STIFF VS. HOLLOW Part II: The Stiff Side

This is the second in a series of three articles about Stiff vs. Hollow.   In the first I explained why your horse feels different when moving in each direction, what to look for, and how to help correct it under saddle.

When ridden, it is natural for the horse to shift his weight to the forehand, where he carries 60% or more of his own weight.  And, as we talked about in the first article, a right dominant horse will load the right forehand more than the other legs during activities like standing and grazing, and a left dominant horse will load the left foreleg.   The foreleg that is loaded more carries the major component of balance, because the horse is actually leaning in that direction, and his body will drift in that direction when he is in motion.   Thus we have what we call the “crooked” horse, that will fall-in or fall-out depending on what direction he is traveling.

Also from Part I we know that “Stiff” and “Hollow” are being used as terms that describe what the rider feels when a horse is moving in a particular way.  Sometimes this one-sidedness is also be called concave vs. convex, or the short side vs. the long side.  No matter what words are used, the terms ultimately describe how the horse is carrying his plus the rider’s weight and where the major component of the balance is going.  Sometimes stiff and hollow are used to describe the side of the horse’s body that exhibits that characteristic.  That’s not wrong depending on how you are using the words, but the different conventions can create a lot of confusion.   To be clear, in my articles, stiff and hollow describe the feeling the rider gets when traveling in a certain direction.  For example “stiff-right” would mean the horse feels stiff to the rider (i.e. does not bend well) when traveling to the right.  Using this word convention, a stiff-right horse actually is tighter and less flexible on the left side of his body.

“Stiff” also describes how the horse feels to the rider when he doesn’t bend or leans on the inside rein.  This is most obvious when riding a circle, but even on a straightaway the horse will resist bending correctly to the inside.  The horse’s nose is often pointed to the outside, and he is pulling against the inside rein.  The outside rein loses connection and goes slack.  The horse’s haunches will sometimes drift to the outside also, and the rib cage bulges in the opposite direction, against the rider’s inside leg.   The horse’s body towards the inside of the track is “convex” or bowed in and the side towards the wall is “concave” or “hollow”.  Likewise, the muscles of the body are elongated on the side of the horse towards the inside of the track, and shortened on the outer, in this example.

As you go around a circle in the stiff direction, the horse may drift in to a smaller and smaller circle or cut corners in the arena.  The inside aids are frequently ineffective, resisted against or outright ignored by the horse.  Often a rider will be pulling on the inside rein, or crossing the inside rein over the withers, while kicking and kicking with the inside leg, yet the horse continues to fall in toward the center of the circle.  The shoulder leads to the inside and the body does not bend around the rider’s inside leg, but pushes against it.  Transitions, especially canter transitions, are harder in this direction.

To summarize, when the horse feels stiff in a particular direction:

  • Haunches tend to drift out; Shoulders tend to fall in;
  • Horse cuts corners in turns & leans in on circles, making them smaller and smaller;
  • The neck and body are difficult to bend to the inside;
  • The horse leans on the rein on this side, and gaps the connection on the outside rein;
  • Shoulders drift toward this side in transitions;
  • In lateral work, the outside hind leg crosses more easily;
  • Cantering is harder on the stiff side.
  • Sometimes the hind leg on this side takes a shorter, quicker step (skips the flexing/carrying phase) because the weaker hind on the hollow side does not support the weight for a long enough time.

Remember in nature, a horse has a dominant side, just like people are right or left handed.  Most horses are right-dominant, meaning their right front leg is the one they lean on the most to support their weight.   Under saddle the stiff-right horse will lean on the inside shoulder when traveling around a circle to the right.  The horse does this to protect the weaker outside hind, which is escaping to the outside.  As a result that shoulder leads, and the rest of the body mass tends to follow.  Try this on yourself:  walk in a straight line on a flat surface, be careful to take equal amount of weight on each foot during each step.  Now walk the same line and lean as much weight as you can on your right foot.  You will probably have to concentrate in order to not drift to the right, and notice your right leg now has to take a smaller step or you may fall over.  Your left leg, on the other hand, gets a break and can actually swing farther or may swing out.   Humans are, of course, bipedal, so it’s a bit more complex in the quadruped animal, but you get the idea.

In the last article we visualized the horse as having four quadrants:  Left Front, Right Front, Left Rear and Right Rear.

The Stiff-Right Horse

In the Stiff-Right horse, the left rear leg is the weaker leg, so the horse shifts his weight to the right rear and allows the left rear to escape.  The farther a leg is from the center of the body, the less weight it must support.

The main component of the balance is shifted along the diagonal pair of legs.  In this illustration it is from the left rear to the right front leg.  The head, as a counterweight to balance, hangs to the outside.

To help improve the horse’s straightness over time, we must ask the horse to re-balance and carry himself differently.  The aim is to slowly elongate the outside of the body so that it is more flexible and allows the horse to bend to the inside.  We must also teach the horse to support its weight more with the outside hind, and shift his balance to the outside pair of legs.

Here are some tips to help correct the stiff-right horse, and can be done at the walk and trot:

  1. Ask the outside rear leg to flex more and take more weight by sending your weight into this quadrant of the horse. This should lighten the load on the right front quadrant and allow the horse to be suppler in the front.  Half halt into the outside hind during transitions.
  2. Use your inside leg to encourage the middle, or rib cage of the horse, to bow out instead of pushing in. In the stiff-right horse you can often feel the horses belly pushing against your inside calf.  Keep reminding the horse with your calf that he needs to balance on the outer pair of legs.  This will send his rib cage out instead of pushing in (or convex).
  3. With a gentle soft contact, ask for small amounts of inside flexion of the poll, jaw and neck. Be careful that the neck does not break at the base, which is a false bend.  Do not ask for too much at once.  After you have loaded the outside hind, and shifted the horse’s balance to the outside, the head and neck should come into the center on its own, so just a small communication of bend should be necessary.
  4. Repeat these aids to your horse as often as necessary around the circle. Be observant to when his balance changes so he is straighter, and when he becomes crooked again.  Gently communicate the posture you want, and over time, he will become stronger and be able to move properly for longer periods of time.

Try these aids when going in the stiff direction.  I used the example a stiff-right horse, but a smaller minority of horses are truly stiff-left.  The same steps apply in the left direction, just switch the right and the left.

Working to straighten the crooked horse is like a physical therapy program.  It is not a quick process on most horses.  However if you are consistent you will see steady improvement over time.  The payback is a horse that is fit laterally, and that means reducing the load on the joints and staying sounder.  In the next article we will look at the hollow side and tips to help improve it.  Cheers!

Carole Curley