As with people, horses often tend to be slightly asymmetric.
However, many riders don’t realize that challenges they face in their riding can often develop from issues with the horse’s straightness, stemming from this asymmetry.
Issues such as the horse pushing in or out in one direction, being heavy on one rein, having trouble picking up one canter lead, or struggling to maintain rhythm in one direction, are just a few examples of the symptoms that can appear due to a horse’s unaddressed asymmetry.
This is because if the horse is stronger or more flexible on one side, it will naturally move slightly crookedly in all exercises because it will then use this asymmetric musculature to perform them.
If we want the horse to overcome these difficulties and perform all movements more beautifully and easily, it is our task to first enable the horse to do this by straightening it and so bringing both sides of its body into balance.
Here, we’ll explore exactly how we can identify a horse’s asymmetry, why straightness is so important, and what we can do to help straighten a horse and so improve its movements.
This, as we will see, becomes key for setting the horse up to progress to higher levels of training.
Understanding the Horse’s Asymmetry
The master French horseman Jacques D’Auvergne astutely said;
“Horses do not come straight, and the horseman with all his knowledge and art will spend all his life to correct this imperfection.”
– Jacques D’Auvergne, as qtd. in Miguel Tavora’s Dressage Principles and Techniques
By nature, horses often tend to be stronger and suppler on one side compared to the other.
This means that they often develop more musculature on one side of their bodies, which we can sometimes see on the croup, neck, or shoulder, for example. If we stand behind the horse and observe the hindquarters, we may even find that one side is bulkier than the other, which can reveal the horse’s stronger side (Dr. Thomas Ritter, Straightness: Stiff Side vs. Hollow Side).
This imbalance in the horse’s musculature is much of what contributes to a horse’s asymmetry, and the resulting unequal areas of strength and suppleness correspondingly lead to a slightly crooked way of going.
This means that the horse will generally tend to perform exercises and positions on one side differently than on the other.
We can feel these differences quite markedly when we ride. For example, the horse may bend more easily to one side than the other, push in or out with the shoulders on curves or in turns, track in or out with the hindquarters in certain directions, and move laterally to one side more easily than the other.
We may observe these differences on either side, depending on whether the horse is crooked to the right or to the left.
Looking back through the old texts of riding masters reveals that there are varying opinions as to which asymmetry – to the right or left – is more common. However, it’s important for us to remember that asymmetries in riders can also cause asymmetries in the horse to appear. Thus, in looking back on these old texts it can be difficult to truly tell if the differing opinions we find are indeed due to differences in the horses, or due to asymmetries of their riders as well (Dr. Thomas Ritter, Straightness: Stiff Side vs. Hollow Side).
Gustav Steinbrecht, the renowned author of The Gymnasium of the Horse was of the opinion that horses were more often crooked to the right. However, looking beyond whether this is accurate, we can find that Steinbrecht describes asymmetry extremely well, and we can look to his detailed writings to learn a great deal about how crookedness appears. For example, he writes;
“It is a generally known fact that green horses have more difficulties on one side than the other and that most horses initially have these difficulties on the right hand.
…most horses are naturally crooked to a certain extent in that they tend to assume a false bend to the right. This false bend is produced in that their right hind leg does not step straight underneath the load but to the right of it so that the left shoulder tends to fall away toward the left with the result that the horse leans onto the left rein and refuses to accept the right rein.”
– Gustav Steinbrecht, The Gymnasium of the Horse
Steinbrecht packs a great deal of information into this small paragraph, and in the next few sections we’ll unwrap exactly what he means to understand the horse’s asymmetry, and what we can do to improve its straightness, movement, and balance.
Let’s begin by finding out how we can observe and analyze an asymmetry ourselves.
How do We Identify the Horse’s Asymmetry?
To observe a horse’s asymmetry, we can first analyze how the horse moves freely on the lunge, and in particular how it bends its body and positions its hindquarters. We explored how to do this in the article The Conformation of Balance, where you can also read all about it.
Here, we will focus on understanding how the horse’s asymmetry affects its movement freely on the lunge, and how this crookedness then translates to and appears in work under saddle.
