Dressage 13 - The Crooked Tail - When you have an experienced and trained eye, you will always be able to see how the horse is performing for the rider, you can see the degree of training in a flash, as well as how this training has been done.
The way the horse carries his tail is quite a give-away.
You can see with young horses, for instance, that they tuck their tail between their buttocks. They do this, when they have trouble coping with a new situation or have difficulty adjusting to the weight of the rider. Older horses, however, which have no problem with carrying the weight of the rider, and also are able to engage the quarters, usually carry the tail away from the body.
The tail is an extension of the vertebrae of the back and is part of the whole horse, and as such it is part of the total movement of the horse. When a horse has a relaxed back, such as the well trained older horse, you will see that the tail swings from side to side with the swinging of the back. This swinging usually will only happen when the horse lets go of his back, because it has been trained in such a way that it has become strong.
When a horse carries his tail to one side, however, it is usually a sign that there are certain tensions in the back muscles of the horse, and the horse is not going straight. The crooked tail (which can occur naturally, but seldom does) is usually caused by incorrect training by the rider.
Let us see how we can avoid this situation. We must try to eliminate the tension of the muscles in the back of the horse, by giving more refined and better adjusted aids. If we give these aids not in tune with the movement of the rhythm the horse will stiffen when giving his answer to the aid. When the aid is plainly too strong the horse will protect himself, of course, by resisting the aid and holding onto his body. We must also learn to feel if the horse is going straight and is in balance. And we must learn to feel if we are absolutely straight above our horse. We must avoid putting uneven weight distribution on the horse, by collapsing on one side.
We often have the tendency to collapse to one side because of the crookedness that naturally occurs in most horses. The side to which the riders collapses is the hollow side of the horse, the other side is the stiff side. When a horse is going through life somewhat crooked to the left, as is mostly the case, the top of the ribcage of the horse on the left hand side will be lower than the right hand side. The result will be that our left seatbone is lower than the right one. Usually this is followed by the rider lowering the left shoulder also.
Just because we collapse a little to one side is not necessarily the only reason that horses carry their tail crookedly to one side. If that were the case, just about all the horse would carry their tail crookedly. But things will get more out of hand, when we accentuate the uneven weight distribution of the rider with uneven leg- and rein aids. Particularly when we are a bit heavy handed with these leg- and rein aids.
This can cause a problem at a later stage of our training. Maybe some say, that it just doesn’t look very nice when a horse carries his tail to one side. But we must realise that it is in the art of training that we are making a basic mistake. The mistake being, that we are giving in to the natural crookedness of the horse and maybe even making this worse by being heavy handed with our aids and maintaining a crooked seat ourselves.
First of all, we must try to sit absolutely straight above our horse. You should ask somebody to stand behind the horse. This person can check if we are sitting straight up, when we are walking, trotting or cantering. This easiest way to check a rider is on the long side. We can also check ourselves, by looking if we are straight behind the crest of the mane. In other words, our nose should be straight above the withers. I find it easiest to check myself this way, when I do not have anybody looking at my position. This last check, seeing if we are straight behind the crest of the mane of the horse is particularly important when we are making circles.
I maintain that our seat is the most important part of our aids. Our seat is able to override any of the other aids, such as the leg aids or rein aids. The inherent problem with our seat is that initially we learned to “follow” the movement of the horse. If we did this correctly, we would have given in to the problems the horse might have had or we would not have followed the horse in harmony. The problem that every riders will meet one day, is to make the switch from following the horse while we are learning to ride, to using our seat in such a way that we indicate to the horse how we want him to carry himself.
I have discussed before in my book “The Art of Training” how we can influence the rhythm of the horse by “giving” the horse the rhythm with our seatbones. We can ask the horse to make a transition by making the transition ourselves with our seat. Now we can ask the horse to become straight by sitting straight ourselves. The switch we make, of course, is from following the horse in his movement (when we learned to ride) to taking the leadership and “tell” the horse what we want him to do (when we are training a horse). It is quite understandable that we give in to the horse sometimes, because there is usually some 600 kg of horse and 60 kg of us. You can see that it must be easier for the horse to move us about because of his superior weight, than it is for us to make the horse move with our inferior weigh. It is our willpower that gives us the upper hand!
Secondly, we must make the horse straight with exercises. With going straight I mean, that the horse must be evenly supple on both reins. This is one of the most important conditions for the horse to be able to progress to advanced level. When the horse is straight and even in both reins, the horse is going straight on the straight line, but is also bent according to the arc of the circle. The horse should bend from the poll all the way to the tail with the arc of the circle. The contact in the reins must be even when we ride circles or lateral work.
We need to exercise the horse in such a way that both sides of the horse become even in development and suppleness.
We must concentrate on the straightness (or the trueness) on the circles or the horse will be out of balance as a result. When this happens the horse will get cramp and stiffness in the muscles of his back. This stiffness can result, and it often does, in a crooked tail.
