In this little series of three articles I’m going to delve into why your horse feels different when moving in each direction, what to look for, and how to help correct it under saddle.
“Stiff” and “Hollow” are terms that describe what the rider feels when a horse is moving in a particular way. These terms are often used to refer to how the horse carries itself under saddle in one direction versus the other. This can 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 and the rider’s weight and where the major component of the balance is going.
“Stiff” refers to the feeling the rider gets when the horse 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 “stiff”, 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.
On the “hollow” side, the horse seems to bend easily, but it is often a false bend at the base of the neck. The haunches tend to travel slightly inside of the track on a straightaway, and circles and transitions seem easier in this direction. In the arena, the horse tends to cling to the wall, and if the wall is tall enough, often the riders boot will hit the wall as the horse drifts outward. Circles become larger and larger and the outside aids seem ineffective. The horse’s body is concave to the inside and convex on the outside now as the shorter, more contracted muscles are to the inside of the track, and the more stretched, elongated muscles are on the outside. The horse may lean on the outside rein and the inside rein will be floppy or have slack.
Circles often become egg-shaped in the hollow direction, as the shoulder falls out when not against a wall or fence. And, as in the other direction, pulling on the inside rein doesn’t help, or makes things worse.
Both these phenomena refer mainly to a horse’s lateral balance, or in other words, how a horse carries his and the rider’s weight side to side. 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 go-to leg when it comes to supporting their weight. When grazing, they will lean on the right front most of the time and in motion they will put this leg forward first to catch their weight. Right dominant horses tend to be stiff-right and hollow-left because the dominant leg and shoulder lead.
When ridden, it is natural that the horse tries to shift his weight to the forehand, where he carries the majority of his own weight without a rider. And, as previously stated, a right dominant horse will load the right forehand more than the other legs, and a left dominant horse will load the left foreleg. The foreleg that is loaded the most carries the major component of balance, as the horse is actually leaning in that direction. Because the horse is leaning in that direction, 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 out depending on what direction he is traveling.
Why is this important? Because under saddle the uneven load on the joints and structures of the legs can cause a lot of damage over time. By teaching the horse to manage his balance more effectively, something he would not do out of instinct on his own, we can keep the horse fit and sound into old age.
How do we teach him to manage his balance? First, start to visualize the horse as having four quadrants, as pictured. Work the horse to increase his awareness of lateral (side to side) balance by riding lots of curvy lines, serpentines, loops and figure-eight patterns. Each time you change the bend, be observant of which side is easier for the horse, and which side seems more difficult. Try to be as precise as possible with the patterns, noting when the horse falls in or out of the pattern, and correcting for that. After repetition, you should see an improvement in your horse’s way of going, relaxation, and straightness.
In Part II & III, we will look at the stiff and hollow sides in more detail, so stay tuned.