Question: I love to take my 5 year old out on the trail, but what I’ve noticed is that she can’t walk a straight line. I’ve heard that straight lines are especially hard for young horses to do. She will turn her head and look around or get distracted by something. When she turns her head, she will start drifting that way. I want her to be able to look around, but I also want her to pay attention to where she is going.
Answer from April Reeves: Young horses and often horses with little formal training often wander about while being ridden. It’s the basic nature of any horse, to wander and explore their environment. Yes, straight lines are difficult for almost any horse to do, especially young ones.
Your 5 year old needs a bit more foundation work to her training. These are the things I would focus on:
1. Obedience to the leg aids – make sure she walks off when asked in a timely fashion, not slowly moving into an amble and wandering. When they are asked to move out at a reasonable pace with energy, they generally tend to learn how to work and move forward with intention.
2. Obedience to the down transitions – make sure she stops easily without resistance and pulling back. Also backing up helps keep a horse straight, so add this to your work. Don’t overdo backing, as it can be hard on the back hocks when over worked, and does sour a horse if done too often.
3. Do you have a place where you can practice circles? At the walk trot and canter? Circling helps a horse learn straightness and balance. Keep them large until she gathers her balance and rhythm.
4. Suppling – my favorite and most important exercises. I have a really good article on my blog: Teaching your horse to round and collect. In that article there are a number of suppling exercises you can do.
5. Conformation – how a horse is built will help determine the amount of straightness they are physically capable of. A short backed boxy quarter horse of 14 hands will walk straighter than a 17 hand thoroughbred with a thin body type. Although there are exceptions to this, generally you will find degrees of straightness to body type.
Generally, a horse will continue to wander about its whole life if you don’t put some form of foundation training on them. You also need your mare to understand what forward means: to move forward with intention. This sets up the horse to move in a straight line, and needs not just speed, but obedience as well, behind the effort. There is no secret to getting a horse to walk and move straight. It’s a matter of taking the time to work with her at least 3 days a week. Once she has the basics down, she can still look around, but you may notice she can now multi-task: look to one side and walk straight! It’s up to us humans to teach them to multi-task.
If you don’t have a formal arena to work in you can find areas on the trail or any clearing to use as a training ground. I use an arena for the first week and then move them out into the trails. This gives the young horse a purpose: for circling – go around bushes and obstacles. Trot for distances along a trail you and your mare is comfortable with. Keep the trot light and let her choose the comfort level she wants to trot at.
If you find that you have trouble stopping and starting, work on these problems until she is light and sensitive to your requests. Work on the trail for 3 days stopping and starting (up and down transitions).
I also like to use a very simple exercise for going straight. I place poles on the ground about 4 feet apart, and as many as I can find. I walk my crooked horse through and watch the horse move side to side, never crossing over the poles. I then slowly bring the poles in closer to create a narrower channel, walking the horse through and allowing the horse to walk without my help other than asking him to walk with energy. I continue to bring the poles closer until they are very narrow. The width must not be too narrow for the horse you are riding. By this point the horse is getting comfortable with the poles closer together and begins to walk straighter. Although this may seem like a useless exercise, done properly I have found it makes a significant difference. There are many ways to get a horse to walk straight, but this one, simple as it sounds, does work.
As a rider you have to define how much effort you want to put into getting a horse straight. For an advanced dressage rider, straightness is paramount to getting past a simple foundation. For a recreational rider, a horse that does not walk straight is more of a pain than a training flaw.