This article is the fifth in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. The tiers are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
The USDF Training Pyramid defines Straightness(Improved Alignment and Balance) as follows: “A horse is said to be straight when the footfalls of the forehand and the hindquarters are appropriately aligned on straight and curved lines and when his longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track on which he is ridden. By nature every horse is crooked, hollow on one side and stiff on his other side, thereby using one side of his body somewhat differently from the other. This also causes uneven contact in the reins. Appropriate gymnastic exercises develop the horse’s symmetry. This allows him to engage both hind legs evenly and prepares him for collection. This process improves the lateral as well as the longitudinal balance of the horse.” Notice the term “longitudinal axis”-this means from poll to tail along the horse’s spine. Also notice the term “alignment”-it is exactly like the alignment in your vehicle. If the left front tire turns out and the left rear tire turns in, your tires are going to wear unevenly and your ride will be less than smooth. It is exactly the same for the horse’s alignment. All four legs must travel along the same axis, not deviating sideways. Now read the Purpose as stated at the top of all Second level tests: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level.”
It is important for the reader to realize that just because straightness is not mentioned in the Purpose of the tests at Training level and First level, does not mean that we should not already be looking for a degree of straightness right from the beginning. Read through the Directive Ideas for the movements in Training level test 1. Over the course of thirteen movements, “straightness” is mentioned seven times. Straightness is furthermore mentioned under the Submission section of the Collective marks at the end of each test. At its most basic level, straightness simply means that when travelling on a straight line, your horse must actually travel on a straight line. This is easier said than done! To further complicate matters, not only must your horse walk, trot, or canter on a straight line, but, his shoulders and hind legs must track straight. There should not be a bulge in the shoulder or a drift of the haunches. Now add to the equation the demand for turns onto and off of the centerline, twenty meter circles, transitions…all the while the horse has to stay exactly on the prescribed line of travel, and keep all his body parts on that track. This is very hard to do, mostly because horses are born crooked. But, here is where the rider comes into play as well. Humans are born crooked too. If the rider is unaware of her own crookedness, it is very likely she will be equally unaware of her horse’s crookedness.
As a horse proceeds up the levels, his capacity for straightness must improve. But straightness begins at the beginning, from the first time he is lunged and the first time he is ridden. If the horse is unable to describe reasonably symmetrical circles around his lunger without a rider on his back, it is a sure bet that once mounted, the added weight and crookedness of the rider will only compound that lack of symmetry and alignment. As the horse progresses in his training, the rider has to assess from the first ride, and from the first minutes of every ride thereafter, whether the horse takes a symmetrical amount of contact on each side of the bit. This high degree of attentiveness to the early training rarely happens, and so we are frequently faced with having to address it once the horse has been under saddle for a period of time. This is the boat most of us are in. There aren’t that many Charlotte DuJardin’s out there, so even accomplished riders make mistakes or take shortcuts in the early training. Even at Training level, we have to start assessing whether or not we can ride our horses calmly forward with a level-appropriate degree of straightness.
I promised to link the layers of the Pyramid. While Straightness is near the top of the Pyramid, just before Collection, it can easily be assessed at the previous layers. If a horse is not travelling in a reasonable state of alignment right from the beginning, it will reveal itself in a variety of ways. The rhythm may be slightly marred, often noticeable at the canter when the stiff, crooked horse lands too soon with the leading front leg, causing the canter to appear lateral. The tempo will often vary, particularly from one track to the other. Some horses “run away” on their stiffer side, while others get “sticky” on their stiff side. The connection will be too strong on one rein and not secure enough on the other rein. Impulsion will suffer if one hind leg is habitually stepping to the outside of the center of mass, as will uphill balance-a hallmark of Collection. These issues can easily be categorized under the Relaxation with Elasticity and Suppleness portion of the Pyramid due to the fact that they are addressed by means of various suppling exercises, but think of Suppleness and Straightness as being two sides of the same coin. No part of the Pyramid can really be separated from the others or worked in exclusion of the others. It is just a matter of degrees. I personally feel that ALL layers of the Pyramid should be present in every horse at every level and that the only thing that changes is the degree of expectations for the quality that will be exhibited. This mindset plays homage to the often-heard debate of whether Straightness should in fact be placed ahead of Relaxation/Suppleness on the Pyramid. It isn’t, in my mind, a matter of one before the other, but rather, a matter of both developing together. Anyone with experience in Natural Horsemanship will tell you that if the horse’s body is comfortably aligned and able to move in a balanced way, that will go a long way toward improving his mental relaxation. I cannot tell you how many horses I have taken in as reschool projects who were so completely crooked within their bodies and in their way of going that they had become very nervous and difficult under saddle. Simply addressing the extreme lack of symmetry, balance and alignment did wonders for the Relaxation of these horses. Horses do not like to feel out of balance as it impedes their ability to protect themselves.