With horses that are asymmetric, we can observe on the lunge that in one direction the hindquarters tend to track to the inside while the shoulders push out. In this case, we can notice that the inside hind leg does not take as much weight as it would if it were to track underneath the horse. This extra weight avoided by the inside hind leg is then displaced onto the outside shoulder, which then pushes out on the lunge.
This is precisely what Steinbrecht means when he describes that the inside hind leg doesn’t “step straight underneath the load” but rather to the side of it. When one hind leg doesn’t track straight under the horse and take the proper weight, this displaces extra weight to the diagonal fore shoulder and leg, which then tend to push out.
When the horse travels on the lunge in the other direction, we may see the opposite problem: That the hindquarters track to the outside while the shoulders push in, which causes the horse to make the circle slightly smaller and the lunge line more relaxed. This is the same asymmetry, with the horse moving in the same crooked manner, simply with the direction reversed.
This asymmetric way-of-going is even more easily observed from the saddle when we ride. Taking a look at the illustrations below, we can see more clearly what Steinbrecht means.
Understanding Asymmetry to the Right
Let’s first take a closer look at what happens when a horse is crooked to the right.
Horses that are crooked to the right are typically stronger on their left side, and in particular tend to be stronger in their left hindquarter than their right. We can observe this because the left hind leg will track underneath the horse and so carry more weight, whereas the weaker right hind leg will track “to the right of the load,” which results in it carrying less weight.
This causes horses crooked to the right to tend to travel to the right (on the right rein) with their hindquarters slightly to the inside, in a quasi-travers or false haunches-in position.
Steinbrecht explains that due to this asymmetrical strength in the hindquarters, horses crooked to the right will tend to push out onto the left shoulder, and struggle to move the right shoulder (and foreleg) up and forward. This is because the horse carries extra weight on the left shoulder, which tends to collapse the right shoulder slightly.
As a result, the horse will often lean on the left rein, especially while travelling to the right when it becomes the outside rein.
Both the shift of the hindquarters to the inside, and the extra weight placed onto the left shoulder tend to contribute to the development of a false bend. In the false bend, the horse flexes at a single point near the base of the neck rather than through its whole body, while the rest of the neck and body remain fairly straight.
This sharp angle between the neck and the body prevents energy and impulsion from flowing fluidly through the spine from the back to the front of the horse. This tends to disconnect the forehand and hindquarters and so bring the horse behind the aids, which can result in multiple issues such as inconsistent contact, rhythm, and transitions, for example.
Understanding Asymmetry to the Left
For horses crooked to the left, the same pattern of issues occur with everything simply reversed.
Horses that are crooked to the left are typically stronger on their right side, and in particular tend to be stronger in their right hindquarter than their left. Because of this, the right hind leg tends to track underneath the horse while the weaker left hind tracks “to the left of the load.”
Such horses will tend to travel to the left (on the left rein) with their hindquarters slightly to the inside, likewise in an almost travers or false haunches-in position.
Because horses crooked to the left struggle to bring their weaker left hind leg underneath them enough, this transfers more weight to the right shoulder. These horses tend to push out onto the right shoulder and collapse slightly on the left shoulder, which reduces their ability to reach up and forward with the left foreleg. Thus, these horses usually offer a stronger contact on the right rein, while they, in Steinbrecht’s terms, “refuse to accept” (and so maintain an unsteady contact on) the left rein.
Descriptions of Asymmetry in the Old Texts
It’s worth noting that in texts from the old masters, riders often refer to an asymmetry in terms of the horse having a “stiff side” and a “hollow side.” In this case, they refer to the “stiff side” as the stronger side on which the horse carries more weight, because the horse pushes towards this side, making it feel heavy and resistant. The “hollow side” then refers to the weaker, contracted side towards which the horse tends to be bent. For example, for a horse crooked to the right, the left side would be referred to as the “stiff side” and the right as the “hollow side.”