Natural crookedness is a fact of life we all have to live with. Not all horses have this crookedness in the same degree. However, when you look at the dressage test you will see that they all test the suppleness and the straightness of the horse on both reins. This is the case with the preliminary tests and becomes more important with the higher tests. Particularly in the lateral work, unevenness will show more clearly.
On the hollow side the horse will have no problem to bend the neck in front of the withers. This is where all of the bend is, behind the withers the horse is more or less straight in the body and places his inside hind leg a little next to his body. The quarters are somewhat in from the correct line of the circle. This supple inside leg will bend a little better than the other leg, on the stiff side.
To get the horse to go “true” on the circle, we will have to start with straightening the neck. With straightening the neck I mean that the neck must not be bent more than the arc of the circle, which is what the horse does on the hollow side. We must keep our hands next to each other and this way enclose the neck of the horse with our reins. By moving both our hands a little to the inside we can bring the forehand in front of the quarters on the circle. Now we have placed the neck and head in a true line in front of the true line of the back. The neck now has become an extension of the back and the true line is no longer broken at the base of the neck.
We often find, that horses which are not straight or true take more contact in one rein. When a horse is hollow to the left for instance, he will take more contact in the right rein. We need to take contact with the right rein even stronger to straighten the neck and get the neck and head in front of the body. This is something that I have mentioned in some of the previous articles when we were doing exercises on the circle.
Some riders might think that they will now have all the weight on the one rein. There was already quite a bit of weight. The problem is that the contact is uneven and we are not riding the horse into both reins. The horse tends to lock the jaw on the right side and our contact on that rein is rather stiff and unyielding. Our job is now to unlock the jaw on the right side. We do this by placing the rein well onto the neck to straighten the neck and at the same time ask the horse by a continuous repeated closing of the fist to let go of the jaw. Once the horse has let go, we need to ride the horse forward into both reins. This means that the horse accepts contact evenly on both sides and positions himself more correctly on the circle we are riding and works more correctly with the inside hind leg.
If we still find that the hind quarters are inside the circle, we can take both hands a little to the inside and place the forehand in front of the quarters on the circle.
We need to asses what is happening when we feel this uneven rein contact in our hands. When we feel this uneven contact developing we need to look for the reasons of this uneven contact and try to correct the problem. We need to develop sensitive hands that feel these problems almost straight away. Then, of course, we need to correct the problem rather than leave the initiative to the horse.
On a circle to the right the problem is that the horse often does not want to take up the bend at all. The horse wants to stay in a bend to the left, because of the natural crookedness. In this case the horse will still take up more contact on the right rein. Now he will use this contact to lean onto the rein and fall over the shoulder to the centre of the circle. Once more we need to unlock the jaw on the right hand side and offer the horse an even contact afterwards. So, once more ride the horse into both reins. Once this is achieved, we need to place our inside hip forward to encourage the horse to take up a bend to the right in the ribcage. Our inside(right) leg must support the horse so he can bend around the leg.
We need to seek even contact in the reins to create even paces in the horse. It is important that we have an even contact with the reins, but it is even more important to create impulsion. Impulsion will create the pushing and carrying power of the hind quarters. We all know that the motor of the horse is in the quarters and, after all, you can not turn a car without pushing the accelerator.
The impulsion must be straight to go evenly through the horse from behind to the front. This is only possible when the horse’s vertebrae have been straightened through exercises. Both hind legs must work evenly with the same amount of power. Both hind legs must make the same size steps and both hind legs must step evenly underneath the body. We must not have one leg stepping next to the body. Anything that is crooked or bent in the carriage of the horse will slow the horse down and it will not be possible for the horse to move forward lively, free and unencumbered by stiffness in the muscles or in the skeleton.
When the horse steps next to his body with one of his hind legs on the straight line, we need to do more than just straightening the neck of the horse. The horse will still be on two tracks when we just straighten the neck of the horse.
Say that the horse is hollow to the left, and most horses are hollow on that side, then the horse will be stepping away from the track to the left with his hindquarters. You can clearly see this when you have a mirror at the end of the long side. When the horse is going correctly straight, you can see between the legs of the horse. In other words the left hind leg is straight behind the left font legs from your point of view. The same goes for the right hind and front leg.
When you can see the hind legs of the horse in the mirror, he is going crooked. And usually this is very clear. So, when the horse goes a little crooked on the track, we need to straighten the neck of the horse, followed by a ever so slight shoulder fore. This alone will not keep the horse straight, we also need to activate the inside hind leg of the horse with our leg aids. The left hind leg could be considered a somewhat lazy and by activating it with our inside leg we encourage that leg to step under the centre of gravity.
When the horse goes on the other rein the stiff side of the horse (in our case the right side) is on the inside. Now we have to make sure that the horse does not look to the outside and still take the hind quarters to the left. We must ask the horse for a flexion to the inside, by taking a little more contact on this right rein and also by placing the rein a little stronger on the neck on the right hand side.
