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The German Training Scale Part 6

By Hardy Zantke

Straightness and Bending

By now we have covered the first four steps of the German Training Scale:

so now we come to

As we discussed in previous issues, all these steps are interrelated. In order to achieve our goal, we need to build our house from the ground up, which includes every one of these building blocks. As the previous items were very important, so is this one, even though Straightness is not even mentioned in the Collective Remarks of our dressage tests and is often overlooked, as many people just think that a horse is probably pretty straight by himself. But that is not so, and if we look under the Directive Ideas of our dressage tests, the very first requirement in every one of our tests is “Straightness on the center line.” Part of that is that we drive the center line straight; but part of it is equally that also the horse is straight, that means his spine is straight from poll to tail and his hind feet track in the same line as his front feet, with the left two feet forming one line and the right two feet forming one line. Only when that is the case, does the horse move straight and not crooked. Accordingly, we find that requirement again during other movements of the test, usually whenever straight lines are required. Only when the horse can move straight can he then also bend correctly, which means that his spine should be laterally curved and follow the line of any curve that we are driving, with an even lateral arc from poll to tail. That is called the lateral bend. There also is a longitudinal bend when the horse stretches his top line, but that is a different subject that we will cover in our next chapter about Collection and “Roundness.” The lateral bend is required in the Collective Remarks under Submission in the ADS Tests; whereas, in the FEI Tests, it is mentioned in the “To Be Judged” column under the respective movements.

There is not much mentioned in the combined driving rules about straightness or bending, except that in the dressage part of the CDE rules (Article 2041) it says under the description of the halt that the horses should halt straight, and under the Working Trot, that the hind feet should be touching the ground in the footprints of the fore feet. It also says under Rein Back that the hind legs should remain in line. Unfortunately, that is all. Our pleasure driving rules (Article 28) also specify all of the above, but in addition, they mention under the Working Trot: “The horses go forward freely and straight.” Our dressage rules go a bit further and explain under Article 97 (c): “The horse, confident and attentive, submits generously to the driver, remaining straight in any movement on a straight line and bending accordingly when moving on curved lines.” The Dressage Rules also mention the straightness at the halt and rein back similarly, as above. They do not mention it at the trot but talk about it at the walk. Article 104 says: “At changes of directions, the horse should adjust the bend of his body to the curvature of the line he follows …”

Why is straightness so important? Only when the horse is straight can he later learn to bend properly. Why is bending important? Without proper bending, the horse often will go counter-bend, e.g., look to the left when he is going to the right and vice versa. But do not we see horses running around counter bend on their own in pasture all the time? So then, when they can do it there, why cannot we let them do it with us too? What is wrong with that? Why do we need to change that and have them bending according to our wishes? Well, let me put it simply: How can you steer your horse precisely where you want him to go if he turns his head to the right when going left? Sure, in pasture and on his own, he can do that, as there he knows where he wants to run, but we are in a different position when we sit on the carriage and try to change directions communicating with the reins to him. Clearly, if his head goes to one side and his body to another, there is no way that we can steer with precision. Yes, you can still get around through a general wide, or even narrow, turn with that, but you cannot make precision turns. And here now, finally, I hope I can convince even those of our readers (if I have not lost those long ago already) who perhaps so far have thought: “Who the heck needs all this dressage stuff? That is good only for the dressage test. I never do well there, but I am always fast on the marathon!” Well, friends, they can perhaps win a lower-level marathon with guts and glory with a counter-bent horse, but as they try to move further on to upper levels, they simply will not be able to do tight hazards with fast precision turns nor a cones course with fast and narrow settings where they need precision steering, when they have a horse that does not bend properly. That is like trying to drive a tight cones course with a car that has six inches of play in the steering wheel. No precision is possible. So, as I need a precise steering wheel for my car, making the front wheels turn exactly where I want the car to go, I need the same with my horse. I need to turn his head exactly where I want him to go, and I need the rest of his body to follow precisely through that turn.

While we are on this subject of precision turns, this is one of the reasons that I am not much in favor of voice commands for making turns with carriage horses. The “Come” and “Get” or “Gee” and “Haw” came from draft horses. There, they had a valid purpose. The farmer had his hands on the plow and the reins around his neck. The horses knew the routine: At the end of the furrow, we turn around and do the next one. There voice commands had a good reason. But with our carriage horses, I often find beginners pride themselves that they have trained their horse to all voice commands. So I ask them how they communicate with their voice, if they want the horse to turn 70 degrees or 110 degrees? I think that is not possible with the voice at least not when driving fast as in a marathon hazard or in a cones course. That precision is only possible with the reins and a properly bending horse. And the proper bending we can only get with the reins AND the proper use of the whip. With only the voice command for turning, we leave the turn up to the horse after we gave the command, and he will follow his own routine as in his pasture and will not bend properly. If the voice command for turning is used to only prepare the horse for the turn or to assist the reins and the turn is actually driven with the reins, that is another story. Yes, for that I have no objections for using the voice command as an addition to the reins, as long as the reins bend the horse. For fast hazard driving, it can be beneficial to alert the horse by voice to which side the next turn will be, and especially so for leaders in a tandem or four-in-hand, who then can start the turns on their own in the heat of the battle; but those are the exceptions.

