Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

When you ride your horse, do you notice if your horse is stiff to one side? Like people, most horses have a dominant and non-dominant side.

Funny enough, the side that the horse feels stiffest on is his stronger side.

For the purpose of examples below, we will assume our horse is stiff going to the left.

Feel the Different Sides

People often refer to them as the stiff side and the hollow side. The stiff side feels just like the description - there is more tension in the body. The horse's jaw and poll is tighter and more resistant. The body might feel like one giant slab of plywood!

The horse tends to lean into the stiffer side, falling into a circle or making tight and abrupt turns. You might think that the horse disregards the aids more to the stiff side.

On the other hand, the hollow side often feels like there is no resistance. You have to work to maintain contact on the hollow side because the horse has a tendency to give in to any pressure so deeply that there is no weight on your reins or legs.

When moving in the direction of the hollow side, the horse will want to drift to the outside, often bent (or over bent) in the direction of movement.

Three Common Causes of Stiffness

1. Left or Right Handed?

It might seem counter-intuitive to think that the right-handed horse is stiffer to the left side. But the right-handed horse is stronger in the right hind leg. Therefore, the horse will be stronger moving to the left (ie when the right hind is working on the outside of the body). When moving to the left direction, he can brace easier, support our weight easier, and balance better. He will also usually have an easier time picking up the left lead.

If the horse is right-dominant, he will generally be stronger moving to the left and therefore have an easier time resisting your aids! Surprisingly, although the tension is there, most movements will feel stronger and more coordinated going left.

2. Uneven Muscle Development?

Another cause of stiffness may be due to contracted muscling on one side of the body.

The horse that is stiff to the left will be contracted in the muscles of the right side of the body. However, the muscles on his left side will be over stretched. That is why he will want to move overbent to the right. It is simply easier for the horse.

3. How About the Rider?

Let's not forget the rider in the equation. Some horses travel stiffly to one side because their rider is contracted to one side. Do you collapse easily on your left side? Many right-handed people do. Many of us pull back with our left hand and push our right side forward. Needless to say, our one-sided-ness often starts at the seat. If your seat is lopsided to the left, you will invariably and unknowingly be affecting your horse's ability to move correctly.

Regardless of the reason for the stiffness, all stiffness is demonstrated through crookedness.

Obsess Over Straightness

Sometimes, it's ok to be a little obsessive. You can never overdo straightening your horse.

Like so many other components of riding such as developing an effective seat or learning a true half-halt, developing straightness in your horse will take years to accomplish. Each time you think you are on the right track, you will discover yet another "problem" that needs to be mastered in order to encourage true ambidextrous movement.

Work the stiff side in BOTH directions.

Most of us work with what we have. If the horse is moving to the right, we work the right side of the horse. We know we should bend into the direction of movement, and therefore, we apply our inside aids and ask for the bend to the right.

What we may not realize right away is that due to lack of straightness, the horse is already bent to the right.

In order to help straighten the horse (and elongate the muscles on the right, and help the horse bear more weight on the left hind leg), we need to work on the left side going right. In other words, we need to apply our left aids to help keep the horse straight when he wants to hollow to the right. This will also help us maintain better contact with our inside aids.

When you have a horse that is stiff on one side, ride that side in both directions. (Click here to tweet that if you agree.)

Going Right

Explore with putting more weight into your left seat bone. Ask for a mild left bend (which will only result in straightness) starting from your seat.

Keep a straighter and possibly stronger left rein. Keep a more supportive left leg on the horse - either behind the girth to prevent the hind end from drifting out, or at the girth to keep a straighter rib cage. Maintain contact with your right rein - even if your horse wants to bend in so deeply that he can completely eliminate the contact.

Try to keep your horse's hind legs tracking directly into the front legs. This might require a mild haunches-in so that the hips are in line with the shoulders.

It might take a very long while for your horse (and you) to develop the even muscling and strength that is required to be truly ambidextrous. However, if you address stiffness at every turn (pun intended!), you will be surprised at how much your horse can improve!

Which side is you horse stiff on? How do you address the problem?

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Find more riding tips below:

The #1 Problem of the Year: The Outside Rein! The outside rein is the most underused and poorly understood of all the aids, and here’s why.

6 Ways to Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: As you become more subtle in the aiding process, you will begin to discover just how powerful the seat can be in guiding the horse without disturbing and interfering in his movement.

Drawing A Circle (In Sand): Regardless of where you position the circle in the arena, it should be evenly spaced and round.

Rarely Considered, Often Neglected: Lunging to Develop the Riding Seat: Yes, lunging the rider really does work!

Riding Straight Through the Turn: Although it sounds like an oxymoron, travelling straight through a turn is essential in maintaining the balance of the horse.

8 Comments

  1. Very clear explanations to the hollow-stiff conundrum. Strategies were coherent, common sense approaches to straightness. Suppling exercises: poll flexions/counterflexions and neck bending/counterbending (depending on the directions) for the stiff side will aid the horse to become better balanced, (in his body condition, as well as his way of traveling.)

    Body work for the rider is also essential- when stretching, make sure you relax into the stretch and allow space to develop in your facia and your joints. Never force a stretch. Breathe and focus into the length/space. Side planks are fabulous for developing a strong, supple core to aid you and your horse in developing straightness.

  2. Beautifully described! My horse actually appeared, if not lame (no head bobbing) , then ‘hinky’ going in one direction. My intructor drilled me in riding the outside of my horse effectively…within two strides we were straight, I could *feel* it, and not a drop of ‘hinky’. My poor horse breathed a huge sigh of relief and threw himself into this strange way of moving straight! Because trainer had me give on inside rein (only occasionally squeezing to maintain direction) horse stayed soft, on the bit, and beautifully round. I felt crooked as all get out – but that was because I too, was not used to being ‘straight’! Wonderful post.

  3. Love this post. My horse had a massage appointment last week, and the massage therapist found him to be overly muscled and tense in his left shoulder and the left side of his crest near the base of his neck.

    He recommended I ride a little more to the right and ask for lots of bend to the inside – to stretch out the left side of his body. I’ll also be doing lots of carrot stretches, asking him to stretch his neck and head towards his left hip.

    Great post! Thanks for the great advice!

  4. Horse riding is one of the few sports requiring left and right symmetry and coordination. Riders need to test muscle strength and muscle length on themselves as well as their horse. Applied Posture Riding is a program that shows riders how and them how to train themselves to be equal and independent with their aids..a strong core is essential.

  5. I have an OT Arabian and have noticed this very circumstance. Much “easier” to work going to the left (think NASCAR on 4 feet) in the direction that they race. I have been working on a slight counter bend to the left just as a personal observation when working to the right but now it makes much more sense! He does get aggravated if I do it for too long so we keep the sessions short but repeat them often.

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