Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why I Don't Ride On the Rail - Attention and Straightness

That's not quite true - I do ride on the rail, but only sometimes.  Here's why - there are a couple of reasons.  I think a lot of the problems we have with our horses are due to momentary lapses in our own attention to the horse, and lapses in our providing direction to the horse.  We need to be there for our horses - how can they have a continuous conversation with us if we're not there? If I'm riding away from the rail, it helps me stay focused and attentive - I can't just mindlessly ride around the arena on the rail, I have to give the horse direction.  This also means that we're doing things together - figures or riding to a specific point - which gives the horse a "mission" - horses love having jobs they can focus on and do well together with their rider.

And here's another reason I like riding away from the rail - horses are shaped like this:

Note that the horse is narrower in the shoulders than in the hindquarters.  The horse in the picture isn't travelling straight - the rail side of its body is parallel to the rail but due to the horse's shape this means the hindquarters are travelling slightly to the inside, and there's also likely to be a slight bend of the head and neck to the inside.  (Aside: are there other horse people out there who, like me, love those pictures of dressage movements in books where little diagram horses move around the figures?)  If your horse travels like the one in the picture, rhythm and impulsion will both be problems as the horse isn't straight.  Watch people riding their horses on the rail - I don't care whether English or Western or in what discipline - and you'll see a lot of crooked horses - it takes a lot of attention to ride a horse straight when travelling down the rail and most horses end up like the one in the diagram.

And when I'm riding away from the rail, I can't use the rail as a "crutch" - the horse and I have to travel with intention and if we're going to be straight, it's because we intend to be straight.  If crookedness and wiggliness are an issue for you and your horse (and it's never just the horse), then riding in straight lines away from the rail, with impulsion and a specific destination, will in my experience do a lot to make things better.  And straightness isn't a matter of steering - it comes from the hind end.  A horse that's braced on the front end - either due to the horse or rider bracing or both, or ridden in a way that constricts the front end like rollkur, cannot effectively use its hind end to carry itself and cannot have proper impulsion - and its proper impulsion that leads directly to straightness and rhythm.  Proper impulsion also cannot exist without softness and suppleness, and straightness also comes from the development of this softness and suppleness through all softening work including the use of figures such as circles and serpentines.

I also don't use the rail to teach the beginnings of lateral work, such as side pass.  If you teach your horse to do side pass facing the rail as a barrier - that's what you've done - taught your horse to do sidepass if the rail is there.  I find it's better to allow the horse the freedom to move - and to make mistakes - that being off the rail provides, and the horse learns the general principle rather than a specific case.

Now I certainly understand that, if you ride in an arena when lots of other people are riding, you may not have a choice about riding on the rail.  But even in circumstances like that, it may be possible to do some things to engage your mind and that of your horse, and to work on straightness, like riding the quarter line, doing diagonals or partial diagonals, or leg yielding away from the rail for a few steps, riding straight for a few steps and then leg yielding back to the rail.  Be creative - there are all sorts of things you can do.  Cones are very useful as focal points when working off the rail.  And most importantly, have fun!


  1. Good info as usual Kate! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family - human and equine! :)

  2. Hahaha I don't have this problem since I have to ride in my pasture. And I think we are the better for it. Another benefit is that you get really good at riding on grass in a pasture and makes you and the horse both constantly aware of feet placement. Also you get good at circles and straight lines when you have to work and work at them to get them right. I always feel good when the pattern we wear down in the grass is a perfect circle!

  3. Good post. I seldom ride the rails either. We like to mix it up with figures, cavelletti, circles etc. I agree that it does help to keep us both focused.

    Have a great Thanksgiving!

  4. I do ride the rail mostly to practice for dressage tests where you must ride the rail. However, when I am there, I focus on not "using the rail" as an outside aid, but rather ride my horse as if the rail were not there. Kind of complicated, I suppose, but when I get to an "open corner" I'll know if I'm doing it right based on how well my horse makes the turn off the outside rein.

    I totally agree with your concepts here, and when I am not working a test, I am all over the arena and often use the quarterlines for leg yield, shoulder in, etc.

    Like other readers, I often schooled in open pastures or fields before I had an arena, and learned there how important it was to ride my horse evenly on both reins. Not always an easy task, but essential for good training.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Good post as always! I try to not ride on a rail either, but sometimes since I ride so much away from the rail its hard to get them to stay straight at the rail. But lots of pasture riding definitly helps keep your horse where you want it.

  6. I could not agree more!

    I like the expression
    "do not let the rail turn your horse".

  7. Very good points I don't do a lot of arean work at all when I ride , and straight comes with work, youngster very often seem to drift with the breeze while they are finding balance ,but once we are balanced and straight it seems to come together pretty well

  8. I've never enjoyed arena riding or riding in circles alongside a rail. My horse gets bored easily with it, too.
    If I can't ride her out on a trail, I can ride her in our main paddock which has shrubs and small trees I can use much the same as cones, circling around, or backing around, side-passing away from, etc.

    Good post.


  9. Good post. For something that should be so obvious, it's rarely mentioned. I tend to slip into riding on the rail too much, but am trying to get away from it more lately, so that we don't use it as a crutch. Your post points out even more reasons why it's important to do so. Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. Kate, You bring up some good points about the benefits of not using the rail as a crutch. I ride in one arena that has rails, one arena with no fencing and on the trails. I really enjoy doing patterns and various exercises in the arenas. Some days I make it a point to spend the first twenty minute warm up on non-straight lines (circles, half circles, serpentines, cone bending, etc) just to add variety to Buckshot's work. We also work frequently on walking down the center of the arena, with me saying "straight as an arrow" and keeping my eye glued to one spot in the distance, to reinforce straight lines. As a result, Buckshot is a pretty straight horse. But I really learned from your comments about getting impulsion from the hind end; I need to work on that more. Hope you and your family and horses have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

  11. This is really wonderful information. I am new to all of this, but I do follow. I went to a Buck seminar and one thing he said really stuck out. I'm paraphrasing, but he basically said he is always instructing and/or correctign (if need be) his horses direction even in the ring. He tells the horse when to turn, even around a fenced in ring.

    I now do the same. I cue him with leg pressure when to take that turn around the fence if I am on it.


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