The Dressage Scales of Training: Straightness (Part 5 of 6)
Welcome to our fifth article in our six-part series on the scales of training. Parts one to four covered rhythm, suppleness, connection, and impulsion. In the fifth article we’ll look at straightness, what it is, why it’s important, and how to achieve it.
Straightness is possibly one of the more controversial scales on the pyramid of training, simply because it appears so late despite a broad understanding of straightness being necessary early on. To get a good understanding of the overall process, it’s best to go back and read the first four articles in order.
Before we look at straightness as a concept, here’s a quick breakdown of how the scales of training work together, as well as what the origins of the system are.
What Are The Scales Of Training In Dressage?
The scales of training were developed in Germany, which is still one of the world’s foremost dressage nations today. They were developed to use as a foundation for the training of German cavalry horses. And dressage came from military days, where horses had to be rideable in battle!
Today, the scales of training are fundamental to the training of almost every sport horse, but particularly dressage horses. Essentially, they are guiding principles which help to produce a horse who is sound, healthy, easy to ride, and responsive. Which is basically what every equestrian dreams of, no matter the discipline!
Sometimes, the scales of training are also called the pyramid of training. This is because the bottom ones form a sort of “foundation” for the rest of the scales.
The six scales are:
However, the scales aren’t completely sequential. It is easier to think of them as interrelated concepts than as a set of building blocks. This is because you don’t have to completely solidify one concept before starting another. A horse never finishes working on any of the blocks, even at Grand Prix. So even though a GP horse is already displaying collection, it doesn’t mean they can stop working on suppleness or impulsion. That said though, you cannot jump straight to collection if your horse doesn’t yet understand the basics of connection.
The scales are also interrelated in another way: if you focus your schooling on improving the bottom three scales, you often will end up improving the top three by default. Because these form the basics of all training, they are important to keep returning to during your horse’s education. For advanced horses though, working on the upper scales can also improve the foundation. If your horse learns how to perform a great collected trot, for instance, you will probably find that it improves his impulsion and connection in trot too. Basically, each scale is a training concept which is related to and can influence the other concepts.
With that in mind, it’s now time to look at straightness. It can be a confusing topic to understand, as straightness can be both very simple and very complex.
What Is Straightness?
Straightness is one of the hardest elements to place on the scale of training. Although it appears as the fifth scale, directly below collection, you’ve probably been told to ride straight from quite early on in your riding career. And more importantly, from quite early on in many horse’s careers.
So what exactly defines straightness? It isn’t just about the direction the horse is travelling, but about how they move their body. A horse can be straight while riding a small circle, for instance. As an element in the scales of training, straightness refers to how the horse’s body is aligned. When he travels on a straight line, he should be straight along the length of his body. On straight or curved lines, the hind legs should step precisely behind the front legs. Basically, your horse’s spine should mimic the line on which they are travelling.
According to the USDF, “A horse is said to be straight when the footfalls of the forehand and the hindquarters are appropriately aligned on straight and curved lines and when his longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track on which he is ridden.”
It is also important to know that conformationally, horses have wider hindquarters than shoulders. So for their hind legs to step in the same tracks as their front legs is actually quite difficult. Naturally, the hind legs will track a bit wider than the front.
There are essentially two levels of straightness. Basic or training level straightness is when a horse works equally into reins as a direct result of working equally from both hind legs. However, this level doesn’t require the horse being able to step with his hind legs directly in line with his front legs as the hindquarters are wider.
On the other hand, true straightness is where the shoulders and haunches line up exactly. This requires a high degree of suppleness, because the inside hindleg needs to come correctly underneath the horse’s body. If your horse doesn’t have enough suppleness, they won’t be able to bend the spine and will drift to avoid taking the extra weight with the hindleg.
Horses, much like people, are naturally dominant on one side. So they’ll usually want to lean, bend, tilt, or weight one side of their body more than the other. As a result, the rider needs to develop straightness through correct schooling. More on that later though!
