Crookedness horse riding
Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it's true. Your horse's crookedness is all about you.

It's just that the more I know, the more I watch riders, and the more I ride horses, I can see that what "they" say is really true.

"They" say it's always about the rider. "They" say that the horse is the mirror of the rider, and it can only do as much as the rider can.

Of course, this means that everything the rider can or cannot do is reflected by the horse. Everything from tension, attitude, and yes... crookedness. Even for the long term.

In a way though, this is good news.

Because if the main problem starts with you, then you have the power to change yourself, right?

The tough part, of course, is to make the change happen. But with perseverance and effort, it can be done.

What does it take to actually change your "way of going?"

First of all, we need to identify what it is that allows us to keep doing what we're doing. How is it possible that we're so strong on one side, and so soft on the other, and how can we change it?

Obstacles That Keep Us "Blind"

There's a few reasons why changing the body's muscle memory can be so difficult. 

  1. Muscle memory is difficult to change - you just don't feel or notice your crookedness. The body is so very good at duplicating old movements that once we've established the "neural pathways," we no longer feel what we're doing. This can be the case for the large, complex movements that we have to do as riders, such as inside-leg-at-the-girth-outside-leg-behind-the-girth-inside-rein open-outside-rein-neck rein... sounds pretty complicated when it's all written out! 
  2. Unconscious movements: It can also be the case for those deep-in-the-pelvis core movements that you can't even feel - until they're sore later! In fact, these movements are the most difficult to change exactly because we don't have the same kind of intentional access to them. I mean, balance is balance. A baby learning to walk doesn't sit around and contemplate the many tiny muscle contractions and releases it will take to make that first walk step. The same goes for us in the saddle.
  3. Your horse's kind compliance can also be a factor. Horses often do what you want, as crooked as necessary, despite the discomfort or difficulties that may cause them. In my experience, horses work through the crookedness or lack of balance as much as they possibly can. So while you may notice signs of discomfort, it takes quite a lot of sensitivity and "listening" to know what the horse is saying.



The Good News

It might take a lot more effort than you think you should put into something you already "know", but at least, if you do make these changes consistently, you're sure to see results in the long run.

How? You can go through this mental checklist the next time you ride. Start with understanding the ideas and see if you can make the physical changes you need in order to become a straighter rider.

Feel For Straightness

  • Can you tell if you're sitting on both seat bones evenly? 
  • Are your shoulders (and belly button area) pointing straight ahead?
  • Are you looking through your horse's ears?
  • Do you have even contact on the reins?
  • Are your hands close to each other and parallel (one is not ahead of the other)?
  • Do you have even (fairly light) weight in your stirrups?
  • Are you pointing your whole body straight ahead?

Feel For The Turn

  • Are you on your inside seat bone?
  • Is your belly button (and therefore entire upper body) turned into the circle (or turn)?
  • Are your shoulders pointing to the arc of the circle?
  • Are your hands moved slightly in the direction of the turn, creating a slight open rein on the inside, and a neck rein on the outside? Are they STILL even and parallel to each other?
  • Do you have your inside leg on the horse at the girth?
  • Is your outside leg slightly behind the girth?

***

Of course, there's so much more to developing straightness. Once you have a handle on these basics, you will need to become friends with the more complicated lateral movements beginning with leg yields and moving on to shoulder-in, travers (haunches-in) and renvers (haunches-out). If you're not straight for those movements, you will surely realize it because your horse will have difficulty doing them. 

A knowledgeable eye on the ground will help a lot because she can let you know if you're on the right track as you ride. You can make adjustments based on the person's input and learn what the new "feel" feels like.

Videos help a LOT! See if you can get a friend to video you from good angles (ones that can show your body position clearly) and then watch it over and over again. 

Mirrors are even better! I know most of us don't have mirrors but there really is no better way to get instant feedback than riding in an arena with mirrors. What you see can easily be changed and you can learn to rely more on your visual feedback and literally see what straightness feels like.

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8 Comments

  1. Love what you said about the rider having such an influence on the horse. There is another dimension to a horse’s crookedness, though. The horse has natural asymmetry of his own, separate from his rider’s. He has a tendency to bend more easily to one side or the other through the body. He has a stronger, more dominant front leg, and he has a more pushing hind leg and a more carrying hind leg. If we ride asymmetrically, or crookedly, we most often exacerbate our horse’s problems with asymmetry. But to truly make our crooked horse be straighter we need to address, not only our asymmetry, but his asymmetry as well. We can use the classical exercises, like shoulder-in and haunches-in, wisely to strengthen and supple our horse to make him “straight”.

