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Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The Six Scales of Dressage Training – Part 5: Straightness

Photo credit: Paul Dobson Photography

How many of us are right handed? How many of us are left handed? Well, horses can be similar and find one side much easier to co-ordinate and work than the other. If this is coupled with a rider’s strength/weakness on one side, the end result in your dressage training can be a case of crookedness.

How do you know if you’re a rider that’s compounding the lack of straightness – just consider if you tend to sit to one side or keep a stronger contact in one rein or uses one leg aid stronger than the other. But crookedness doesn’t only affect this scale of dressage training – straightness – it also makes it increasingly more difficult for him to keep his balance and develop impulsion.

So what exactly is straightness? Let’s look at the FEI definition:

“The horse is straight when its forehand is in line with its hindquarters, that is, when the longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track it is following”

Quite simple, right? Yes…. & no.

Anyone who rides dressage tests will know that there is a difference between the straightness you ride down the centre line (absolute straightness) and the straightness you ride throughout the movements of your test, known as functional straightness. Most commonly, this is on circles. Let’s take a 20m circle where you can be straight yet the horse’s body is showing bend and you’re turning around the circle. A very different picture of straightness to heading down the centre line. This is because functional straightness requires two hooves (front and back on one side) to be travelling along the same line. In the case of your 20m circle this should be you inside hooves.

Most dressage riders will train and work on their straightness throughout the horse’s whole career, with their strength and preference for one side swapping as you train and improve on the opposite weaker side. Don’t worry if this happens to you, it is perfectly normal!

While fairly straight forward (see what I did there!) in the walk and trot, canter can be a little more complicated due to the sequence of hoof fall that is seen within the pace. Horses will naturally curve their spine slightly towards the leading leg/the final leg movement of the sequence and become slightly quarters in. It’s a common comment from dressage judges along the straight long side of the arena that a horse has quarters in when they are left to naturally canter along it. The simplest way to correct this is through ride a very subtle aid of shoulder fore to straight up the horse’s body.

Although straightness is the fifth scale of dressage training, you need to be aware of it right from your first day of training. If you do have a horse, or if you yourself display a natural crookedness, it can take years of constant training to straight it out, and in fact you may not truly achieve it until you begin progressing through the advance stages of training further into the horse’s dressage career. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it in the short term – keep working on it, just as you would the other four scale of training as it will help you when you reach the more advanced training.

Straightness training has health and mechanical benefits too, it’s not only for the correctness of a dressage test. Developing your horse evenly on both sides will create equal wear, development and strength on his muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments, leaving it much easier to promote good health and soundness for his ridden work. Straightness is also key as you move into the final scale of training – collection. True collection cannot be achieved if your horse is not taking the weight onto his hind legs and using them both equally; he won’t be able to engage them to the level that is required for collection.

Discover the other scales of dressage training

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