Here are some signs your horse is straight:
- When your horse is straight, you will have an equal weight of contact in both your hands. You should also feel an equal weight in your seat bones and stirrups.
- Ride a center line or circle and ask a helper on the ground to check that your horse has only left one track of footprints.
- Look at your horse’s head, and check that his ears are level and his head is not tilting at the poll.
- Once this is achieved, the rider is able to ride smooth turns, accomplish lateral work with ease, and build the expression, engagement and self-carriage in the trot without losing balance or energy.
And some signs he’s not:
- Drifting in or out with the shoulders or hindquarters
- Struggling to turn
- Head tilting
- Significantly better quality work on one side than the other
- Bend and flexion different on each rein
- Crooked rein back
- Crookedness when going in straight lines or struggling to ride a straight line
Phew! If you’ve got this far, give yourself a pat on the back. Next up, how to make your horse straight if they’re crooked!
How To Improve Straightness
So, straightness isn’t as simple as just riding in a straight line. Although that can be quite tricky too! Instead, a horse has to learn to go straight by using both hind legs equally and not falling onto either side to balance. This requires a great deal of suppleness, as horses are naturally crooked and need to be taught how to go straight.
Prioritizing true or absolute straightness too early on in the horse’s schooling can cause problems. As mentioned earlier, a horse requires suppleness to be able to come truly straight. If you focus on this too early, without the first few scales fairly well established, you’ll end up relying on heavy and unrefined aids like pulling – which is likely to just make the horse resist, hollow, and lose the connection.
Initially, think of your horse like a bicycle. In order to go straight and stay balanced, you need to ride forward. If you don’t have any energy from behind, your horse will start to wobble around and trying to correct it will make it worse. Once your horse can make simple shapes and turns while staying forward, balanced, and even in the connection you can begin to focus on straightening him further. Developing suppleness and the ability to easily and smoothly change bend will naturally help to straighten your horse and prepare him for more difficult exercises.
Good straightening exercises include all the lateral work, such as half pass, travers, and shoulder in. These exercises help the horse to loosen in the body, stretch tight muscles, flex in the jaw, and work both sides of their body equally. All of this can help you to establish an even contact and develop suppleness.
Of the lateral work options, shoulder in is of particular value – as long as it is ridden correctly! Shoulder in gives you better control of the horse’s shoulders and haunches, and also puts the horse in a position where he needs to correctly bend the inside hind leg to put it underneath his center of gravity. It is one of the best straightening tools out there!
Straightness in canter
Of course, straightness is important in all gaits. But due to the way the horse’s feet fall in canter, it is typically the hardest gait in which to achieve proper straightness. Because the inside legs move in a pair and move before the outside legs in terms of the sequence of footfalls, the horse naturally wants to curl their spine in the direction of the leading (inside) legs.
That’s why most horses tend to want to swing their quarters in slightly in canter, and why it’s also very often seen as a comment on dressage tests. In true canter, horses should be positioned in a shoulder-fore position to counteract this natural tendency to swing inwards. Be sure that you’re moving the shoulder inwards rather than pushing the quarters outwards, however.
Counter canter is another particularly helpful movement for developing straightness in the canter. When you’re in counter canter, you are able to encourage the horse to step further underneath himself with his hindleg, which helps the horse to transfer more of his weight and balance onto the hindquarters. Through corners, bends, and circles, counter canter also helps to stop the horse from drifting and is a very useful tool to align the body correctly.
Hopefully, this article has been helpful in improving and understanding straightness. However, it is something which needs to be worked on daily – when left alone, a horse will revert to their natural crookedness. If you broke your dominant arm and had to do everything with your other arm, you’d quickly become stronger and more coordinated. But once you return to doing everything normally, you lose that coordination and strength quickly.
When you’re working on straightness, it’s also important that you as the rider are aware of your body position and own straightness. If you are sitting crooked or using one side of your body more than the other, your horse will struggle to carry you while staying straight himself.
The next article will cover the sixth and final scale, collection.