- Jo Parkman
Holistic Management - Part 1- Straightness & Asymmetry of The Horse
In the first of our series on the holistic management of horses I am going to be taking a look at the thorny subject of asymmetry and straightness as it relates to firstly the horse, then the saddle and finally the rider. I am going to start with the horse because it is the horse who is the first of the building blocks. So in this the first of a three-part article, I will be looking at why horses are crooked and/or asymmetrical, what we can do to help them, and how crookedness and asymmetry impact the horse’s work.
Let’s start by considering the difference between straightness and asymmetry. For me straightness is a dynamic or moving thing, we see and feel a horse’s crookedness most easily when it is moving. Asymmetry on the other hand is easier to see when a horse is still. It’s about how the horse is built and how the horse has developed. A horse can be born asymmetric or it can become asymmetric through poor training, poor saddle fit (including asymmetric saddles), lameness or other physical problems.
How are these two things linked and does one cause the other? That’s a tricky question! Certainly, horses which are crooked when ridden are likely to display some degree of asymmetry and vice versa. But which caused which is harder to unravel. The important thing is to determine the degree of asymmetry, ensure that the saddle fit takes this into account, help and teach the horse to move straight and very importantly investigate and address any physical problems.
You are probably already realising that this is a complicated and huge subject. Indeed, whole training programmes and books have been developed to overcome natural or man-made crookedness in the horse and to help riders to solve their own natural crookedness or asymmetry. So where to start? I am going to look at some of the basic factors involved to help you to identify and understand the problem better and have some tools to help address it.
Let’s start with crookedness. Almost all horses will have some degree of crookedness in that they will usually find it easier to do exercises in one direction or rein compared to the other. There are many, many theories about why this might be, from how they are curled inside their mother through to the fact that we generally lead and handle them from the left. And its true that most, but by no means all, horses find work on the left rein in trot easier, and the quality of the canter is often better on the right rein.
Why is this? The power and impulsion in a horse comes from the hindquarters and all horses have a preferred or stronger hind leg. Let’s take the case of the horse whose naturally stronger hind leg is the left one. When the horse is moving, he will tend to want to increase the use of the stronger leg by bringing it further under the body and he will prefer to reduce the load on the right hind leg. The result will be carrying the quarters to the inside when he is working on the right rein. This is a little counter intuitive! But its easy to understand if you think about a horse in the classical exercise which brings the horses inside leg under and increases the load on it – and that is shoulder-in. In shoulder-in the inside hind leg steps under the horse in line with the track of the outside foreleg as the shoulder is brought off the track but the horse continues to move in a straight line. This makes it clear that to off-load a hindleg the horse needs to push it out to the side of the body. Going back to our horse with a stronger left hind this means that on the right rein he will tend to move with his quarters in and the more push or weight carrying that the rider requires the more the quarters will go to the inside. Now comes the really interesting bit! The result of moving the right hind to the inside is that the horse will tend to drift out through the left shoulder on a turn or circle to the right. And, on the left rein the horse is likely to want to bring its stronger hind leg under the body and push the quarters to the outside. The result of that is that he will likely fall in onto the left shoulder on a turn or circle to the left.
And hey presto this is what riders will report with a crooked horse. They will say that on one rein the horse falls out through the shoulder and on the other rein it falls in. How badly this happens is dependent on how weaker or stronger the relevant hind legs are in an individual horse. By the way the correction for this is always to bring the shoulders back in line with the hindquarters, not the other way around. However, understanding why this is happening really makes it clear that the way to help a horse to naturally move straight is to strengthen the weak hind leg. The exercise which best achieves this is shoulder-in with the weaker hind leg as the inside leg. However, not every horse and rider combination will be easily able to produce a good enough quality shoulder-in under saddle to accomplish this…but luckily there are other ways!
For example, work in-hand is a great tool to help straighten horses by teaching them to place the weaker hindleg under the body and push with it. Although YouTube and books/videos are a great resource for this work If you want to try this and are inexperienced, I strongly recommend getting help from an experienced in-hand trainer who can help keep you on the right track (no pun intended!) What looks easy in a video with an experienced trainer and trained horse can turn into an undignified and unproductive push-me pull-me exercise! And, if you don’t want to try working in-hand there is a very easy exercise that you can do with your horse in the stable in a head collar which I have taught to countless clients with excellent results.
As the weaker hind leg gets stronger you will find that the horse finds it easier to make even circles on both reins and, in the case of a weaker right hind leg, the quality of the left canter will improve to become consistent with the canter on the right lead. Incidentally the reason for the poor canter is that in left canter the right hind leg acts independently to both initiate and propel the horse forward in each stride – it doesn’t share this job with the left and leading front leg. A horse with no physical problems will be able to move straight with correct training, so if the horse cannot improve or shows strong objection to trying to move straight it is really important to investigate and find the physical problem.
So far we have not addressed asymmetry. We can expect a very crooked horse to show some degree of asymmetry in terms of his muscle development. In part two we will be looking at the effect on the horse of an asymmetric saddle but it’s worth pointing out here that horses can and do show extreme asymmetry just behind the shoulder due to asymmetric saddles, asymmetric riders, and due to a failure to correct their natural crookedness. However, it is also possible for a horse to be born asymmetric. In fact, most horses have one shoulder, usually the left, placed slightly further back on their body. More extreme asymmetry can affect the long bones in the legs and very definitely the feet. I have seen horses with such asymmetric feet that the contracted foot can be 2cm, or more, longer than its partner. Imagine walking around in shoes where one is flat, and one has even a small heel, and you will understand how damaging that is for the horse. Thankfully extreme natural asymmetry is rare. I say thankfully because it is very hard to deal with in terms of training and saddle fit and is likely to lead to lameness.
In the next part in this three-part article I will be looking at how to check your saddle for symmetry and how to approach saddle fitting with an asymmetric horse. In the meantime, it’s a really good exercise to take a good long look at your horse and really look for asymmetry in his development and analyse his crookedness when you are riding. You will be amazed how you will be able to start fitting the jigsaw together!
Whisky ready for in hand work before he is ridden, note the stirrups secured safely and the lunge line here is attached to his noseband and bit to avoid pulling the bit through his mouth and to reduce pressure on the bit. His forelock is also plaited to keep it outbid his eyes.
Whisky learning shoulder in firstly in hand. On the right rein this is strengthening his weaker right hind leg and helps to prepare him for the same exercise ridden.