In a pattern, maintaining your horse’s straightness can be the difference between first and 10th place.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Jim Searles with Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal
If you go by the dictionary, being straight means free from curves, bends, angles and irregularities. But our show-ring patterns always have circles or half circles and bends of some kind. It’s still important to stay straight, or on line, even in those maneuvers.
Think of it like driving an automobile. When you’re approaching a bend in the road, you curve, but you still stay straight in the middle of the road. If you don’t, you veer off and end up in the woods.
When riding, to “stay in the middle of the road,” you keep the horse’s body straight, in line through his spine. It really relates to balance – when you talk about a horse being straight on a straight line or a curve, the horse is carrying his body relaxed and balanced.
A good example of a horse not carrying himself straight is a horse that is over-canted in western pleasure. The horse is going down the rail sideways: his spine is not straight, and his hips are not in line with his shoulders. In the lope, a horse has to have some lead with his hock, but he should still travel straight, with his spine in line.
A horse’s conformation affects his natural ability to travel straight, although good training and conditioning can improve it. Balanced conformation and structural correctness are hugely important to the way a horse travels, no matter what the discipline.
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Straightness and balance are keys to every great ride, whether it’s in the flat patterns – such as reining or western riding or trail – or over fences or a cattle class. That’s key to the ride. If you’re not staying balanced or straight, that’s going to affect your equitation and horsemanship.
Inaccurate maneuvers: trouble maintaining straightness and balance shows up in many ways.
If you are not staying straight in a trail pattern, it’ll either add or take away strides between poles, and that’s going to result in either hitting or splitting poles or missing your line of travel.
In western riding, if you don’t stay straight, your horse’s shoulders and/or hips might get out of alignment, and that’s going to affect your lead changes when you’re going down the line.
It’s the same with backing up – if you’re crooked, you’ll start hitting obstacles. You often see a rider backing straight and then start looking side to side instead of one direction, and that causes the horse to start shifting his hips. The next thing the rider knows, the horse is hitting obstacles.
In horsemanship or hunt seat equitation, not being straight will take away from the overall look and degree of difficulty of your pattern.
Rider problems: Sometimes we forget that every horse can perform only as well as the rider on his back allows.
If the rider doesn’t maintain a balanced, self carriage within himself, then it’s pretty tough for the horse to keep his balance and self carriage. The horse feels any movement or weight shift, and it affects his ability to carry himself well; he won’t stay straight.
It can also be a mental thing with the rider. Riders often go over and over and over a pattern and stress themselves out. You can see it in their facial expressions or movements, such as constantly picking up on the horse and always trying to adjust. That will affect your ability to maintain straightness.
Horse problems: The horse can also be the problem. If a horse is sore in his back or if he’s hurting in his hips, hocks or stifles, that will definitely create problems with staying straight. If he’s out of condition, that can create problems with straightness, too.
What to Do
Pay attention to your horse as an individual: You’ve got to know your horse. If your horse comes out one day, and he physically can’t stay straight even on a longe line, then there’s a good chance that his neck is out or he’s sore. There’s so much that could be going on, and you have to be aware of the potential problems.
We maintain our horses all the time – with suppling exercises, massage, supplements or chiropractic adjustment, etc. – just to keep them healthy. It’s especially important before the stress of a big show. If they’re hurting, they’re not going to perform, and they can’t be straight. That’s going to affect performance.
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When I get done playing softball or football, I am hunting for the massage therapist. The body can take a beating, and we don’t recognize that often enough in our horses.
Work on your own balance: We work just as hard on rider balance and self-carriage as we do the horse. We make our riders drop their stirrups and work on staying straight and centered in the saddle and on the horse’s back. It gets them stronger physically.
A key part of maintaining your balance is looking up. If you’re looking down, that’s going to carry your body that direction, and the horse is going to lean that way, or fall off toward that direction. All of a sudden you look up, and you’re not straight anymore.
Work on your confidence: A lot of maintaining straightness is mental. When we work with students on patterns, we really have them go through it in their mind on the ground first so they’re not constantly trying to do that while they are riding. If you have the pattern firm in your mind, you can react better to how it rides.
In the arena, we have students look up and pick out reference points – poles, signs, banners or a tree – some permanent object they can use in a pattern to help them stay straight. That way, if they have a bend or a curve in the pattern, they can still end up straight. You want to know the pattern well enough to be confident and think ahead.
We do that before we ride circles or even go over poles. We bend them around, back up or turn them back over their hocks. And we do that at the walk before we even head to the jog.
If I have an older horse who’s having a problem with maintaining straightness, I take him back to the beginning schooling, back to the basics. A lot of times, we forget about working on that with our older horses, and they deviate. That’s when it’s time to put a snaffle in and take him back to kindergarten.
When you go back to basics, it’s amazing how quickly everything can fall back in line again.
Simple exercises: Try working with a chute of poles in the center of the arena. Set up three or four 12-foot poles into a chute, three feet apart. Lope through that and get a feel for staying straight. You can also back through them, too.
Watch yourself ride: It’s always a good idea to watch yourself ride and get a visual for something like straightness. Have someone video you, from the front, jogging or loping straight down a fence line and think about how it feels compared with how it looks. What do you need to change?
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