It’s one of those oxymorons of horse training that in order to make our horses straight, we make our horses bend.
Let’s leave for a later post the question of what straight actually means, since straightness varies depending on the level of education of horse (and rider). For today, let’s stay with the basic working definition of a “straight horse” — a horse that moves without favoring one side (or one direction) or another.
We start working on making the “bad direction” as good as the “good direction” by riding our horses along curved lines — in circles, serpentines, bending lines, shallow loops, etc.
Most of us are also taught that the best way to bend our horses is with diagonal aids — the oft-repeated “inside leg to outside rein.” While this orchestration of aids is extremely effective, it requires knowledge on the part of the horse, and independent aids on the part of the rider. This is part of the reason it so often fails.
Anyone who doubts its failure must have been blessed by not having to hear trainers shouting the words “OUTSIDE REIN!” or “INSIDE LEG TO OUTSIDE REIN!” repeatedly across the arena to mystified, frustrated riders and their counterbent and equally frustrated horses.
For “inside leg to outside rein” to be effective, the horse must be responsive to the aids. He must be supple enough to be able to bend and not brace, and must understand the use of the outside rein as a “bearing rein” or “neck rein” (sometimes also known as a western rein or supporting rein).
For a rider to properly apply “inside leg to outside rein,” he must have independent aids. Part of being “right handed” or “left handed” means that strength and nimbleness tend to align on one side of the body. Riders must overcome this “handedness” in order to effectively apply diagonal aids.
You can easily apply the diagonal aids if you can move the shoulders of the horse independent of the haunches and the haunches independent of the shoulders. Tests of this ability are the turn on the forehand and the turn on the haunches (actually, these days, the true test is a pirouette since the turn on the haunches is no longer synonymous with a pirouette and provides for forward movement). If your horse can’t execute at least a quarter pirouette, your horse isn’t yet sufficiently trained or supple to comply with the diagonal aids, or your aids are not yet refined enough to be able to transmit diagonal aids clearly to the horse.
When riders have difficulty isolating diagonal aids (right hand/left leg or left hand/right leg) and horses have difficulty understanding, riders instinctively try harder. Trying harder is a good thing, but applying stronger aids is generally a bad thing.
Does this sound familiar to you or your students — as the stronger inside leg is applied, the rider tends to draw the knee and thigh up, and to compensate for this by lowering the inside shoulder and collapsing at the waist…or the rider draws the inside leg back, which throws the haunches to the outside and makes the horse fall in on the circle…or, in desperation, the rider applies the heel or holds the aid, and teaches the horse to ignore it all?
The problems in transmitting these aids are not limited to the rider’s legs. With a horse not trained or sensitive to the subtle effects of the rein, the outside rein cannot be used properly. Riders who have not been taught or mastered the various rein effects usually employ a direct rein of opposition, towards the hip on the same side of the body. This rein effect is partially successful in preventing the outside shoulder from escaping, so it’s the most common rein aid employed in “inside leg to outside rein.”
Unfortunately, since this is an ineffective rein aid for sideways movement if combined with a restricting inside hand and inside leg, the rider tends to strengthen the aid by pulling back (which makes the horse brace even more). Often, the horse responds to this pulling outside rein by turning towards the outside, so the rider corrects the developing counterbend with an even stronger inside rein (defeating the entire purpose of the outside rein) and/or inside leg. All this tends to make the rider’s weight shift to the inside, and the horse attempts to balance that weight by moving his own weight towards the inside.
What has happened? The rider’s body has succeeded in telling the horse to bend in exactly the opposite direction of what is desired.
Why do the same aids work in the horse’s good direction, then? They don’t. It’s an illusion that they work. It’s simply easier for the horse to bend in that direction, despite everything that the rider is doing wrong.
Luckily, it’s infinitely easier to bend your horse with your eyes and belly button (and a little flexion of the jaw) than to use brute strength. Or you can use Buck Brannaman’s methods, which have been on my mind lately. More on that in another post.