Horses, like people, are “handed.” They often bend easily in one direction, but can struggle to bend in the other. This can make showing your horse to its best advantage a challenge, since you’ll be fighting with their crookedness the entire time. What are some of the symptoms you’ll notice in a one sided horse?
- Feels heavier in the bridle on one side. When you’re riding, you’ll have a harder time keeping the horse’s head straight. On a very uneven horse, one of your arms will be more tired than the other.
- Has noticeable muscular differences on each side. This is most obvious in the shoulders and hips. One shoulder or hip will often be higher or more developed than the other.
Travels on a 3-or 4-track. A straight horse will travel on a correct track, which means their hind hooves land directly behind (or on the same track) as their front hooves. 3-tracking, or dog tracking, is when one pair of diagonal hooves land in the same track, while the opposite front tracks alone and the opposite hind tracks alone. You’ll see this more often at the canter than the trot. 4-tracking is when all four feet have their own track. This is probably the more common issue and it can be very subtle.
- May appear to be lame but only when working. If you lunge the horse or turn it out, it moves evenly (although you’ll probably notice its head cocked to one side). This is often called “bridle lame” since the apparent lameness originates from the rider asking the horse to keep itself “straight” when their body is unable to comply.
Cocks its head towards the rail and leads with its shoulder around turns in one direction. I call this “falling around the turn.” Their hind legs will track to the inside and their front legs to the outside of the circle instead of tracking properly.
- Rubs your leg on the wall in one direction. This could be just a poorly mannered horse, but if you find yourself having this problem in only one direction, it’s more likely a one sided horse. This is caused by the barrel or hip of the horse pushing towards the rail as the horse travels off track or with its body in a “C” shape.
- When making a very small circle in one direction, will step sideways instead of tracking properly. You will see this both from the ground and under saddle. If you lead the horse in a tiny circle, does it make an actual CIRCLE or does it almost step on you as it sidesteps around?
- When lunging or long lining, they make a smaller circle one direction. You’ll find yourself constantly having to remind the horse to move out. When lunging, the horse might frequently stop or try to change directions when going one way, but is content to go around without stopping the other way. They’ll also hold their head to one side.
- They are “longer” on one side of their body. You’ll notice this more when driving. I have a set of driving reins with handholds. I’ve confirmed several times that they are identical to each other – but I had a horse years ago that I had to use different handholds on each line. To a casual observer, the horse appeared to be moving in a straight line. Her hooves tracked correctly and her head was straight. But over the length of her body, she was compensating for false “straightness” by bending her body in a “C” to one side. Her barrel pushed to the right while her shoulders and hips pushed to the left. This effectively lengthened the right side of her body, resulting in me needing a longer rein on that side.
Allowing a horse to work unevenly will just exacerbate the problems as they become stronger and more developed on one side of their body, while the other side becomes weaker. It’s not a condition that developed overnight, so it isn’t something you can fix in a few training sessions. It takes time. And this is something that needs to be addressed every time you work the horse, because it will never truly go away. If you stop focusing on it when you think the horse is even – I promise you, it will return.
So how do you help a horse become equally flexible and redevelop the weaker side of its body?
How to Fix a Crooked Horse
There is a training philosophy that I follow, and that is to have a straight, even horse, you must first create a horse that will bend. Bending work will create flexibility as it stretches out the tighter muscles, and it will also strengthen the weaker side of the body as the horse learns to engage more evenly. Here are some exercises I like to include in every workout that will really get a horse bending nicely.
This is such a basic fundamental but it is often overlooked. I prefer to do stretches after I work my horse when the muscles are warmed up; if you do them beforehand, when the horse is cold and stiff, you risk strain (not to mention the horse is less likely to want to do them when he’s stiff!). Often called “carrot stretches” because you usually need a treat to lure the horse into stretching, they can really help to lengthen and relax tight tissues. Here’s a great article that demonstrates some of my favorite stretches for the neck, legs, back and abs.
When working your horse, incorporate a lot of bending work. Circles, serpentines and spirals of all sizes are useful, as long as the horse is maintaining a proper bend throughout the exercise. Their entire body should be bent along the curve you’re following. I like to warm up at the walk and do several large, easy circles to my horse’s stiffer side, and then continue to warm up at a slow trot doing serpentines and large circles to loosen him up. Once he’s warmed up, I’ll periodically do some bending and flexing work in between passes around the ring. I’ll take him into the center of the ring or a corner and ask him to bend his head around to the girth while keeping his feet planted. I’ll also ask for some very small circles at the walk, using my inside leg and outside rein to really bend him around the curve. Generally, I’ll do more circles and bends in the stiffer direction, but be careful not to neglect the easier direction, too, or you’ll end up with a horse that’s crooked to the other side!
Curves on a hill
This exercise is GREAT for building strength. You’ll need a gentle slope with enough room to work at a trot or canter. Always use protective boots on your horse, because the uneven terrain can cause interfering. If the horse is new to working on a hill, stick to walking and trotting. Once they become comfortable with it, you can add in the canter. But be careful not to overdo it at first – this is hard work for a horse that’s used to working in a flat, groomed arena! You also want to make sure the horse is bent correctly around the curve.
You can long line or lunge on the hill, but the constant circles can get very tiring, so don’t do it for too long. Add it to your horse’s regular workout – if you’re long lining that day, start in the arena, and after your horse is warmed up, move to the hill for a few rounds each direction before quitting.
I love to drive and ride on hills – particularly if I can work on the side of the hill instead of just going up and down. Gentle serpentines across the length of a hill really make the horse use his entire body.
In equine terms, lateral basically means “in a sideways direction.” There are a few common terms used to describe lateral work, depending on how much sideways movement you are looking for.
- Leg Yield – when moving forward, you apply one leg and ask the horse to move to the side without losing forward momentum. There will be more forward movement than sideways movement. The horse’s body should remain straight, pointing forward, while his legs should slightly cross over each other.
- Half Pass – there is a more equal amount of sideways and forward movement. The horse’s body will be bent slightly in the direction of travel (meaning if you’re moving to the right, his body will be bent as if he’s going around a curve to the right). His legs will cross over each other, just as in the leg yield.
- Haunches/Shoulders In/Out – if looking at the horse from above, it’s traveling in a straight line, but its shoulders or haunches are to one side of the straight line. The most important part is that the horse’s body is bent but it’s traveling straight ahead – no sideways movement at all.
- Side Pass – there should be virtually no forward movement. This exercise is handy for getting control of every part of the horse’s body, and the extreme sideways stepping is excellent for building muscle and balance.
- Pivoting – either on the forehand or hindquarter, pivoting is similar to the side pass in that there is no forward movement. During the pivot, the horse’s body should remain straight, without any bend through the barrel.
If you regularly incorporate some of these exercises into your workout routines, you’ll start to see your horse loosen up on their tight side and get stronger on their weak side. If your horse is extremely one-sided, start slow, especially if these exercises are new to him. Not only is he having to use his body in new ways, but he’s having to learn new skills!
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