At the Canberra clinic over the weekend we work on lunging in a circle with quite a lot of the horses. It’s an exercise that I believe when done well, is a very valuable tool for achieving focus, relaxation and balance. So at nearly all my clinics we work on circling with at least one or two horses as part of the groundwork.
During one session, Dorinda picked up on the fact that all the horses that day tended to travel counter bent to the direction of the circle. They were crooked. Some dropped their inside shoulder and fell inside the circle and others dropped their inside hip and pulled away through the outside shoulder. But all were flexed to the outside to the direction of travel to some degree and for at least some part of their circle.
Dorinda wanted to know why. After all, if it is physically easier for a horse to travel in a balanced way, why would they circle in an out of balance way? That seems a logical question to ask.
I guess the first thing I should cover is to describe in general terms, what is straightness/balance (I use the terms interchangeable because I believe they are the same thing), so we can all know what I mean when I talk about straightness and crookedness.
In the broadest sense straightness means a horse is working the left and the right sides of its body equally. The workload is equally distributed to both sides of the horse so that the burden is shared evenly. This is true if a horse is travelling in a straight line or on a curve/circle or performing laterally. In all cases, a horse is only straight if both sides of the horse are doing the same amount of work. I could go into some detail about what this means for the way the biomechanics of the horse function, but for the purposes of this article all that you need to know is that straightness/balance is when the horse is working equally on both sides and crookedness is when it isn’t.
So why does a horse not work equally when we ask for a circle?
Most people I come across explain crookedness as a physical restriction of a horse. I recently read that a lack of straightness was the result of the spine having “kinks and blockages.” Other people have explained it similarly with the belief that weak muscle development on one side causes a horse to work the side with stronger muscles more than the side with weaker muscles. In the end, the cure always seems to be the same, which is to do more exercises designed to strengthen the weaker muscles.
In the case of most horses I see, I believe this is wrong thinking. The horses that mostly come to clinics are not doing exercises that require a lot of muscle development. I just don’t ask them to work that hard. Unless their muscles have the consistency of jelly, the workload they get asked to perform by their owners and me is easily within their capabilities without very much exertion.
It is my experience that the majority of crookedness I see in clinics is caused by both mental and emotional factors. This is supported by the fact that when we address these factors suddenly horses become a hell of a lot straighter without the need to turn the weaker muscles into stronger muscles and the need to un-kink and un-block their spines. Horses just become more balanced when they feel better and can yield to a thought presented by the rider’s reins, legs and seat.
However unfortunately, it is not entirely that simple.
Let’s go back to Dorinda’s question about why are so many horses are naturally unbalanced on a circle?
When you watch horses walking or trotting or cantering a circle or an arc in the paddock, you almost never see them balanced and straight. Virtually every horse has a natural tendency to fall inside the turn and be flexed to the outside. The faster they go the more crooked their turn becomes. Humans, dogs, sloths, lizards etc are all the same. We all exhibit innate crookedness to some degree. We all stress and strain one side of our body more than the other in the way we use it. I don’t know why, but it is universal. It is probably linked to the reason why some people are naturally left-handed or right-footed or tilt their head to the right or put their trousers on left leg first. I don’t know, but we are all prone to it.
So horses have an innate crookedness built in when travelling on a circle or arc that has to be overcome in order to be straight and balanced. But I still don’t believe this is a problem of muscle weakness because the crookedness tends to exist whether the horse is clockwise or anticlockwise. It exists in both directions. If it was related to having weak muscles on one side and strong ones on the other, then on one side it would fall in and be counter bent, and in the other direction it would fall out and be over bent. But this is not what happens in most cases. When a horse is crooked moving in a circle it is inclined to be crooked in the same way in both directions.
To overcome the natural tendency of a horse to circle with a counter bend, we need to teach them to follow the line of the circle with their thought. The lead rope or lunge line or rein presents a feel to the horse to direct its thought. When a horse is yielding to that feel, staying balanced is easy. But when a horse is escaping or resisting that feel they will keep trying to do what they feel is natural to them, which is to remain crooked and unbalanced. Even when a horse is light to the feel of the lead, lunge line or rein if they are not soft (ie, feel okay about it) they will continue to be crooked. This suggests to me that their crookedness is not about weak versus strong sides or kinks and blockages in the spine.
This brings me to the other factor that contributes to crookedness - the horse’s emotions. The more worried a horse becomes the more crooked it becomes. You’ll often see horses circling nicely balanced when they are walking, but become crooked when asked to trot and the most crooked when asked to canter. This is because the faster they go the mos anxious most horses become. This causes an increase in circulating adrenaline and creates tightness across the muscles of the top line, which exacerbates the crookedness. When a horse can trot and canter in a relaxed manner, it’s relatively easy to help them balance.
It is important that we teach our horses to be balanced in all that they do. It helps keep them sound and allows them to put maximum physical effort into the work. They can run faster, jump higher, carry us further and move more beautifully. But most of all it means we will have them for longer.
The photos at the top show Dorinda lunging Starshine. You can see how much more balanced and straighter (on the right) he became.