However, what they refer to as the “stiff side,” while being the side on which we feel more resistance, actually tends to be the slightly suppler side, as the horse lengthens this side naturally, and bends it more easily. Meanwhile, the “hollow side” actually tends to be the stiffer side because it is weaker and contracted. This is why horses typically have more trouble bending and so stretching this side (Dr. Thomas Ritter, Straightness: Stiff Side vs. Hollow Side).
Why is Straightness so Important?
Though the issues caused by crookedness may appear small in simple exercises, these tend to become magnified when the horse is asked to perform more advanced work. This is because more advanced exercises require higher levels of suppleness, strength, and balance, which the horse cannot maintain if its musculature remains very asymmetric. Therefore, as riders we will always encounter greater issues if we attempt to do more advanced work without first adequately straightening the horse.
It’s important for us to remember that it is our task to enable the horse to perform more demanding exercises by ensuring that it becomes equally strong and supple on both sides of its body. Thus, if we want to progress beyond the basics, we must help straighten the horse.
Besides ensuring the horse is sufficiently strong and supple for higher level training, there’s one key reason why straightness is so important for increasing the horse’s capabilities.
And that reason is: “Throughness.”
Throughness, or Durchlässigkeit (meaning “permeability” in German), refers to the ability of the effects of the aids to pass unhindered through the whole horse from the hands, legs and seat. Developing “throughness” is key for enabling the horse to develop lightness, forwardness, collection and balance as training advances.
Let’s look at each of these qualities in more detail to understand how they are all connected, and why throughness is so important.
“Throughness” refers to the ability of any momentum generated by the aids to flow fluidly and unobstructed between the tail and head of the horse. It is essentially the capability of the horse to respond to the aids through its whole body without any resistance. For example, it means the horse responds to the rein aids with its whole body, including and especially in the activity of its hind legs, and likewise, that the horse responds to the leg aids with its whole body including in its head, neck, and mouth. The momentum generated by these aids flows “through” the horse and can be felt by the rider throughout the horse’s whole body.
Without straightness, the horse cannot be “through.” This is because if the horse has unequal areas of strength or suppleness, the aids tend to meet resistances in the horse according to its asymmetry.
Many resistances develop from the false bend that occurs when the horse is crooked. The abruptness of the false bend, along with its lack of corresponding ribcage flexion, interrupts the aids from passing through the whole horse. Steinbrecht describes this very well:
“…a false bend in the neck develops as soon as two of its [cervical] vertebrae are no longer aligned correctly with one another but, by bending the joint too much, remain in contact with one another over too small a portion of their joining surfaces, thus producing a gap in the connecting chain between head and hindquarters. The interaction of hands and legs transmitted through the spinal column is interrupted in that not only the thrust from the hindquarters but also the rein actions from the hands get stuck in such a false bend and the horse now has found a means to avoid the rider’s control. Such a fault extends through all gaits and exercises and may at times make an otherwise excellent horse uncomfortable and unreliable.”
– Gustav Steinbrecht, The Gymnasium of the Horse
Thus, if the horse is not straight, the aids from the hands, legs and seat cannot transmit fluidly through the whole horse due to the false bend.
Instead, some of the momentum generated by the aids becomes lost out to the sides due to the horse’s crookedness.
For example, by encouraging a crooked horse to go faster with the legs, some of the forward momentum generated will become lost out to the sides as the hindquarters track slightly to one side, while the shoulders push to the other side. All the momentum will therefore not be able to travel through the whole horse up to the head, neck and mouth as much as possible.
Because of this, Steinbrecht notes that this leads to the horse developing “a means to avoid the rider’s control,” meaning that if the aids cannot be transmitted through the horse properly, the rider cannot “control” or influence the horse as well because the horse becomes behind the aids.
This means that throughness, and therefore straightness, is key for progressing to higher levels because it ensures the horse can become properly responsive to the aids. Straightness ensures the actions of the aids can properly affect the whole horse so that the horse can become truly responsive to them, which is necessary for progressing to collecting and balancing the horse.
Lightness & Forwardness
Because lightness and forwardness develop out of responsiveness to the aids, the horse must first be straight and “through” to become forward and light.
