Many years ago I was living at an FEI-level dressage barn as the assistant hunter-jumper trainer. It was a fabulous place to watch and learn from some of the world’s best and most educated riders and clinicians who came to ride, teach and show there. I’ve learned throughout my years as a professional rider that those rare horsemen who are consistently at the top of their game in the Olympic disciplines are also the quietest. They tend not to talk a lot and have dropped the egoic bravado that comes with so many trainers who are still out to prove themselves. Getting specific information out of them isn’t always easy… more likely gained by observing and the occasional politely asked question.
One day I was watching the head trainer, a soft-spoken, elegant German master rider, schooling a working student on an upper-levels horse that had been allowed by its owner to make flying lead changes incorrectly. Every other canter stride or so the student-rider would ask for a lead change and the rangy warmblood gelding would swing his haunches well off the track to the left or right. It looked awkward, and in fact, such swaying off the track results in a relatively low score in a dressage test due to the incorrectness of the movement. It also indicates a resistance in the horse and would eventually lead to unsoundness.
The trainer spoke in German – a language I don’t understand beyond a few words – and the next time the series of flying lead changes were attempted they appeared nearly perfect.
Surprised, I asked Uli, the trainer, what he said. “I told him to keep the horse straight” was his answer.
The difference a subtle change in the ride made to this horse was such a profound lesson I wished I could have had a video camera in my hand at the time as the teaching from this one apparently simple thing was quite dramatic. However, it’s the right combination of so many elements, including the keen eye and years of experience of such a trainer, plus a student who also came from the program in Europe that made the rapid change in the horse’s form look easy.
In the classical training method the two key words that lead to a healthy, “finished” horse are deceptively complex. If it were a simple matter to ride a horse both forwards and straight, we’d all be riding relatively problem-free horses that stay as sound as possible and carry a rider without stress or discomfort.
Unfortunately, especially in North America, there are only a handful of trainers who still follow the programs of master trainers and not too many riders who have had the opportunity to sit on a horse that has reached a perpetual state of “forwards and straight”.
Horses naturally track with their shoulders closer to the rail and haunches more to the inside due to their shape. If you look at a horse from the top view, you’ll see the width of the shoulders is narrower than the hips, so it’s just a more comfortable and natural way for them to track. It also means they naturally drop an inside shoulder as they make a turn and counter-balance by shifting their heads & necks to the outside.
Running free without a rider, this is fine for the horse, as there’s nothing to upset their balance and muscular development. The moment we humans climb aboard however, we have to undertake a proper series of exercises so the horse builds up a correct athletic form and the musculature to be able to carry a rider through all of the movement we request of them.
It’s at this convergence point of “natural” vs. “training” that we seem to have broken the smooth process of the classical training pyramid as too many horses are pushed too quickly through the levels, whether they be destined for dressage, jumpers, or other show disciplines. Very few people who have the time and money to support show horses also have the patience to wait for a horse to develop correctly through lower levels.
Depending on the breed and conformation, some horses never progress out of a basic level of training, yet should still be given the opportunity to have a genuinely correct base that instills rhythm, suppleness, and a willingness to take contact with the reins.
In the “old” classical system, a horse is never punished by being ridden in reverse – i.e. pulled on or jerked by the reins – and the standard that was taught is to “correct forwards”.
This works for both exciteable and lazier types of horses, and all breeds and disciplines. Even a good western lope has to be forwards and straight and is an art unto itself. Not all horses can achieve a good lope, even the ones bred for it. Same with an extended canter for a warmblood. Not all of them will get there.
A horse that is ridden forwards, what we refer to as the “back to front” ride will develop an increased bend in the joints of the hindquarters, allowing for more freedom of the joints, which also helps keep them lubricated and healthy, and allows for the muscles of the lower back and haunches to develop “pushing power”. This is different from rushing, as that’s a balance issue.
A good illustration of the difference is to hold a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees and hold the weights with a bent arm, fairly close to your body. You feel strong and balanced. Now lean forwards a bit and hold the weights in front of you (careful – don’t get hurt!). You’ll immediately feel the stress in your back and want to take a quick step to keep your balance. Horses experience the same thing when all of their weight is carried in the forehand and not transferred to the hindquarters.
So far as straightness goes, look at a great athlete. Skier, skater, runner, etc., and notice the body symmetry. Straightness means efficiency and optimal performance. It’s no different for horses. When you ride a horse that’s been trained to go straight it’s like the difference between driving a high-performance sports car compared to an old 3/4 ton pickup truck with manual steering. Unfortunately, finding a straight horse to ride so you can experience that difference for yourself is not always an easy thing to do.
If all riders had the opportunity to learn on this type of horse, we’d have a lot more sound, rideable schoolmasters in teaching programs than we do now. Dr. Schoen treats horses repeatedly for musculoskeletal misalignment and subsequent pain that is frequently a side-effect of incorrect training methods.
I’m barely even scratching the surface here on the concept of “forwards” and “straight” as the training techniques and level of experience required to get a horse there would take up volumes of books and many years of study. Yet, out of compassion for our horses and knowing how beneficial a correctly trained horse is to the equine world, isn’t that kind of worth the time and trouble it takes to learn?