Horses are notorious for being a little crooked. The proof is that a myriad of books have been written on how to improve straightness in our horses. Once you factor in the natural crookedness that we as riders bring to the saddle, it’s a wonder any of us are able to travel from one precise point directly to another while on horseback.
In this article, trainer and clinician Josh Nichol offers some training suggestions on how to improve straightness while in the saddle.
“Horses are very honest creatures,” begins Nichol. “The truth is that a horse’s body simply wants to be where his mind is. It’s generally that simple.”
When a horse drifts towards the entrance of an arena or shows some signs of not wanting to follow the same path as you while out on the trail, it is often a sign that the body is desperate to keep up to where the mind is headed.
“The first thing I do when a horse is struggling to go forward in a relatively straight manner is isolate the problem,” said Nichol. “Does the problem originate in the mind or is it merely the result of imbalance in either the horse or rider?”
Every rider will face moments when a horse will make it clear that he would rather be somewhere else. “This is when it’s key to simply return to softening the mind through the rein,” said Nichol. “As soon as you feel your horse’s mind start to leave, bump your inside rein until you feel your horse’s mind re-engage with you.”
Bumping the rein should never be about pulling. Instead, think of it as a gentle nudge, or a pulse that you are sending down the rein. It should be just enough to regain your horse’s attention, but never enough to make him tense or worried.
“If your horse’s mind continues to leave, shake your legs against his side until you feel his mind return to the task at hand. If this fails, simply stop him and back-him up as we have discussed in previous articles,” said Nichol. (See Horse-Canada November/December 2010)
“Asking your horse to back-up is a great way to help him refocus and is one of the best techniques to help you reach into your horse and feel where there is anxiety lodged in his body stored as tension that you can talk to with your rein.”
To quickly review, think of your seat going backwards as you increase the pressure on your inside rein. (Only use your outside rein as a supporting rein for now.) There will be a point when you will feel a definite increase in the tension of your rein. When this happens you will have tapped into the anxiety that is preventing your horse from fully connecting with you. “Keep a hold of that tension and gently bump your legs as you pulse your hand,” explained Nichol. “Do not release this pressure until you feel your horse begin to relax. Once he does, release and ask him forward again.
“Remember to never over face your horse, only use enough pressure to change your horse’s thought, do not create fear. “
Once you are certain that your horse is attentive to you, it is time to work on straightness through the body.
If you can, start by working on the following exercises in an arena or in a large round pen. “A large open field holds too many distractions,” said Nichol. “Working in a defined area will limit the potential for distractions and is the best way to set your horse up for success.”
The first order of business is going to be figuring out exactly how much straightness – or lack thereof – you and your horse are starting out with. We will begin with an exercise that Nichol calls “Pick-A-Point.”
If you excel as a visual learner, set up a cone or barrel on both sides of your training area. This will help you accurately gauge the quality of the straight line you and your horse are able to ride.
Avoid setting up your markers so that they line up with either an entrance or an exit; you really want to give your horse every opportunity to hold his mental focus inside the arena rather than having him think about leaving every time he passes the gate.
Before you start riding from one cone to another, check-in on your own body alignment. Do you sit more heavily on one seat-bone than another? Do you tend to collapse one side of your body? Do your shoulders tip to either the right or left? It can be most helpful to have someone on the ground take note of these things for you.
“If you’ve ever carried a child on your back that started to wiggle to one side, you’ve had to adjust your step to follow your passenger’s weight displacement,” explained Nichol. “This is exactly what your horse feels every time you shift your own weight while in the saddle. If you collapse or lean even slightly to one side, your horse has no choice but to adjust his own alignment in order to remain under you.
“When your horse begins to fall-in, raise your inside shoulder and centre yourself over the intended line of travel and you will find that your horse lifts his own inside shoulder and straightens himself.
“I also have my students visualize that they are inflating the lung that is on the inside of the circle as they raise the matching shoulder. This picture really helps students improve their posture while in the saddle.”
