There is a famous quote from the old German Master Steinbrecht: “Ride your horse forward and make it straight!” This is still an often heard sentence in riding lessons, and especially important in the development of young horses. Now why do I need to ride my horse forward if the ultimate goal is collection? Isn’t that counterintuitive? And why do I need to ride forward to achieve straightness? And what do those have to do with each other at all? This all comes back to the building blocks of the training pyramid that need to be accomplished step by step and build on top of each other.
To achieve a better understanding of the Training Pyramid, let’s take a look at where we want to go with the training. The achievement of the training pyramid is equally important for all disciplines. For dressage, all movements should be easy and naturally. The rider should move with the horse just like a dancer on the dancefloor. Therefore the horse needs to develop carrying strength and thereby the ability to collect itself within the gaits. In the training pyramid we have the acclimatization phase, the development of propulsive force and the development of carrying strength. Throughout all these three phases we aim to improve the balance and suppleness of the horse. This makes the training pyramid just as important for the jumping horse. The better the single points of the training pyramid are achieved, the better the horse will accept the rider’s aids and the better the suppleness of the horse in the end, enabling immediate reaction, flexibility, agility and harmony between horse and rider, all needed to succeed in the jumping course as well as to shine in the dressage arena.
As a quick reminder, in the acclimatization phase we talked about rhythm, looseness and connection. The next step is about the development of propulsive force which again includes looseness and rhythm, now accompanied by impulse and straightness. At this point, the rhythm has to be a given, without it all else is impossible.
So, why do we need the propulsive force for the horse? Looking at the proportions of the horse it immediately becomes evident that the hind quarters are important. In fact, this part of the horse includes the largest muscles and thus has the greatest strength. It is the motor of the horse in all movements. During this phase the horse learns to increase the use of its hind legs. With impulse from the active hind quarters, the horse should achieve ground covering movements that develop over a swinging back. Having completed the first two phases, the acclimatization and the development of propulsive force, we look at a horse that, with rhythm, looseness and satisfaction, steps towards the rider’s hand with impulse from the hind legs and straightness in its body. Here it becomes evident that, even though we work through the training pyramid bottom up, the single points are not mutually exclusive. As we learned in part one of the training scale, rhythm facilitated looseness and both together facilitated connection. All three enable the horse to engage the hind legs and develop impulse, which in turn facilitates straightness. Backward thinking, straightness will improve the horse taking the bit equally on both sides, just as impulse will encourage the horse to further take the connection to the rider’s hand that is offered. Becoming more balanced and comfortable in its movements and the connection to the rider, looseness will be improved. We could find many more examples how the single points interact, but I think I made the point.
So far so good. Next steps. We already examined the first three points of the training pyramid in an earlier article, so now we need to focus on impulse and straightness. Impulse has to come before straightness. Impulse means the horse takes the leg up and forward under the center of gravity, increasing the length of the suspension phase. This will develop two points needed to reach straightness. First of all the impulse from the hind will increase the horse’s will and comfort in stepping towards the rider’s hand, second of all the impulse from the hind will increase the length of the suspension phase. Imagine a horse standing in the middle of the arena, all four feet on the ground, and imagine you try to push that horse over to the side. Also imagine a horse that is moving and is in the suspension phase, all four feet away from the ground and imagine you want to push that horse over to the side. Which horse’s position will you be more likely to change with less force? That is the key to increasing straightness, and that is where the sentence “Ride your horse forward and make it straight” found its roots. The suspension phase, which you increased with developing impulse allows you to iterate the position of your horse.
Furthermore, and equally important, impulse enables the horse to step under the center of gravity and, as said before, achieve ground-covering movements that develop over a swinging back. At some point in the horse’s education you will collect your horse and focus more on shoulder-fore and shoulder-in to achieve straightness, but going there immediately and skipping impulse will be like trying to drive a car without a motor, and, even worse, it will lead to short steps that do not process through the whole body of the horse, the back will be tensed instead of carrying through the movement and engaging every muscle in the horse’s body.
If your horse has rhythm, looseness, takes the bit and moves forward towards your hand, engaging its whole body, you are ready to focus on the next point, straightness. Why is straightness important and what does it mean? Straightness is important to keep the horse healthy. Every horse has a “better” side, just as every human is either right handed or left handed. As we know from own experience, as a right handed person, doing everyday things, like writing, or even brushing your teeth with the left hand is quite a task. That is the same for the horse, bending and carrying weight will be way easier on one side then on the other. If we do not work on improving the “weak” side, the horse will use its body unequally which can lead to tensions, discomfort, and even be the cause of lameness if there is significantly more strain put on one leg than on the other. Furthermore, straightness will improve prior points of the training pyramid and enable the development of collection.
Straightness has to include the whole horse. Regarding the legs it means that the hind legs move exactly in line with the front legs. Taking a closer look at the construction of the horse, one will notice that the hind legs are wider than the front legs, so one might say they can never move in line with the front legs. While true for a younger horse and every horse that reaches this point of the education pyramid for the first time, with further training and exercises like shoulder-in and shoulder-fore, the horse learns to take the hind legs more towards its body’s center of gravity, which will result in the hind legs getting in line with the front legs. Besides the legs, the muscles throughout the horse’s body have to engage equally on both sides, all resulting in taking the bit equally on both reins.
*Endel Ots (pictured above) and his now 6-year old Hanoverian gelding Lucky Strike (by Lord Laurie/His Highness) - during a training session with Christine Traurig last year in preparation for the Young Horse World Championships, provides a perfect example for correct training. He is working his horse on big circles, encouraging engagement of the hind legs through tempi changes, and already shows Lucky perfectly straight on all straight and curved lines.
Oftentimes you will already work on straightness without even clearly noticing. Working a horse on big circles is straightening work. Correctly done, the horse is encouraged to stretch the outer rip and engage both sides of the body equally. On these curved lines the horse also learns to increasingly step towards the outer rein. I mention this outer rein here (even though I said I want an equal connection to both reins before), because on these circles, the horse has to take more weight on the inner hind leg. To allow that, we want to be lighter on the inner rein, while at the same time providing guidance on the outer rein and preventing the horse from breaking away over the outer shoulder. If we did not manage to do this, the horse would step its hind legs next to its body and thus we would never be able to have balance or, looking forward, develop carrying strength. Crucial to engage the inner hind leg is the weight of the rider and the rider’s use of the inner forward pushing leg. The rider’s inner leg has to push against the outer rein. Doing this work equally on both sides will help the horse develop the strength to step more under the center of gravity on both sides and thus increase straightness.
Further work to improve straightness that is done through more advanced exercises, as well as the development of carrying strength will be explained in the next part of the Training Pyramid.