The Curvy Road to “Straight”

“Straight” seems a basic-enough concept, and yet not a small number of trainers and clinicians get it very wrong.  What we really mean by straight is, in effect, optimally aligned on the path.  What is “optimally aligned” then?  Let’s consider things.

A common cliche describes ‘straight’ as “the way the horse moves on the way to his feed bucket”.  Like many cliches, it sounds good and is often repeated, but it’s not really true – or at least is a wholly incomplete expression of what is true.  The implication is that mere “incentive” prevents our horse from being straight – e.g., if he were motivated to move from where we are to where we want to be, then he would be straight – which is not at all the case.  In fact, the fact that this is not the case IS the problem.

The feed bucket answer is the answer you’ll likely get from a hat who’s who’s worked too hard making an honest living doing honest things for too long.  Those things never leave enough time for studying academic equitation, let alone over-pondering the matter.  Around the campfire.  Under that big starry sky.

Mmmmmm.

Smell them beans cooking?

“New York CITY???!”

“GET A ROPE!”

If it were a simple matter of “pointing your body where you’re going”, we would all march to the dinner table like Russian gymnasts – and I mean the 1970s ass-kicking kind.  Instead, you do it roughly as your dog does – more or less crookedly.  Except your dog is even more “off” (all things equal) – because he’s a quadruped.  He has four peds.  Like your horse.

If it were a mere targeting issue, creating straightness would be a matter of getting steering down.  The error is that here  ‘straightness’ refers only to a path of travel (e.g. ‘as the crow flies’), which is a very different and simpler concept than the notion of, shall we say, bio-mechanical alignment.  Shall we?  SAY IT.

Though horses motivated by food may move in a ‘straight line’ toward it, few move along this straight line straightly.  If you happened to be riding them, and knew the difference, they would feel crooked (being crooked, as I’m saying they are).  Why?  Because a banana moving along a straight line is still a banana, and therefore still curved (not straight), though it moves along a straight path.

In our context, we’re not merely concerned with ‘path of travel’ – though of course we should be able to effect a straight line of travel (and without the benefit of an arena).  More than this though, we’re concerned with some other things, especially up here ivory-wise:  namely, his bend; the obliquity of his body relative to the direction of travel and the distribution of effort among the diagonal pairs, as applicable.

Each of these qualities should be entirely and easily modifiable by the rider, presuming an academically dressed horse.  And it is by teaching the horse to modify each of these qualities initially which enables the presentation of a perfectly straight horse ultimately.  Until we are able to move the horse obliquely along a line of travel, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to move him in a perfectly ‘straight’ manner along a given (straight) path of travel.  That we can move him obliquely confirms we could move him “straightly” – presuming we understand the sensation of “straight”.

Why should we have to teach a horse to move crookedly before we can really teach him to move straightly?  Because achieving “straight” will require numerous subtle corrections from you – the operator – while in motion; not so much in terms of “steering” his front end with the reins (which only produces a roughly straight direction of travel, while he generally remains crooked – because you haven’t really done anything yet), but in terms of ensuring his shoulders remain perfectly between where we are and where we’re going.

The shadow of his head may follow a more or less straight line, but, in early training, his body will rather wag behind it – “skidding” a little left here, a little right there.  This is generally the result of the gap between where he wants to go, and the direction you’re making him go via plow-reining.

Though proper gymnastics will greatly facilitate his ability to move straight(ly), we are unable to perform them before we’ve installed the controls required to move, essentially, crookedly – that is, intentionally misaligned with our direction of travel, or obliquely.  So we must confirm the horse in oblique work before we will have a sufficient vocabulary in place to direct his movement perfectly straight – in terms of bend, obliquity, and impulsion.  Until then, simply riding in straight lines – “riding him forward” – will do little to truly straighten him in a classical sense.  We are simply driving a car with a bent frame in a straight line.  Whatever path it travels, the car will not move true until the frame is re-aligned.

It can be difficult to appreciate how a balanced, straight horse feels without ever having ridden one, and the vast majority of riders never have.  The straight horse rides like a brand new car.  With four perfectly balanced wheels – each perfectly aligned, with perfectly balanced tires, and a brand new suspension.  The new car seems to almost drive itself.  It wants to go straight.  It does not pull left, or right, or wobble.  The entirety of the car is moving forward in one direction.  Even when we turn it left or right, we can feel it wanting to get back on center and travel straight ahead.  We don’t have to use any strength to hold the steering wheel straight – in fact we can put our hands in our lap if the highway is straight itself.  The only thing requiring any energy from the driver is a deviation from straight – a turn.

Unlike cars, horses “get newer” (and more valuable) with proper training and work.  The beginning high school prospect does not feel like a new car.  He feels rather like a helicopter.  If you’ve never flown a helicopter, just understand:  it’s the opposite of a new car.  It feels like it wants to go every direction all the time.  It requires constant correction to fly straight, hover, or what have you.  And so does the new high school prospect.  Thus, much of our early work consists of lateral operations, which prepare the prospect in two fundamental ways:

  1.  The correct effects (or “aids” or “helps”) used to produce lateral movement establish linguistic building blocks for the future.  Hereafter, we will have an easy means of controlling specific legs and diagonals, boosting or snuffing their activity at will to create the passage, piaffe, etc.
  2. The physics of lateral work necessarily develop the horse gymnastically in ways he would never do on his own (in order to unlock capabilities and movements  he would also never do on his own … read: it is a complete fallacy that we are merely enabling him to ‘move as well mounted as he does unmounted’; and also incorrect that horses naturally produce the movements of high school in the field while playing, etc.  They don’t – no more than human children exhibit correct gymnastics, martial arts, or ballet movements on the playground).  A certain bend combined with a certain degree of obliquity necessarily works one side or the other of the shoulders or croup – developing the muscles, increasing flexibility, and greatly improving general coordination and balance.

In time, he will drive like a new car – he will default to straight, balanced movement, with a moderate degree of collection.  Early on, though he may be presented as moving straight by a skilled rider, the straightness is not a product of his own doing – rather it is the result of the rider using constant, subtle corrections – as if flying a kite … or a helicopter.

As a product of being ridden straight, the horse’s particular weaknesses become strengthened, creating a virtuous cycle.  Straight movement becomes the most comfortable movement; therefore, he increasingly moves straight without requiring constant maintenance from the operator –  perpetuating the musculature which makes ‘straight’ more comfortable.

From “straight” emerges balanced physical development and increasing dexterity. From here, physics and biology combine: “balance” itself emerges quite naturally –  as does its twin, “rhythm”.

Thus, straightness, balance, and rhythm are all ultimately the children of fidelity.  It is fidelity which enable us to (initially) “artificially” produce “straight” – achieved by the appearance of fidelity – the willingness and ability of the horse to place himself as indicated by the rider.