Working to achieve straightness — and combat crookedness — will support health and longevity in your horse’s riding career.
Like people, horses have a preference for using one side of their bodies over the other for more demanding tasks. Like the right- or left-handed person who has greater control and dexterity with her dominant hand, horses will show greater strength and coordination when using their dominant sides — a phenomenon known as crookedness. While this preference may be something people are born with (and the science suggests it is), the way we develop our physical and mental skills over time serves to reinforce this preference, making it even more pronounced the older we get. But what about our horses? Are they too born with a dominant side? And what happens when they meet us humans, who bring asymmetries of our own to the way we handle and ride our horses?
Throughout a horse’s training, “straightness” during ridden work is considered one of the fundamental building blocks to developing a sound and athletic horse. Straightness in the horse means that his hindlimbs are tracking in line with his forelimbs, whether he is going in a straight line or a circle. On a curved line, for example, this would mean his body is slightly bent from nose to tail.
Straightness is important because it means the horse is able to push off equally with each hind leg and can distribute his weight evenly over the two halves of his body. A horse that is going straight is better able to use his body in a balanced and coordinated way and will maintain an even contact through the reins on both sides. Yet for many horses, achieving this degree of straightness actually requires some work. Indeed, there are many horses that tend travel crookedly when being ridden if there is not a conscious effort on the part of their riders to address it.
The crooked horse
To get a better picture of what happens when straightness is not being achieved, think of a horse trotting in a straight line. If he is ride-side dominant, you will see that his right hind leg tends to track out. That is, his right hind foot will tend to land further out (away from the center of his body) than where his right front foot is landing. Meanwhile, the left hind leg will tend to track further in and underneath his body. If you are sitting on this horse, his body will feel more hollow on the left side, while slightly bulging on the right. You would also tend to feel more contact on the right rein, and less on the left. He will often feel as if he bends easier to the left than to the right. This horse would be doing more pushing with his right hind (the stronger side) to propel his body forward, which is why he’d be considered right-side dominant, even though he travels better to the left.
Interestingly, just like there are more right-handed people than left-handed people, researchers have found that more horses tend to be right-dominant compared to left-dominant. While you might think this has more to do with our training than anything else, studies with young unridden horses that were handled equally from both sides since birth have still found a greater proportion of right-dominant animals. Yet while this preference might be something horses are born with, we as riders can still play a significant role in creating greater or, ideally, less crookedness in our horses through the way we ride and train them.
Not only is a crooked horse less comfortable to ride, he will put more wear and tear on his body, which over time could predispose him to injury. Because most horses are naturally crooked to some degree, working to achieve straightness is an ongoing task throughout training. Muscles on the hollow side must be lengthened and stretched to prevent strain, while the dominant hind leg that tends to step out should be encouraged, through seat and leg aids, to come up and underneath the body. As the horse starts to do this, he’ll naturally move into the contact on the opposite rein to create more even contact in both reins.
Working with an instructor can be extremely helpful as he/she can see how your horse is moving from the ground. He/she can also help you find and refine the correct riding aids, and lead you and your horse through exercises to help develop his strength and suppleness. Having mirrors on the arena walls can be a great asset so you can see how your horse’s body is moving and how that corresponds to what you feel. Or you might have a friend videotape you, which can be a great learning tool. You’ll also want to make sure you address your own imbalances. Yoga, massage and developing your awareness through breathing and other exercise can all be helpful strategies.
It is also important to rule out and address pain or other physical limitations that may be due to an injury, past or present. Remember that your horse’s body functions as a unit and restrictions that have developed in one area can transfer to compensations elsewhere. Have your vet out to do an assessment if you are concerned. Once any issues are diagnosed, it can also be beneficial to work with an equine massage therapist, chiropractor, or other equine body worker, who can help address imbalances.
Working to achieve straightness is an ongoing task but one that will support health and longevity in your horse’s riding career, making it well worth the effort!