So after this excursion about voice commands and bending, let us get back to straightness, which is necessary as our first step. But straightness is only not necessary for later proper bending but also for our next chapter on developing collection, which is so important for hazards and cones. So that, too, is not just something that the dressage folks have cooked up to make life hard for most of us, but we will see that all of this will help us develop a proper driving horse. Well, actually, not only a proper driving horse but a proper riding horse as well: The German Training Scale was developed first and foremost for the ridden horse, but it is just as important and proper for the driving horse.

Only when the horse is straight can he distribute his weight evenly over both sides of his body. Thus, we must train both sides of his body that they become equally supple and strong. Unfortunately almost all horses are, by nature, one-sided, having one more supple and one more stiff side similarly to most people (most of us being right-handed, the others left-handed, but hardly anybody being completely equal with both hands). So we must strive hard to get him straight and develop both sides and make sure that he does not travel crookedly. Not only should we try to get him to bend equally well to both sides so that we can drive turns equally well to both sides, but also we first must see that he travels straight. Both hind feet should follow the front feet. Quite often we will see that one hind foot goes further underneath the body of the horse toward his center, thus that leg unfairly carries more of the weight and the other hind foot unfortunately tracks away from the body, thus it carries less weight and is weaker. Then the horse will not bend well, if at all, but will be stiff. So we must work to strengthen the weaker leg and also to try to get that foot to track further underneath the body and to follow that front footprint. We can do some of that work in the carriage by encouraging the hind leg with careful whip aids to track more underneath the body. But much better corrections are possible under saddle from an experienced rider who can use his leg to bend the horse, but can also use lateral work like shoulder in, leg yielding and half passes to strengthen the weaker hind leg and increase it’s engagement. On the other hand, this also is an area where we finally do have one advantage over the rider: He must feel his horse, but we can see from the carriage our entire horse from poll to tail and can see if he is straight. We also can see if his hind legs track in line with the front prints. But the strengthening of a weak hind leg also can be done with long lines or lunge work; both, however, also require a skilled trainer.

Here are some of the reasons why straightness is so important that we must always try to improve it:

If the horse is not traveling straight, then both sides of his body are not doing equal shares of the work; thus, the side that does more work will wear out faster and may develop problems in the limbs of that side. In order to develop collection, we need an equal push from both hind legs.

To drive turns properly, we need good bends to both sides, and we need to be able to have the horse on both reins equally well. Our rein and whip aids will only get through to the horse on both sides if both are equally well-developed.

So we need to work in both directions of the arena, and naturally, the underdeveloped side of the horse will need more work. However, we must be very careful with that, as the underdeveloped side also will fatigue faster and develop problems if we overdo the work on that side. Further, too much work on the difficult side can get the horse frustrated, as it is so much more difficult for him on that side. So we must be careful with our training and observe our horse to see exactly how much training is proper on the difficult side. In order to help our horse understand new lessons better, I always start first on his easy side, and only once he has understood the task well on that side will I start on his “not so good” side. But also we must keep in mind that often the two sides of the horse’s brain are not connected in the way they are with us. So what the horse learned on one side to accept well, may be completely new and frightening for him once it is moved to the other side.

For pairs, to develop both sides, I always switch my horses between which horse goes on the left and which on the right. Naturally, I do have a preferred side where I think they are going better, and at a show, of course I will hitch them on their better side. But at home, they are driven as often if not more also on the other side. If both horses in a pair have their weak side on the opposite side, then it is easy and each is hitched with his not-so-good side to the pole at a show. That way, each can bend better when turning into his direction, and since the inside horse has to make a smaller turn than the outside horse, the inside horse has to bend more. Thus, we should use his better side for that.

Before we work on bending, we first must have the horse reasonably straight. However, working on absolute straightness is never ending and a constant challenge with almost all horses. But once the horse works fairly straight, we can then start working on bending, but we must once again be very careful and start with very large circles. The smaller the circles, the harder it is for the horse, and when it is too hard for him, then he cannot balance himself and will develop going counter-bend. He also will get frustrated and nervous often; so as always in our training, we must not over face the horse and not demand anything from him that he cannot do, physically or mentally. Straightness and bending are so important, and such a wide topic, that I am afraid we cannot cover them in one issue because of limited space. So, please, allow me to end it here, and we will cover the rest of straightness and bending in the next issue.

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