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.)
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.