We must make sure that we do not keep this increased contact or pressure on the rein when the horse answers us. When the horse has answered us we must make the contact on the reins even again and straighten ourselves as well. We ride the horse actively forward and also make sure that we ride the outside leg forward in the corners. With the horse that is stiff to the right (and therefore supple to the left) the left hind leg wants to step next to the body. In the corners and circles to the right this means that the horse will be swinging the quarters out quite clearly. By activating the outside hind leg we encourage that leg to take a larger step and place itself further forward and under the body.
When we activate the legs of the horse, we must not push strongly against the ribcage of the horse. This would only push the horse sideways. The aids must be short and lively, in the rhythm of the pace. These aids are best given with the calves and, if necessary, with the spurs.
The easiest way to make the stiff side of the horse supple is by riding many, many circles. It is important that the horse is bent around the inside leg of the rider with the outside leg of the rider behind the girth to prevent the quarters from swinging out. When the horse tries to avoid the bend in the body, the result will be that the inside-right hind leg is not placed further under the body and is encouraged to bend more in the joints.
By riding the circles and corners correctly we exercise hind legs the horse quite effectively. The inside hind leg is encouraged to be placed further under the body, and therefore is carrying more with each corner that we make (a corner is a quarter circle, after all). When we ride circles and corners in the direction of the hollow side of the horse, we must take care that the horse does not offer to bend to neck more than the arc of the circle. When we make circles and corners to the stiff side, we must make sure that the horse does offer a flexion in the direction of the turn.
We must make sure that we do not collapse to the inside or the outside of the horse. When we ride circles to the left we can often lean over to the left, because the horse is encouraging us to to this, as he has his ribcage lower on that side because of the hollowness. We must stay upright and straight behind the withers of the horse. On a circle to the right we will, most likely, still lean the the left, because the horse will try to stay hollow to the left. Also now, make sure that we are straight up and that we have our inside hip forward with a little more weight in our inside seat bone.
We are often so used to leaning to the left that we do not even notice this fault. And when we are corrected, our correct position will feel totally wrong and unpleasant, because it is so new. Also with the lateral work we must make sure that we are upright, or we would unbalance the horse in these difficult movements.
It is clear that we need to make the horse straight. It is quite a job! We need to develop a good feel what the horse is doing so we can use the right combination of riding the horse actively forward for the legs, and riding the forehand in front of the quarters with the help of both reins. Once the horse is in both reins evenly the horse is straight. Our seat must be evenly over the horse, and we must learn to feel when the horse is trying to avoid an exercise by two tracking because he finds it very difficult, or that we are at cause because we are not even, in the middle of the horse.
Just before I finish this article, I would like to think back to riding the horse on virtually loose rein when doing exercises like these. I believe that, if we allow the horse to exercise himself, the exercise will be of more benefit. When we ride young horses, and we are in the stage of explaining exercises to the horse, I often introduce a circle to the horse by leading the horse onto the circle and once the horse has started the circle I push my hands forward. By doing this we start to involve the horse in the learning outcome of the exercise, by letting him do the rest of the circle. When we ride young horses, we will often find that they do not cope with this responsibility and wander off the given line. By taking up the rein contact again, we lead the horse onto the circle once more, until the horse actually stays on a circle until we say otherwise.
When we ride a horse that is very stiff to the right, and when we force the horse somewhat into bending to the right, the horse will resist this forceful attitude of the rider by stiffening up and going against the aids of the rider. In the end the horse will go against the aids of the rider every time it feels it is being set up to bend the spine to the right.
I believe that if we ride a circle to the right, we must try to straighten up the horse by taking more contact on the right rein temporarily, at the same time straightening up the neck as explained before. Once we have straightened the neck, we must offer even contact to the horse on both reins and as soon as the horse has accepted the even contact in the mouth, we reach forward with our hand and continue the circle on a loose rein. The effect on this invitation is, that the horse no longer feels restricted and offers to take up the bend and flexion to the right voluntarily .
Because of the inherent stiffness to the right the offer from the horse to bend does not last very long. But the time that it lasts the exercise is performed correctly and the horse has exercised himself without the constraints of the “force” of the rider.
This practice of inviting the horse to work himself we can continue throughout the training of the horse. The horse will understand the exercise better, because he has been allowed to learn the exercise at his own speed. The exercise will always remain a pleasurable experience for the horse and this pleasure in doing the exercise will enhance the expression of the exercise and movements enormously, because the horse will only need a hint to start the movement of his own accord.
The rider will also enjoy the work with the horse, because of the cooperation and willingness of the horse to do the work.
Enjoy your ride.
Ref: horseridingcoach.com [ Accessed on 10/01/2015; available from https://www.horseridingcoach.com/articles_view/category/dressage_13_the_crooked_tail]