STIFF VS. HOLLOW Part III: The Hollow Side

This is the last in a series of three articles about Stiff vs. Hollow.   In Part II we saw what happens when your horse is traveling in the direction where he feels stiff.  Now we will look at the “hollow” side.

Previously we learned that in the natural horse, the major component of balance usually follows the dominant side because the horse will tend to shift his weight to the dominant foreleg.  A right-dominant horse will often feel stiff when traveling to the right and hollow when traveling to the left.  The left dominant horse, which is less common, will feel stiff when traveling to the left, and hollow when traveling to the right.

Also from the previous articles 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.  To understand what is happening bio-mechanically, try this on yourself.  Stand with your feet together, hands above your head and palms together or hands clasped.  Bend at the waist to the right.  Come back to center and bend to the left.  Does your body move easier in one direction than the other?  Does it happen to correspond with whether you are right handed or left handed?  If you do a lot of yoga or exercise, you may not feel a difference – and that just illustrates what our goal is with our horse – to gymnasticize the horse’s body to be equally flexible and strong in one lateral direction and the other.

“Hollow” describes how the horse feels to the rider when he bends too easily or incorrectly.  Sometimes a rider can be fooled into thinking he is traveling with a correct bend, especially if the rider chooses to ride most of the time against the wall of the arena.  When riding against the wall, the horse has a physical limit and will generally avoid hitting the wall with his own body.  However, the horse really has no sense that the riders leg is a farther distance out from the side of this body, so often the riders foot will continually tap or scrape the wall (if the wall is tall enough).  This is a telltale sign that the horse is hollow in that direction.    Riding against the wall in the hollow direction also gives the rider a false sense of the outside aids.  Because the wall is there to support, the rider tends to forget to use the outside aids, using the wall as the aid, and focusing on the inside rein, instead of the inside leg, to create the bend.  In fact, the rider may avoid the inside leg as that can sometimes result in her outside leg being smashed up against the wall.    The “wall as an aid” phenomena can be easily tested by riding a circle at the end of the arena where you have support on three sides of the circle.  As the rider crosses the center of the arena, they forget to engage the outside aids that were not being used when against the wall.  As a result, the horse’s shoulder falls out immediately upon leaving the wall, often severely.   This also happens in the corners, but is usually unnoticed by the rider.  Below is an illustration of what happens.  As the horse comes off the wall, he immediately falls to the right.  The rider instinctively pulls on the inside rein but that just bends the neck and makes the problem worse.  Sometimes the horse will continually fall to the right until they reach the next wall, make a sharp turn left, and continue on the “circle”.  

Riding on the second track, or several feet to the inside of the wall can help a rider understand the use of the outside aids.  Circles, voltes, and figure-eight patterns in the center of the arena are much more gymnastic for the horse, and helpful for the rider as it is much easier to feel the balance and learn to use both sides of your aids to correct it.

On the hollow side the horse often “fakes” a bend by hyperflexion or over-bending at the base of the neck while holding the part of the neck between the shoulders and poll stiff.

The horse’s haunches will sometimes drift to the inside also, and the rib cage bulges in the opposite direction, against the rider’s outside leg.   The horse’s body towards the inside of the track is “concave” and the side towards the wall is “convex”.  Likewise, the muscles of the body are elongated on the side of the horse towards the outside of the track, and shortened on the inner, in this example.

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

  • Haunches tend to drift in; Shoulders tend to fall out;
  • Horse falls into corners falls out on circles, making them larger or egg-shaped;
  • The neck is easy to bend to the inside;
  • The horse often leans on the outside rein, and gaps the connection on the inside rein, which sometimes makes the rider crooked and collapsed as they try to find connection with inside rein.
  • The horse may swing his haunches in when asked for a canter depart.

Now we know that the horse as having four quadrants:  Left Front, Right Front, Left Rear and Right Rear.  In the Hollow-right horse (as pictured), the right rear leg is the weaker leg, so the horse shifts his weight to the left rear and allows the right 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 right rear to the left front leg, pushing the shoulder out.  The head, as a counterweight to balance, hangs to the inside and the neck over bends. To help improve the horse’s straightness over time, we must ask the horse to re-balance and carry himself differently.  The goal on this side is keep the weak inside leg from escaping and pushing the weight onto the right front.

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

  1. First get control of the shoulders and the bend. Use your outside leg to push the rib cage in and your outside rein to keep the neck from over-bending.   In severe cases, sometimes a little counter flexion or counter bend is needed.  This shifts the horses weight from the outside fore to the inside fore.
  2. Half-halt into the inside hind to make it take more weight and flex. Leg yield and turn-on-the-haunches are good exercises to start to develop flexion in the hind.
  3. 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.

The horse’s balance overall is very dynamic especially in motion.  The goal of correcting the crooked horse is not only to begin to load the weight more evenly on all four quadrants, but to show the horse how to manage his own balance.  The horse does not think about where his weight is going, and often isn’t aware that he can just as safely balance on one leg and then the other.   This is a matter of proprioception, or the ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium.  Some horses have a lesser degree of proprioception than others, and can get tense or panic when asked to change their balance.  Developing straightness should be done in a slow progressive manner, so that the horse builds strength and flexibility without getting muscle sore or psychologically overwhelmed.  It can take some time, but the more consistent you can be by listening and applying your aids correctly, the steadier you and your horse will progress. 

Carole Curley