With all the above in mind, how do we set about developing straightness in our horses? I will remind the reader of the definition of Straightness, and reference the second half of it directly here: Appropriate gymnastic exercises develop the horse’s symmetry. This allows him to engage both hind legs evenly and prepares him for collection. This process improves the lateral as well as the longitudinal balance of the horse.” Key to this is the word “appropriate”, meaning, appropriate to the horse’s level of training and the rider’s level of experience. It all starts with the lowly twenty meter circle. Can you ride a perfectly round circle? The old masters would hand rake the ménage before riding in order to determine if their circles were accurate. I recommend doing this sometime. Riding a correctly shaped circle, versus an oval, an egg, or even a potato chip as one former student described her attempts at a circle, is not easy. There will be many potato chips on the road to the perfect circle. I teach students how to do it by first teaching them the geometry of the arena, and then, setting up guide cones. Cones are a rider’s best friend. I use them when training young horses too, not just for the new riders. They are not expensive, and are incredibly useful all the way up the levels. I have used them for developing turns on the haunches, turns on the forehand, and even the pirouette canter. Besides the twenty meter circle, the other critical figures for developing a horse’s straightness at Training level are changing rein across the diagonal, riding the centerline, and staying the same distance from the rail the entire length of the rail. If a horse is not reasonably straight, staying the same distance from the rail for a full sixty meters is nearly impossible. As riders become more skilled and horses more educated to the aids, the leg yield becomes a very valuable tool. While a leg yield technically falls under the heading of a suppling exercise, I would like to point out a critical piece of the straightness equation here. How many leg yields have you witnessed that drift sideways with the horse’s shoulders dragging the rest of the train lazily behind? When riders get back their score sheets and they read “haunches trail” with the commensurate low score, they generally then proceed to use more leg in a vain attempt to get the hind legs to cross, and then wonder why their horses just run faster instead of crossing more. Been there, done that. But think about the leg yield this way. Your horse’s body might be two or three feet wide in total. If you start your leg yield with the shoulders already bulging a foot in distance to the outside, now suddenly the diagonal hind leg has to go a third to twice the distance as the front leg in order for your horse’s body to remain parallel to the long side. If the rider instead pays attention to where the shoulders are before starting the leg yield, the hind leg will not have to travel nearly as far in order to connect to the outside rein, which is the whole purpose of a leg yield: to develop inside leg to outside rein connection. This one small attention to the detail of Straightness appropriate to the level on the part of the rider will make the horse’s job infinitely easier and leg yields will require little to no leg. A simple shift in the rider’s weight will make it happen. To continue with the concept of level-appropriate gymnastic exercises, shoulder in becomes the mother of gymnastic exercises. It’s younger cousin, shoulder fore, should be a state of daily ridden existence for horses as soon as they are able to understand the concept of inside leg to outside rein. Ultimately the haunches have to be controlled as well, and this is where the more difficult gymnastic exercises of travers, renvers, turns on the haunches and half pass come into play. The more correctly the rider can bend her horse and connect her horse, the easier it becomes to straighten her horse in the truest sense of the concept. Once the shoulders can be correctly placed in front of the inside hind leg, a horse is well on its way to being sufficiently strengthened, engaged, and balanced for more advanced collected work.
|Straight Rider, Straight Horse, Photo Credit Blesk Photography|