I don't like to get too heebie-jeebie about anything to do with horses and riding, but in a way, if there's something you want to go overboard about, it's straightness.
Straightness is critical to everything that has to do with horses and riding, but really, it's mostly for the horses. Because when the horse isn't straight, he's crooked. Which generally happens all the time, and is often not recognized. If we don't recognize crookedness, how can we even begin to work on straightness?
Now, to be fair, riding truly straight is not as easy as it sounds or looks. There is so much that goes into being straight, that it's yet another one of those things that riders spend their entire lives on: achieving some success, then falling apart, then getting even better, then finding new problems as they get better, and then re-establishing what they had before... it's never-ending. And the better they get, the more there is to learn.
But that's what makes achieving skills such as straightness so great! There's so much to it, until there isn't!
So how is straightness powerful?
Well, that's it, really. Being straight is being powerful.
The energy "goes through" - the power from the hind end can be transmitted all the way to the front end. Crookedness takes the power away.
The weight is evenly balanced - so every limb carries equal(ish) weight. This helps to alleviate stress on any one part of the horse's body, whether it's the shoulders, back, hips, or particular feet.
The straighter the horse, the easier it is for him to reach underneath with the hind legs, which means easier to begin to work on collection.
The body is in alignment, which allows the horse to maintain better balance all around. He will have an easier time with responsiveness.
The straight horse will have an easier time with rhythm and tempo. Both become more deliberate, more intentional.
And suppleness. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the odd thing about straightness is that it helps with left to right flexion and bend. And suppleness helps with straightness.
I'm sure there are at least another hundred benefits to straightness! But I think you're probably getting my point already.
The intention of this checklist is to give you some concrete, practical points to look for when you're actually at the barn and riding. Print it off and take it with you!
While you're working on straightness, these are things you're looking for. Again, there's much more to be said about the topic. This is only a place to begin.
Seat, leg and appropriate rein (inside or outside, but usually outside) used for half-halts
Impulsion from the hind end (use two legs for go!)
Well, I think this should be enough to get you started. Even if you can improve on one area over the next little while, it will help you along your straightness path. For example, maintain your position while keeping the horse step straight with each step. That should take a fair amount of dedication to start with!
Now there is one thing I haven't mentioned yet.
Straightness is not JUST about travelling in a straight line. So you can be straight on a circle. You can be straight on a bend. You can be straight in a movement, like leg yield or walk pirouette. You can even be straight on a half-pass, even while the horse is bent in the direction of movement while travelling diagonally across the ring.
This is because straightness is about the alignment of the horse's (and rider's) body. So even while the horse is bent into a direction, he has to maintain "straight" alignment through the hips, ribs, shoulder, neck and head. If he isn't straight, then he'll have a bulging shoulder, or rib cage, or hips swinging out.
And now you can see how straightness permeates pretty much everything we do with a horse, from the beginning levels all the way up. And the secret is that it's not always necessary to work on trying to straighten single parts of the horse's body. In fact, you want to develop the prerequisites of straightness: rhythm (and tempo), suppleness, connection (and contact), impulsion... all of the basics that are discussed in the dressage Pyramid of Training. The better you get at the basics, the quicker and easier it will be for the horse to move correctly, and eventually, straight.
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