We can also think of forwardness as the horse being light to the leg aids, and so as it becomes straighter, the horse is able to become lighter to both the hands and legs.
General L’Hotte, who was both a rider at the Cadre Noir and a pupil of François Baucher, emphasized the importance of straightness for achieving lightness by saying;
“The straightness of the horse is of such importance that it constitutes – I have said this and am saying it again – the basis of classical or savante equitation. And the straight position is the touchstone to lightness.”
– General Alexis F L’Hotte, as qtd by Dr. Thomas Ritter in The Old Master’s Views on Straightness
Miguel Tavora, a student of Nuno Oliveira, also points out that straightness and forwardness influence one another, by saying;
“…in equitation all matters are connected, and many of them are the consequence of others. For example, a horse can’t be straight without being forward, and to be correctly forward, he needs to be straight.”
– Miguel Tavora, Dressage Principles and Techniques
In a similar way, as the horse develops lightness, it often becomes easier to develop collection, and vice versa. Developing one often helps us improve the other.
Collection & Balance
Collection refers to the horse’s ability to shift its weight from the forehand to the haunches and thus increasingly carry more weight behind. This can be to the point at which the horse carries equal weight on all 4 legs (where the horse is in balance), or at which the horse carries more weight behind than in front, for example in the airs above the ground of Haute École.
Thus, as we develop collection, we increasingly lighten the forehand. This in turn helps to make the horse even lighter to the aids and more agile.
However, if the horse is not straight, it becomes much more difficult to shift the horse’s weight back onto the hind legs, as they will not be equally strong. This means that the horse will tend to shift more of its weight back onto the stronger hind leg to alleviate the work of the weaker one. The weaker hind leg will tend to step out to the side to escape any added weight. Therefore, in order to collect properly, the horse must have the strength to load both hind legs equally.
Thus, by straightening the horse we enable it to better collect and so develop balance. When the horse becomes strong enough to maintain balance with equal weight on all 4 legs, the horse becomes its most agile, and most capable of performing any movement at any time.
Faverot de Kerbrech, who was a student of Baucher’s, further writes about just how crucial straightness is for bringing the horse into balance by saying that;
“One of the greatest challenges in riding is to keep the horse straight as consistently as possible, i.e. to achieve and maintain the position in which the forehand and the haunches line up with each other. As difficult as this may be, it is a main prerequisite for balancing the horse.”
– Faverot de Kerbrech, as qtd by Dr. Thomas Ritter in The Old Master’s Views on Straightness
As we can see, straightness is key to enabling the horse to progress to higher level training by first establishing thoroughness, which enables the horse to then develop lightness and forwardness, and finally collection which leads to balance.
Now, let’s take a look at what we can do to help straighten a crooked horse.
How do We Improve the Horse’s Straightness?
Straightness results from creating equal suppleness and strength on both sides of the horse.
Two major ways we can improve the horse’s lateral suppleness, strength, and so its straightness, is through systematic bending and lateral work.
Once we’ve identified a horse’s asymmetry, we can understand which side would benefit from becoming suppler and stronger.
For horses crooked to the right, the right side tends to be weaker and more contracted. This means the right side needs to be stretched and opened, especially the right shoulder, while the right hindquarter particularly benefits from being strengthened.
For horses crooked to the left, the left side tends to be weaker and contracted. So, we could work to open and stretch the left side and shoulder, and strengthen the left hindquarter.
However, it’s important to remember that it’s crucial to work both sides, even when the horse is asymmetric! If we focus too much on one side or area, we risk flipping the asymmetry, along with all its issues, to the other side. (Miguel Tavora, Dressage Principles and Techniques)
So, what are some ways we can straighten the horse?
Essentially, we can think of putting the horse in positions counter to its natural asymmetric position, to stretch and strengthen the contracted, weaker side.
For example, for horses crooked to the right, we could do exercises such as shoulder-in left where the horse bends to the left and stretches the contracted right side. We could also try exercises such as travers to the left where the horse must both stretch the right side, and bring the weaker right hind leg under the body, which strengthens it.
