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Nicole Tough Dressage: Working with Crookedness

Like humans, horses have a dominant side that they prefer to use. The rider’s goal is to achieve suppleness on both sides, writes NICOLE TOUGH.  

By nature, horses have a stiff side and a hollow side (picture a banana). Understanding and working with this natural crookedness is a task requiring attention in every single training session. Indeed, Carl Hester once commented that straightness is more difficult than piaffe and passage. 

Just as humans have a dominant side that they prefer to use, so do horses, and if we understand why our horses function in a certain way, we can address it. 

On their stiff side, horses find it more difficult to bend. This is because the muscles on the opposite side of the body are shorter, and it is harder to stretch them. On the hollow side, the shoulders want to be out and the haunches want to travel to the inside. 

A horse that is naturally kinked right is more comfortable carrying their shoulders too far to the left and the haunches to the right, resulting in the tendency to fall in on one side (left); and drift on the hollow side (right). This is also the cause of the horse being heavy or dull in one rein (left) and quite light in the other (right). Of course, this is all the other way around if your horse naturally kinks left. 

The rider’s goal is to achieve equal suppleness on both sides, so the horse can move their neck, shoulders and haunches equally in both directions, resulting in equal contact in both reins, and equal tracking of the hind legs.  

It all starts with understanding the difference between flexion and bend. Horses flex from the poll joint and they bend through the whole body. An easy to remember tip is F for face/flexion; B for body/bend. We can have flexion with no bend, such as on the straight line, but we can’t have bend without flexion. Practise standing at halt, and whilst holding enough opposite rein to prevent the horse bending their neck, ask them to flex the opposite way from the poll joint. This exercise isolates the joint and develops its ability to loosen.  

It is understandable to think that the stiff side is the more difficult side to train. Remember travelling down the long side with the young horse determined to look out and not where they were going? Not fun, especially in canter! 

The goal is simple, make the stiff side more bendable and supple. A helpful tip involves sugar cubes or peppermints. While mounted and at the halt, encourage the horse to lengthen the stiff muscles by reaching around for the treat. Repeat this many times, and keep some treats in your pocket for later in the session. If your horse becomes convinced that they cannot possibly bend that way, return to the halt and prove to them that they can. Transfer this understanding to the walk, trot and canter. Overtime and session by session, the rider can achieve a remarkable transformation.   

Now on to the hollow side and the direction which seems easily bendable – and for that reason is actually the more dishonest side. The most common rider error on the hollow side involves too much flexing and bending to the inside. All the exercises that seemed easier to accomplish now require constant attention so that the shoulders don’t fall, or leak out.  

Without sufficient outside guarding aids to prevent their evasion through the outside rein and leg, the horse will become unbalanced and unequal in the contact, which affects the equal tracking of the hindleg and often hinders the quality of the pace. More often than not, this crookedness is the underlying cause of the four beat canter.  

In the horse that naturally kinks right, any exercise with right positioning (right circles, turning right, leg yield left, shoulder-in right) will need careful monitoring, because the horse will always want to overposition on the hollow side. And again, it’s the opposite in a horse that naturally kinks left. 

When training the hollow side, it’s helpful to direct the horse’s chin over the middle of their chest. Don’t hold it there, just direct it there and soften whenever possible. Thus, the rider’s goal on the hollow side is to make it straighter. 

Correct flexion and bend are preparation for every figure and movement, and they make the horse supple. Once correct flexion and bending are confirmed, it is easier to work the horse’s whole body in exercises that increase suppleness.  

Achieving even contact in both reins from a naturally crooked horse is the next point. When one rein feels heavy (as if the horse is leaning on it), the rider instinctively becomes heavier on that rein, trying to ‘muscle’ the horse off it. But this doesn’t address the problem, which is actually the empty rein. If the horse isn’t even in both reins, don’t keep pulling the heavy one; instead work to put the extra weight in the empty one. 

Renvers is a wonderful tool to soften them up and add weight to the other rein; as is riding in the shoulder-fore position, with the ‘heavy’ rein on the inside and using diagonal aids to even the contact (inside leg loading the empty outside rein).  

Straightness and bend go hand in hand. Straightness can only be achieved with correct suppleness training, and refers to the parallelism of the horse’s spine aligned to the line of travel (spine on the line), with hind hoof prints in line with front hoof prints. Straightness applies to work on straight and curved lines, and is manipulated in lateral work, achieving greater gymnastic ability and elasticity. 

There are wonderful benefits to mastering the natural crookedness of the horse, which include even wear and tear on the legs, equal suppling of the body making them more comfortable, as well as more even bit wear on their teeth. The struggle for straightness is an every day affair, and worth the struggle. 

Happy suppling!