You hear people often referring to “Straightness” with regard to well trained horses. If you haven’t, just play along. The term is usually referred to reverently and with mysticism, as though it is an all-but-unattainable goal, like a well intentioned politician, the perfect anniversary present for your wife, or self-sufficient teenagers. It’s usually spoken of by the grizzly, wrinkled, hardened, and sage horsemen of the sort who answer your ‘Yes or No’ questions with yet more questions. So, what is this “straightness” that they speak of?
This is one of those terms that I have thought about, puzzled on, and seemingly figured out multiple times, only to realize later that I was wrong. Have you ever been wrong? I sure have. Anyway, I was privileged to ride with Mr. Joe Wolter about a year ago, and took the opportunity to harass and question him to the point where I’m now scared to call him for advice because I think he WILL remember me. I digress, but this was a topic that he really shed some light on, for me at least. Allow me to try and do the same for some of you.
First of all, mind bogglingly, my take on Joe’s take is that they don’t mean absolutely, literally “Straight” as in a horse’s spine being rigid, one dimensional, and inflexible. I never could quite square a one dimensional term applied to a three dimensional moving animal, so that was a big relief. What they mean by Straight is more along the lines of the title of Tom Dorrance’s enigmatic book, “True Unity.”
A horse which is “Straight,” is one who is riding without resistance, directly between your reins and legs. Balanced. The horse and rider are totally on the same path. Thus, a horse can be “Straight” while making an arc, turn, or circle the same way a gymnast can do a myriad of athletic moves and stay centered over a balance beam. How about that? After all, a circle isn’t straight at all, but it is made of a perfect, symmetrical, and unwavering line. So is a cloverleaf. And, a wave sure looks a bunch like a serpentine. We can think of multiple, correctly framed maneuvers and exercises as simply following changing but perfect lines. Straight lines. Well, enough of my parabolic hyperbole.
Fill in the Blank: Straight as an _____. Hold on! I’ve been shooting bows and arrows since I was little and I can testify that they don’t fly straight in all dimensions, they fly in an arc. So, an arc can be straight! I think of it kinda like a basketball player’s shooting hand putting the ball in an arc destined to hit nothing but net, or a baseball pitcher doing the same thing toward the strike zone. A horse that is Balanced and Straight is like a Chevy. Solid as a rock. Motion! Direction! Accuracy! Precision! Straightness!
So, an unbalanced rider, especially one who is unaware of being unbalanced will never achieve straightness with their horse. That horse doesn’t have a “Straight” rider to follow. They have a moving target to find. A rider not offering “Straightness” for his horse to find is just like a golfer who pulls the club head or rolls a wrist through their swing. They will constantly be chasing their ball in someone else’s fairway. It sort of makes sense how the horse tends to seek our level of ability, both up and down, doesn’t it?
I was riding a colt the other day around some rice/crawfish ponds and that ride got me to thinking about this topic. We had a tree line with branches overhanging the road to our left, and the pond to our right. This is less than ¼ mile from the barn we’d just left, so the colt was still a bit fresh, and looking back toward his buddies at the barn, and not quite “with me” yet. We had started out in the left hand track of the road, which was also the highest, and had the occasional limb hanging down in our way, not to mention the road itself was overgrown with dormant stalks of grasses and weeds. My chosen path was a bit of a pain, frankly. The colt kept trying to shift over to the right hand lane or even into the edge of the dry pond to make life easier on himself.
Smart colt, say you? Good for him! Nay, say I! The two legged leader of our six legged expedition didn’t ask him to go to the right. That was his decision. So, I kept redirecting him back to my chosen path, over and over, gently, but firmly, making sure that his decisions lead him to more work, while my decisions lead only to a limb and some dried stalks. It took about 5 minutes, but that colt got with me. He got “Straight”.
I think the term seems to creep up among cowboy terms because working cattle effectively requires lots of straightness from your horse. For example, let’s say we are going to split a pair of heifers who are bonded to one another. You’re going to have to point your horse like a laser in just the right spot to split them. A foot to the left or right, and they’ll stay married up all day.
To my mind, to achieve, or approach straightness, the rider must be offering boundaries for the horse, and setting up a place of peace for the horse to find. A rough example would be a person who manages to stay inside the eye of a Cat 3 Hurricane. The Wrong Thing surrounds Straighness, while the Right Thing is perfectly calm and unaffected.
I am constantly riding with targets ahead to promote straightness in my horses. What this means is that I don’t just randomly ride across a pasture. I look ahead and pick out an ant hill to pass just to the right of, and then go between two cow pies that are just a foot apart. I am constantly challenging my horse to stay with me and hit my marks. I’d highly encourage all of you to do the same. After a while it really becomes second nature, and if we rode together, you wouldn’t really notice me doing this at all, but my horse sure does…
Hopefully, at this point, you can see how riders and horses of every discipline could benefit from good control of straightness. Barrel racers will lose precious tenths of a second if they leave a barrel heading slightly off of the best path and have to correct mid run. Ropers will have a less than opportune shot, if their horse is a few feet further up, behind, or over from that sweet spot. Jumpers will have a very hard time setting up for the next jump if they can’t precisely control their horse’s path through the course. Trail riders will come home with lots of leaves and bugs in their hair and bruised knees if their horse is more of a rambling wanderer than a controllable ponderer.
Now, to be fair, Joe used far fewer words than I have to explain this stuff to me. I had also been in the sun all day long, and he’d just broken his hip and might have been on pain meds, so, if all of this is wrong, sorry.