A few gymnastic exercises that can be particularly helpful to start with are the shoulder-in, travers and renvers, working on circles, and riding counter-counter.
Let’s have a look at these one at a time.
Riding the Shoulder-in
The shoulder-in is of great help in straightening the horse, developing the very first stages of collection, correct bend, and lightness off the inside leg. It’s also a good exercise for feeling where the horse may have issues, for example if it is slow off the inside leg, if it falls into a false bend, becomes heavy on the outside rein, and so on. It was the first exercise Nuno Oliveira would use with any horse, and it is also usually the first lateral movement I turn to when I ride (Nuno Oliveira, Reflections on Equestrian Art).
For a crooked horse, the shoulder-in has many benefits. We can use it to strengthen the weaker hindquarter in one direction, and stretch and open the collapsed shoulder in the other direction.
For example, when ridden to the same side as the horse’s asymmetry, (ie. travelling right for horses crooked right), it drives the weaker hind leg underneath the horse, which strengthens the hind leg and hindquarter.
When ridden to the opposite side of the horse’s asymmetry, (eg. travelling left for horses crooked right), it helps the horse by stretching the right side with the left bend. This can also help free up and stretch the collapsed right shoulder.
The shoulder-in could be ridden in the following example exercises to improve straightness:
- Ride shoulder-in along the wall or on the circle in both directions, in walk or trot, driving the inside hind leg under and across, with uniform bend through the ribcage and neck. Half-halts on the outside rein can be useful to prevent the horse from falling onto the outside shoulder, or falling into a false bend.
- Practice transitions in shoulder-in between walk and trot along the wall or on the circle. In later stages, transitions from shoulder-in in collected trot to going straight in medium trot can also be helpful to balance the collection generated with impulsion.
- In more advanced stages, if the horse is already familiar and comfortable with counter-canter, ride the shoulder-in in (counter) canter along the wall, incorporating transitions between collected walk and canter every 4-5 strides. Alternatively, counter shoulder-in can also be ridden in the same way on the normal (inside) canter lead.
In the shoulder-in, be sure to drive the inside hind leg underneath the horse, especially on the weaker side, to encourage the horse take more weight on this leg and to bend properly in the ribcage. This is the core of the exercise, rather than the horse’s forehand being brought to the inside.
When ridden correctly with the inside hind leg stepping underneath the load and creating ribcage flexion, the shoulder-in can be a very useful exercise to help straighten the horse, and begin to supple and strengthen both sides equally.
Riding Travers & Renvers
The travers (haunches-in) and renvers (haunches-out) positions can also be particularly helpful in straightening a crooked horse. They can precisely counter the natural asymmetric position, and so can simultaneously stretch the contracted side, strengthen the weaker hindleg by bringing it under the body, and lighten the heavier shoulder.
Travers and renvers are very useful for lightening heavy shoulders because when the horse is correctly bent in the direction of travel, as the outside hind leg (relative to the bend) steps under the body and takes more weight, this lightens the diagonal shoulder.
It’s important to practice these exercises on both reins. However, when a horse is very asymmetric, riding them such that the horse is positioned opposite to its normal asymmetry is particularly helpful in the beginning until the horse becomes straighter. For example, for horses crooked to the right, one could ride travers to the left and renvers to the right (the same position but with the direction reversed). For horses crooked to the left, we could do travers to the right and renvers to the left.
We can incorporate travers and renvers in the following example exercises:
- In the corner before the long side in walk or trot, position the horse in travers and ride in travers along the long and short side of the arena. Take the diagonal in traversale or half-pass, and continue in renvers on arrival to the wall. Ride the short and long sides of the arena in renvers, ride straight for a stride or two, halt before the corner after the long side, and reinback a few steps. Walk or trot forward again straight and repeat to the new side. You can also practice the same exercise using half-voltes instead of taking the diagonal.
- On a large circle in trot, practice transitions between shoulder-in and travers, then go straight and extend the trot on the circle, collect the trot again, and repeat several more transitions between shoulder-in and travers.
