The Sport Horse Problem Solver, former international eventer Eric Smiley gives us a simple breakdown of what straightness on horseback really is, and how to know if you’ve got it…or not.
When watching and riding horses, here’s a simple definition of straightness: the hindquarters follow the forehand, which follows the neck and head on any line the rider chooses to ride.
Most horses go through life with some natural asymmetry. They are seldom born symmetrical and will develop their own way of going, which in nature suits them just fine. It is only when the human gets involved that this lack of symmetry becomes relevant. As a ridden athlete, the horse is asked to be the same on both sides and going in both directions. He is asked to conform to shapes and movements of our choice, which are designed to prove our level of competency in training and the horse’s level of assimilation of that training.
In order to do this successfully, we need firstly to know what straightness is and then what it looks like. We should be able to identify the part of the horse that isn’t on the chosen line and is, therefore, not straight. Our next job is to explain to the horse what we would like him to do in order to straighten out.
To help you see straightness, or the lack of it, practice looking at different horses as they come toward you and move away: are they moving correctly on the line they are being asked to trace? Then take this information to your own horse, choosing a line to ride, at walk, and determining if the horse is on that line. His whole spine should follow the same path as the line you want to be on. Identify which part of the horse isn’t on the chosen line. Developing this “feel” is a big part of the rider’s education. To feel and sense straightness will allow you to know when it needs correction. When this becomes instinctive, correcting a fault as it happens becomes the norm.
The leg aids most simple function is the request to go. They have other functions as well. They define left and right, and in and out, becoming our boundaries. They guide direction and supply the horse with valuable information to enable him to do what we ask.
To help, we have our rein aids, which are, as our legs are, multifunctional. As far as straightness is concerned, the reins assist the legs in supplying the information of what line we want the horse to be on. (The horse has no concept of what a line is. It is a human-defined line to which we ask him to conform.)
Once we have established the line and the boundary aids, we now need to encourage the horse to buy into our interpretation of direction. How he gets from Point A to Point B is irrelevant to him; it is only we who care. We have to ask the horse to comply with the boundaries we give him, to be straight, and this requires us to influence each part of his body separately, so we can correct where and when it is necessary. Be aware: what falls in on one rein is likely to fall out on the other! For example, a shoulder that pops out to the left when going to the right will, on the other rein, be likely to fall in to the left. So when it comes to straightness problems, it is important to think in a very deliberate way about what will happen when the rein is changed.
Quality versus Control
Any simple movement when broken down will highlight the likely moment of the horse’s escape. In knowing this, the rider will develop a feel for being ahead of the horse. Remember, the proactive rider sets the agenda and in doing so preempts the problem. Anticipating challenges that are likely to arise allows you to guide the horse into correctness. Knowing and trusting the rider’s guidance improves the partnership and muscle memory of the horse so that he too can plan ahead with correct and consistent input from the rider.
Doing most of the detailed work on straightness at walk will help both horse and rider to get the message right. Messages need time to be absorbed. Only when they are understood at walk should we see if they are also understood in the faster gaits, which necessitate a quicker input and uptake of the message. Don’t assume understanding. As with all training and re-training, there will be a constant debate in the rider’s mind: What’s the priority at a particular moment? It is easy to say quality work should always be at the forefront of the rider’s mind, but we may have to put that to one side as we grapple with the mechanics. Starting with less quality may allow easier communication, better balance, and better straightness, and hence allow the horse to develop the muscular control to be able to produce better quality in time. Riders must visualize where they want the horse to go in this process. This positive, proactive attitude helps the horse to pick up their intention.
Ground poles can be a useful way to help the young horse pick up the message about straightness and adherence to the aids. By using poles as a guide, the horse has something tangible to aim for and relate to. Each time he succeeds, the process gets a tick in the box of achievement. Horses then grow in trust of the aid and where it actually means for them to go. It also helps the rider learn to apply a correction aid when the horse falls in or out. The horse will then recognize the correction as being a helpful message to get him between the poles. Remember, the horse has no understanding of what a line is or why it is important. He knows about direction, but not about the refinement of a line—that is entirely up to us.