Getting our horses to perform better is a lifelong goal for most of us. We spend hours teaching our horses to flex and to become supple so to gain control over their body parts, head, neck , shoulders, ribcage, and hip. We lope for miles in circles engaging the hind end and lifting the shoulder. All this flexing and circles is done so that we could put this all together and travel in a straight line.
A wonderful exercise that I have my students do to work on straightness is a simple square pattern. I start by placing four cones about fifty to sixty feet apart, forming a square with 90 degree corners. This exercise can be done in the arena, or just out in a field. Sometimes I prefer the field for a change of pace. I’ll start my student walking the horse around the outside of the cones in either direction. The purpose for walking once or twice around the square is to give the horse an idea of what’s coming next. I would do this if it was the horse’s first time on this pattern, after a time or two the horse is aware of the pattern and this makes the work easier. Remember that this is a square pattern exercise and not a circle. I want to see four 90 degree corners and straight lines in between the cones. On the four straight lines I’m looking for even reins with a low and soft hand. Remember to keep the horse between your legs and your reins, looking ahead to give the horse direction and a destination. Remember, where the head goes the horse will follow. When coming to a cone where a 90 degree turn is needed, raise the inside rein slightly and help push the horse around the turn with your outside or supporting rein. The nose should be tipped in slightly to encourage the bend through the turn. Keep your inside leg aid at the girth and your outside leg back behind the girth to aid in impulsion. We are looking for the horse to bend around the turn and continue in a straight line. So do not over bend the horse or he will migrate out of the turn. If this is happening you’re using too much inside rein. When the turn is completed, lower the inside rein and bring your outside leg forward, and send your horse straight ahead again. This exercise should be done in both directions to keep the horse balanced.
Another great exercise to do is down and backs. When in the arena pick a point and ride straight to it. Start from a collected frame and trot collected. Make sure you’re square in the saddle, the reins are even, and you’re looking ahead. Trot far enough down the arena so that you have established a good straight line. When you’re far enough down the area exhale, sit deep and stop the horse. Keep the stop straight. When the horse is completely stopped, rock him back on his hindquarters and ask for a change of direction. The change of direction should take place using one of the hind feet as a pivot. Leave over the same tracks you came in on. Remember to ride out straight, looking ahead to give direction to the horse. Collection should be maintained as much as possible to encourage an engaged hindquarter. This maneuver should be first done at a trot and after successful then at a canter. Advancing to a canter prematurely will only diminish straightness, and lead to a lack of control.
These are only a couple of exercises to help develop straightness. The better the horse goes straight the better he stops, jumps, ropes and does everything else. Ultimately, we are after more control of our equine partner.
Steve Lantvit is a professional trainer/clinician whose goal is to contribute to the betterment of the relationships between man/woman and horse. Steve’s focus on training is that of all around Horsemanship and the creation of the versatile horse. He is an active competitor with the American Ranch Horse Association where he has earned World Champion and Multiple Reserve Champion Titles. Steve takes his skills to the equine world through his appearances at equine expos, clinics, and his television series, “Sure in the Saddle” airing on Rural TV/FamilyNet on Saturdays at 3:30 cdt.