Riding Circles & Voltes
Circles and voltes can also be useful when ridden regularly for suppling the horse with uniform bend. This is because the side of the horse to the outside of the circle must stretch slightly, which has a suppling effect. The horse must step the inside hind leg very slightly underneath itself towards its centre of gravity, while the inside shoulder and foreleg must also reach slightly up and forward.
On smaller circles and voltes, the effect of the circle is increased. Thus, we may also feel the horse’s asymmetry more strongly, as it becomes more challenging for the horse to stay on the circle due to any asymmetry.
For example, in riding a horse crooked to the right on a smaller right-hand circle, the horse may become heavier on the outside rein while it pushes out with the outside shoulder. This is because the weaker right hindquarter does not take enough weight and does not step enough underneath the horse, while the inside shoulder doesn’t move sufficiently up and forward.
In this case, it can help to open and/or lift the inside rein with contact to encourage the inside shoulder to step forward on the circle, while actively encouraging the inside hind leg under with the inside leg.
To use circles and voltes to develop straightness, we can try the following example exercises:
- Practice shoulder-in (and/or counter shoulder-in) on the 20m circle in walk and trot. When this is well established, progress to working on the 10m circle.
- Ride a 20m circle straight by A or C, and then a 10m circle, maintaining rhythm and bend, and following the circle line in walk, trot or canter. Then return to the 20m circle. Once the horse can do this without losing balance, try riding the same exercise from a 10m circle to a 6m volte and back to a 10m circle.
In this exercise, it’s also helpful to practice opening the gait slightly on the bigger circle, and collecting on the smaller circle, and so incorporating transitions to develop some collection at the same time.
- Ride straight along the wall and ride a 6-8m volte in each corner, starting first in walk, then in trot, and as the horse becomes more balanced, in canter.
The key in these exercises is to ensure that the bend is uniform, the shoulders stay and lead on the circle line, and the hindquarters do not come in or drift out, but rather follow the forehand.
To ride the circle correctly, we typically use the inside leg by the girth to create the bend, outside rein close to the neck to prevent the outside shoulder falling out, and inside rein slightly open to encourage the inside shoulder and foreleg to move up and forward on the circle line. If the hindquarters tend to fall out, we use the outside leg to prevent this and to bring them back again on the circle line.
By using circles and voltes, we can effectively supple both sides of the horse and increase its straightness.
Riding Counter Canter
Once the horse reaches the stage of development to begin the counter canter, it can be a very useful tool for straightening the horse, and particularly the canter itself.
To use counter canter to straighten the horse, a useful exercise is to:
- Ride a 20m circle, transitioning between collected walk, to canter, to collected walk, and then to counter canter. Aim to canter or counter-canter for 4-5 strides between multiple transitions when the horse can manage this.
- Once the horse can manage counter canter fairly well, ride straight along the wall on the inside canter lead, take the diagonal, and continue on straight along the wall in counter canter. Stop and reward the horse after a few strides when the exercise is still new, or continue on along the wall when the horse is more advanced.
Building Straightness over Time
By incorporating our awareness and understanding of the horse’s asymmetry, and by using the right exercises to improve straightness, over time a horse will become straighter and its movements much easier and more beautiful. Issues with which we once struggled, such as getting consistently light and forward transitions, picking up a specific canter lead or flying change, staying balanced in turns, or maintaining our rhythm in both directions slowly become much easier to correct, and eventually tend to resolve.
Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that some remnant of crookedness may always remain, though correct training can immensely improve it. Through the training process the horse may also go through phases, where, as the work advances, an asymmetry may once again shine through as it requires the horse to develop an even higher level of straightness to perform. Higher level training requires ever greater strength and suppleness in equal measure on both sides of the body.
With this understanding of asymmetry and how we can straighten the horse, we are able to immediately identify with any horse, simply from how it moves, what it will struggle with, and we can know what we can do to improve its movements. By improving the horse’s straightness, we are able to improve its throughness, which then enables the horse to develop greater lightness, forwardness, collection, and balance. This understanding and ability alone can dramatically improve our riding, and set our horses up to progress to the higher levels.