While paying particular attention to your own straightness, ask your horse forward into an active walk as you head from one cone to another. “Consider that your hips control your horse’s hips and that your shoulders affect the alignment of your horse’s shoulders,” said Nichol. “Given this fact, concentrate on riding your hips and shoulders directly towards your target.
Were you able to easily make it from point A to point B without deviating from the line? A common complaint is discovering that you and your horse have drifted off your intended path.
Physical Straightness in Your Horse
“Once you’ve established that your horse is mentally with you, we can begin working on his own physical straightness,” said Nichol.
Although it is easy to spot drifting through the outside shoulder, what is often overlooked is that the root of the issue is actually the hindquarters. “In the Pick-A-Point exercise, the horse’s outside shoulder will often drift away from the line as you ride towards the cone,” explained Nichol. “Rather than focus on the shoulder, realize that it is likely the hindquarters that are driving the shoulder away from the intended line of travel. If you develop the ability to affect the hindquarters, however, the shoulders will present less of a problem.”
As soon as the outside shoulder begins to fall-out, slide your hand along the inside rein and gently bring that rein closer to your own inside hip. “Meanwhile, intend for your horse to cross that inside hind-leg under himself,” said Nichol. “The moment you feel him take this step, release your rein and take your energy forward once again.” This should drive your horse forward. As your horse steps his inside leg more directly under his belly, his own energy will carry him forward rather than sideways.
“Many riders will use their outside rein to prevent the shoulders from falling out, but the shoulder is not the problem,” said Nichol. “It’s the hind end that is pushing the shoulder in that (outside) direction.
“By using the inside rein instead, a rider is able to correct the problem without simply masking the fact that the hindquarters are responsible for a horse’s tendency to fall-out.”
If we turn to the wisdom of classical training for a moment, we find that the Dressage Training Pyramid presupposes that true straightness can only come about once the horse is able to travel softly forward with impulsion.
Nichol agrees that impulsion is key to achieving straightness. “If your horse stalls on you then he won’t have the energy required to drive himself forward in a straight line,” he explained. “The moment you begin to feel a slowing down of your horse’s forward motion, you will have to determine whether your horse is struggling with forward energy or if he is resisting the rein.
“Find the answer by figuring out what your rein means to your horse. When you pick up the inside rein do you feel resistance in your horse or does he yield and wait for your next question? If your horse is bracing against the rein, impulsion will immediately stop.”
If this is what you feel, slide your hand along the inside rein and feel for the tension in your horse. “Hold onto that brace until your horse begins to soften,” said Nichol. “As you do this, gently pulse your legs against your horse’s side. This extra pressure replaces the flag that we used while on the ground and will help your horse release the tension in his spine.”
As you now begin to feel consistent softness through the rein, you will be ready to isolate impulsion issues and work the horse more consistently from behind. “To do this, your seat should be what makes it clear to your horse that your intention is to continue forward with impulsion,” said Nichol.
“If you are riding western, raise your energy and think forward. If your horse isn’t immediately with you, tap his side with the end of one of your split reins,” said Nichol. “If you ride English, then I recommend riding with either a crop or a dressage whip. Again, you would use either one of these to support your energy and leg aid.
“It is always better to use a clearly defined pressure with a rein or crop to support your intention then to allow your horse to tune you out, or even worse, decide that you are not worth listening to.”
It is also important that your horse understand that when you begin to use pressure, you will see it through without creating fear.
Putting it all Together
Now that you have a better understanding of the different techniques that will help you develop straightness in both yourself and your horse, it is time to put them all together. Again, there might be value in asking someone on the ground to help you determine whether your horse is drifting or falling-out or whether his mind is simply wandering.
Keep in mind that every horse and rider will likely spend a lifetime working on straightness to some degree. We are all fundamentally built a little crooked and given that most humans are right-handed while horses are typically left-handed, the journey with horses begins with a bit of an imbalance of its own.
“It’s important to remember that every movement we ask of our horses requires softness in the mind and body,” said Nichol. “Straightness is no different and it’s certainly not something that is developed overnight. It’s the consistent awareness of what is going on inside our horses’ minds as well as through their bodies that will eventually lead to the straighter and softer horse we are all longing to ride.”