No horse is born completely symmetrical. Asymmetry poses no problems for natural activities like running and grazing. When the weight of a rider is added, however, it’s important that the horse learn to use his body to distribute the load evenly. Straightness training will help you do this.
Correct training requires straightness.
Without straightness, the rider risks causing wear and pain. Dressage instructor Anja Beran explains how to recognise your horse’s asymmetries and which training exercises can help to straighten him out.
Horses are naturally asymmetrical
First a word of explanation about equine asymmetry and why this causes problems for riding. Horses don’t naturally distribute their own weight on all four legs equally. Dressage instructor Jan Nivelle imagines it this way: the unschooled horse is like a building on four columns. Two columns take the weight of the roof, one protrudes so that it bears hardly any weight at all, and the fourth is positioned in such a way as to carry most of the load. If an extra floor is to be added, the pillars must stand straight underneath each corner; otherwise they won’t offer adequate support. This is where straightness training comes in.
In most cases, the unschooled horse bears most of his weight on the right foreleg. This is why most horses bend left more easily. Whoever wishes to ride and doesn’t want to risk damaging the horse from his weight must school the horse to distribute weight evenly: it must bear weight on all four legs to be able to bend to both sides and round itself upwards in an arc. To achieve this arc, the horse must be able to raise its torso and consistently step under its body. Exception: There are horses which favour neither side, and therefore don’t have a “bad” side. Depending on how the horse is worked, this asymmetry may switch from one side to the other. However, the goal of straightness training and raising the body applies to all equally!
Let’s first define the terms hollow and stiff.
1. The “hollow side”
The hollow side is the direction of the turn that the horse favours. The muscles on this side will be shorter. The ends of the horse’s body tend to point left, in extreme cases the shape resembles that of a left-curving banana. The horse falls out on the outside shoulder, pushing outwards on the left rein over the shoulder.
2. The “stiff side”
This is the side that the horse bends easily. The muscles are less shortened; in contrast to the hollow side they easily allow for bending as they have been stretched by the movement. The foreleg on the stiff side carries more weight because the horse pushes out with the shoulder on the stiff side.
Straightness training tips: Anja Beran’s correction for “bent” horses
Anja Beran’s horse, Gernale Cassa, serves as a reference for natural lateral bend and for showing what can be done to remedy it. The 13-year-old is a typical “left bent” horse.
Lungeing without aids
During her straightness training, Anja Beran demonstrates the horse’s stiff side on the lunge using a lunge cavesson. Anti-clockwise, Generale Cassa tries to make his inside-facing side, i.e. his left side, hollow. Lunged anti-clockwise, he tends to look to inside of the circle and pushes out over the outside shoulder. He moves this way when he’s running loose, says the instructor, as if the ends of his body are constantly pressing leftwards. It takes effort for the horse to maintain a correct circle line on the lunge and when ridden, because he pushes his shoulder outwards.
How do I recognise a horse that’s hollow on the left?
- This horse will try to compensate for centrifugal forces on a curved line with the right foreleg and left hind leg.
- The rider gets the impression that the horse is heavy in the right shoulder or is pushing in that direction.
- The left shoulder is looser and the left foreleg carries less weight.
- The horse will also typically hold his head and neck in a certain way: a horse with a hollow left side tends to carry its head, as a steering element, to the left. The eye muscles and nostrils adjust as well. What this means is that the horse tends to look left, and the eyes and nostrils also tend to this direction.
- Lunged clockwise, a horse with a hollow left side will happily push to the inside. Meanwhile it’s looking outwards. On the left rein, it’s pushing outwards, and looking inwards. It’s following the shoulder or foreleg that carries the most weight.
How do I recognise a horse that’s hollow on the right?
- A horse that’s hollow on the right likes to hold his head and hips to the right.
- The muscles on the right side will be shortened, and the horse supports itself on the left foreleg. The horse’s left shoulder will seem heavy to the rider, as this is the direction in which he’s pushing.
- In pronounced cases, the inside hind leg will have trouble stepping under the body.
- On the lunge, a horse like this will tend to look to the right.
The remedy? Exercises to train the straightness!
- Leg yielding
Straightness is an important part of horse schooling and the training scale, because going straight will protect the horse from injury to its more loaded leg from being ridden. Anja Beran shows that, for Generale Cassa, a leg yield on the left rein is helpful – “that’s our first method for riding the horse away from the right shoulder!” Here the horse must move away from the rider’s right leg. The rider has the opportunity to keep yielding with the right hand, the dressage instructor explains. Leg yielding should first be done on the wall, and then on the diagonal as well. Moving laterally to the left encourages the horse to step away from its often-strained right shoulder and approach the left rein, which it naturally tends to avoid due to its asymmetry.
A shoulder-in is especially helpful when on the right rein. Other exercises such as travers, half pass and counter shoulder-in are applied in walking and connected in sequence. Instructor Anja Beran explains the exercises’ gymnastic benefits. She also then clarifies which exercises are helpful in which order for trot and canter.