“Straight” is not “|” Straight, but “)” = “(” Even Bend
Ever since Prussian dressage master Gustav Steinbrecht (1808 to 1885) demanded, “reite Dein Pferd vorwaerts und richte es gerade” – usually translated into English way-off-the-mark as, “ride your horse forward and straight” – misunderstandings about the goal and the process to reach it have clouded the art of riding outside of Germany.
Translation is about more than simply replacing words with the dictionary translation of the target language. Yet, habitually, the translator is one whose mother tongue is the target language. So, topic specific meanings fall by the wayside. And, since your understanding of words directly affects your actions, it is little surprise that the sport of dressage suddenly produced different outcomes on different language regions.
In German gerade (adj.) indeed means straight. However, in German horse lingo geraderichten has nothing to do with a “straight” spine. The German verb geraderichten addresses the process of evening out musculature, joint action, step length, and responsiveness of the horse on both reins and on all tracks including straight lines, bent lines, 2-track work, etc.
Accordingly, a horse can be evened-out (geradegerichtet – adv.) on bent lines or go naturally crooked (schief) on straight lines (see illustration).
To ride a horse even (gerade) entails…
- a longitudinally and evenly bent spine that matches the curvature of any track – i.e. the smaller the radius of a bent line, the higher a degree of collection is required (level to which the horse has been suppled and strengthened and is able to flex all joints of its engaging limb)…
- hindlegs tracking deep under the mutual rider/horse CoG (center of gravity) – i.e. equally active closing and opening of hip – buttock – stifle – hock – ankle joints in its hindlegs, not tracking wide, nor avoiding engagement by crossing towards the opposite side…
- even length, height, and regularity of steps in both directions…
- even level of ears – a tilted head is not a sign of an even horse…
- even contact to the reins in both directions…
- even muscular development on both sides…
How do I recognize a horse that is not yet properly geradegerichtet = evened out?
- stiffer in one direction
- tilt in one direction more obvious
- irregular length of steps more visible in one direction than the other
- shorter and/or flatter steps in one direction
- transitions less responsive in one direction
- on long sides keeps equal distance from the wall to point or hip and shoulder (i.e. falls over outside shoulder – see illustration)
- left rein circles tend to be different size than right rein circles
- uses different number of steps to one side in lateral work, i.e. half-passes, shoulder-in, pirouettes, etc.
- covers different amount of ground e.g. in flying changes R. to L. vs. L. to R., etc.
The good old question is, why the above leads us to the conclusion that such a horse is not supple, through, and willing:
Simple. For every part of a movement two opposing muscles must seamlessly work together. One stretches, one contracts. If one blocks, the other cannot do its job.
As a rider for sure you have experienced this: you cannot push or keep your heel down as long as your shin resists contracting or your ankle instep closing. Subsequently, you bounce in the saddle, find it hard to balance, develop noisy hands, and so on.
Exactly the same mechanisms are at work for your horse. – Indeed the way to a supple horse in light self-carriage is long. The process of strengthening and building the necessary muscles and ligaments is what we call “dressage” (not the figures and turns we take in a riding arena).
Dressage means gymnastics. And building and optimizing that horse’s body to protect it from injuries is a process that takes many years. The more naturally talented a horse is the more likely it falls prey to shortcut methods of riders failing to develop its strength and musculature before demanding difficult tasks.
Gymnastics also means activity, in horse lingo impulsion. The less time a horse’s feet spend on the ground, the less the horse can resist. It is impossible to even and supple the horse without the right measure of impulsion (not heavy-footed, brainless forward running). A lack of impulsion and suspension is the simple logic behind why some riding techniques (e.g. Légèreté) are dead-end roads despite good intentions.
So, how does Recognizing the Problematic Areas Help?
Following the above list of traits for proper evening out of the horse allows the rider without an eye on the ground to asses the quality of his/her work, to make corrections, and to know if indeed those corrections brought an improvement or not.
Evening out our horses is a lifelong task. All figures and exercises are nothing but tools in our arsenal to achieve an evenly developed (“straight”) and supple horse whose body control and self-carriage allows it to respond to the lightest, barely perceptible clues of its rider. That is what training is about and that is what makes it an art.
“Ride your horses forward and even them out!”
copyright Rivkah Roth DO DNM
Dr. Rivkah Roth is the founder of Equiopathy and a natural health practitioner, lecturer and author with over five decades in the saddle as a correction rider (Swiss National License LMS since 1968) and many hours as a National Grand Prix and FEI C dressage judge. Student successes include professional coaches on 5 continents (incl. CDN/EC I to III, ISR I to III, Dutch 3rd Level Instructor, USA, AUS), 1986 Dressage World Championships alternate (CDN), 1986 National GP Kuer Champion (CDN), 1992 Barcelona Olympics Longlist 3-Day (CDN), 2002 Young Horse Dressage World Championships – Verden/GER (ISR), World Cup and WEG dressage horse (CDN), many Nat. and Provincial Champions all levels (CDN / ISR / SUI).