The Training Pyramid – Straightness (Improved Alignment and Balance)

straighteness in halt
Tressa Boulden – Rider/Trainer Tressa Boulden Dressage and longtime student of Melissa Simms of Egon Von Neindorff Institute
Picture provided by
Green Vista Stables

Straightness is the fifth level of the training pyramid and focuses on the horse’s longitudinal axis. Straightness pertains to the development of forward thrust and the carrying capacity of the horse’s hindquarter. If the horse is traveling straight, his hind feet will track in the hoof prints of his front feet when traveling in a straight line or on the circle/curve.

Developing straightness is an ongoing process because horses naturally travel crooked. There are a couple of reasons for this. Horses, like people, often have a strong side. In addition, the horse is narrower in the shoulders than the hind quarter. Unfortunately, this crookedness can lead to more wear and tear on the horse’s legs, especially the left foreleg (in most horses). Most horse’s are left sided; therefore, when traveling the horse’s right hind leg tends to be set down further to the right than the right foreleg. This causes the left hind leg to bend more and the right hind leg to push forward more.

Straightness is essential for the horse to carry his weight equally on both sides. When traveling straight the horse is able to optimize his forward thrust/impulsion because he can propel himself forward equally and effectively with his hind legs. Straightness also aids in maintaining equal contact on both reins and ensures that he will remain correctly on the aids. In essence, he further develops his suppleness thus resulting in the development of collection.

shoulder in crowne dressage
Picture provided by:
Crown Dressage International

Before straightness can be achieved, the previous levels of the training must be adequately in place and trained properly. Furthermore, the horse must maintain a consistent rhythm in a relaxed manner in order to begin his straightness training. Rhythm is essential. Developing straightness prior to or in conjunction with rhythm will only disrupt the horse’s unconstrained movement. The main criterion for straightness, however, is impulsion.  The horse must be moving forward in a positive manner in order to travel straight. Lastly, straightness should be achieved by aligning the horse’s forehand with his hindquarter, not vice versa.

Achieving straightness can be done using a variety of exercises. First, the rider can improve the flexibility of the horse’s “stiff” side (i.e. – the left side) by strengthening the opposite side (i.e. – right). Stiffness usually occurs as a result of the horse evading the rider’s aids on the right side. Encouraging the horse to step underneath himself with the right hind leg will improve the horse’s contact on the right rein. As a result, the stiffness on the left side will remedy itself naturally because the right side is no longer weak. Secondly, increasing the horse’s acceptance and responsiveness to the rider’s legs is imperative. This is achieved through work on curves and circlesleg yieldingand, if able, lateral work. This is especially true with shoulder in. Counter canter, when appropriate, is equally important in the development of straightness.

leg yield

To test the horse’s straightness, the rider can ride the horse on a quarter line or center line. If the horse tries to lean to one side or falls in, the horse is not straight. It is often beneficial when riding to watch the horse in a mirror or have a ground person to assist in recognizing crookedness. Remember, the horse will not be straight on its own accord, but rather the rider must ride straight lines and strengthen the aids appropriate to the horse’s needs.

In conclusion, straightness is the pre-cursor to collection in that it teaches the horse to adequately carry his weight equally on both sides. It also helps the horse to carry weight more on his hind quarter.  Horses are built wider in the hindquarter than in the fore and are generally stronger to one side. As a result, horse’s naturally travel crooked. Circlesleg yieldingshoulder in, counter canter and transitions are equally important and beneficial in training the horse to be straight. As the rider develops his feel, he will be more capable of recognizing which aids need to be modified when trying to achieve straightness. It is imperative that the rider remember that his horse needs to be straightened frequently throughout sessions because of his inherent nature. Maintaining straightness is an ongoing process.