    1. Yes I totally agree about the horse’s own asymmetry. In this article, I’m working on the rider. I believe that if we can keep working on our straightness, we will invariably improve the horse’s straightness. Often, the horse’s unevenness while being ridden mirrors that of the rider’s – as evidenced by how riders who ride different horses end up with the same sort of problems again and again.

      1. You’re right, of course, about the rider’s influence on the horse’s crookedness. And I appreciate that your post was focused on the rider. I love your blog!

    2. Well said Caryl Richardson. And incredibly important. Although I was excited to see the subject of the horse’s crookedness, the opening statement, “Your horse’s crookedness is all about you” is not one I can agree with although I understand that it reflects a common misunderstanding that I used to share.

      Notably the biggest “aha” of my riding/training journey was grasping just how much the horse’s natural asymmetry affects everything. In fact, I have learned that the horses’ asymmetry has a larger effect on the rider, than the other way around. My favorite mentor in classical training, Patrice Edwards says it best, re: what she call’s “the horses’ dilemma” – “It’s not the rider’s fault, it IS the rider’s responsibility.” This is an important distinction me thinks, as there is so much rider guilt out there. When you put a 1200 lb body (horse) together with a 135 lb body (rider) –who is going to have the larger influence of one body on another? (assuming all things being equal–no harsh aids, bits, spurs, etc., that riders often resort to in order to even the scales)

      My riding/training of horses was revolutionized once I understood the elements of the horses’ inherent crookedness. In fact, so much so, that I was frustrated when looking back over years of investment in time and money for training, that it wasn’t addressed thoroughly from the beginning. It is absolutely foundational to good training for horses but sadly, not common. And so encouraging for riders when they learn how the horse’s crookedness influences their body and then how to effectively assist the horse to a better balance. It relieves a lot of that “rider guilt” when you recognize what and why the horse is struggling more in one direction or transition.

      The article suggestions for the rider are definitely helpful and important and I appreciate how many were shared. My aim here is to advocate for frustrated riders and the horses in sharing this challenge to reconsider the degree to which both horse and rider are affected by the horse’s asymmetry.

      There is an excellent book with many photos and illustrations that I strongly recommend, “Straightening the Crooked Horse: Correct Imbalance, Relieve Strain, and Encourage Free Movement with an Innovative System of Straightness Training” Oct 1, 2013 by Gabriele Rachen-Schoneich and Klaus Schoneich. Older editions are available under the title, “Correct Movement in Horses.”

      Another benefit to looking first at the horse and how he is affected by the added weight of a rider, etc., and Then applying balanced riding technique, is the greatly improved potential to prevent unsoundness in your horse. Depending on your horse’s strengths and/or weaknesses, while you are trotting round and round practicing your rider technique, your horse can be dealing with added strain on the over-weighted and favored shoulder/foreleg Caryl touched on above. Understanding how to assist your horse’s balance and movement can go a long way toward easing and even preventing the strains of unaddressed asymmetry in the horse.

      Finally, there is no personal gain to me in recommending the book. I do not know the authors personally, but have studied the book and applied the rehabilitation program they recommend to excellent effect with a number of horses over recent years.

      Sincerely and warmly,
      Michelle Wright

      1. I so agree with you, Michelle. Love the comment about it not being the rider’s fault but the rider’s responsibility. I study Straightness Training with Marijke de Jong. It has given me a much deeper understanding of asymmetry in both horse and rider that has made an incredible difference in my horses, body, mind and spirit. I also appreciate how Kathy, our host here, is approaching crookedness by addressing the rider first. It’s a two way street I think. If the rider is not aware of her own asymmetry she may not have enough awareness to address the asymmetry in her horse.

        Cheers,
        Caryl

  2. I work with a log of beginner riders and tell them to be in their outside seat bone through their turns/circles in order to keep them from leaning. If they are on their inside seat bone they send their horses balance the inside shoulder and either cut the corners or their circles end up being too small or their horse bulges through the outside aids. Telling them to step their weight into their outside stirrup, look at the horses outside ear and stretch up through the inside shoulder and seat bone tends to help them stay on the rail through the corner and make their circles the correct size.

    I do like the visual that the turning of the belly-button and shoulders into the arc of the circle provide. Thanks for another helpful article!

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