Does your horse seem to have a "good" and a "bad" side? Is he somehow easier to ride in one direction than the other? Is it hard for you to make your circles to the left match your circles to the right—or for any of your circles to be perfectly round?
The effect you're noticing is caused by his natural asymmetry. In other words, one side of his body is not exactly like the other, and so doesn't move and respond in exactly the same way. That means he's stiff and resistant to bending in one direction (his stiff side), while he tends to bend too much in the other (his "hollow" side).
As if this asymmetry weren't enough to deal with, "magnets" also pull your horse out of alignment when you're trying to ride precisely. Magnets are things (such as the barn or a pasture full of buddies) that attract your horse's attention, causing his body to bulge or drift that way.
In this article, I'm going to explain exactly how asymmetry and magnets work to complicate your riding. Then, I'll give you an exercise to help you learn to compensate for, and eventually overcome, these effects. Once you do, you'll be able to ride your horse equally well in both directions and make beautiful, perfectly even circles—as well as consistently straight lines.
The Enemies of "Going Straight"
What we're talking about here is achieving a fundamental goal of riding: getting and keeping your horse straight—whether he's on a straight line or not. What do I mean by this? Let's consider some definitions.
Straight: Your horse travels with his hind feet in the tracks of his front, with his neck and spine aligned to allow this. This means he'll be straight on a straight line and curved on a curving line, or circle. (Trouble is, his asymmetry and the pull of magnets make it challenging for you to keep him that way, as we'll see.)
Hollow: Your horse bends or softens excessively in one direction. Horses tend to be hollow when traveling to their right. When you lope your horse to his hollow side, it will feel as if he's bending much more than the arc of the circle requires. That's because his natural asymmetry is causing his hindquarters to drift to the inside of the circle to avoid carrying weight, which in turn causes his neck, shoulders, and ribcage to drift to the outside of the circle.
Stiff: Your horse resists bending or softening in one direction. Horses tend to be stiff when traveling to their left. When you lope your horse to his stiff side, he resists bending on the arc of the circle. His nose won't be properly tipped to the inside, nor will he have a soft bend from poll to dock. He'll feel as if he's always cutting in on his circles when going this direction. You'll usually feel more comfortable loping on this lead (to his stiff side), as he's tracking straighter and will usually stop better, but that doesn't make it his better side. It's as challenging to supple the stiff side as it is to straighten the hollow side.
(By the way, if you're wondering how horses get asymmetrical in the first place, see "'Stiff' vs. 'Hollow': The Eye Has It?," at bottom.)
Magnet: Anything that attracts your horse's attention and therefore draws him to it. A horse's body goes where he looks, and he looks where his mind is. Predictably, this is the gate, the barn, the trailer, where his buddies are, and so on. Magnets are what make straight lines (such as rundowns in a reining pattern) and symmetric circles problematic.
To compensate for these magnets and for your horse's asymmetry, you must learn to...
Ride a Perfect Circle
This sounds easy, especially at a walk, but it isn't! Once you master perfect circles in both directions, though, you'll have evened out your horse's asymmetry and achieved control over his entire body—essential for any competitive event, as well as for safe, pleasurable trail riding. You'll also have learned how to overcome the effects of your horse's favorite magnets.
Before you begin this exercise, turn your horse out and/or work him from the ground to get the "fresh" out and dial his attention in to you. Outfit him in a plain snaffle bit (for clear, comfortable communication) and his usual saddle. Work in an enclosed area with good footing. If possible, work on freshly groomed ground so you can easily see your horse's tracks, and/or enlist a friend to help you gauge the symmetry of your circles.
The goal. A perfect circle is precisely round as opposed to oval, oblong, or egg-shaped. As your horse travels this circle, he should stay soft in your hand and flexed slightly to the inside through his neck and body. He should walk in an even, four-beat rhythm, at a steady pace—no deviations in speed. His hind feet should follow in the tracks of his front. He should be equally soft and responsive in either direction.
Here's how. Walk your horse forward, using both your legs just behind the cinch to move him in an energetic rhythm. Keeping both your legs active, and with your hands 12 to 24 inches apart, apply light, direct-rein pressure on what will become the inside rein to tip his nose to the inside of the circle you're putting him on (so you can just see the corner of his inside eye). Use leg pressure and your outside rein as need be to keep the circle round; how you do this will depend on whether you're traveling to your horse's hollow or stiff side, and where his favorite magnet is.
Both Sides Need Work!
Myth: Every horse has his "good" and "bad" side.
Reality: It's not a question of good and bad; it's a question of hollow and stiff. Most horses are asymmetrical in a way that makes it easier for them to bend in one direction than in the other. When riders think in terms of good and bad, they naturally assume they should work the bad side more to bring it up to the level of the good.
But in reality the so-called "good" side--the hollow or too-bendable side--needs as much work as the so-called bad or stiff side, or else it can become just as problematic. So, work each of your horse's sides equally, giving intelligent consideration to the tendencies of that side and how to compensate for them.
To the Hollow Side: Your horse will bend too much, bringing his head and hind end too far into the circle. Fix with your inside leg a few inches behind the cinch to push his hind end back out, your outside leg at the cinch to keep the shoulder from drifting out, and enough tension on the outside rein to straighten his neck a bit (this will also help keep the shoulder from drifting).
To the Stiff Side: Your horse will resist bending and remain relatively straighter. His nose and hind end won't be to the inside of the circle. Fix with your inside leg directly behind the cinch to encourage more bend. Also, use the "key in the ignition" with your inside rein to pick up that shoulder, while opening your outside rein a bit to help stop his forehand from collapsing in.
Dealing with the hollow side. Going in his hollow direction (likely to the right), your horse will tend to tip his nose in and bend too much, cocking his hindquarters into the circle while the circle gradually enlarges (see diagram, "To the Hollow Side," above).
To correct this, apply your inside leg a few inches behind the cinch to push his rear end back out onto the track of the circle. At the same time, keep enough tension on the outside rein to keep his shoulder from drifting out to the left, straightening out his neck a bit so you can see no more than the corner of his inside eye. Apply your outside leg right at the cinch; that will also help prevent that shoulder from drifting out.
Dealing with the stiff side. To his stiff side (likely to the left), your horse will tend to resist bending, keeping his body relatively straighter and avoiding bringing his nose to the inside (see diagram, "To the Stiff Side," above). Instead, he'll lead with his inside shoulder, letting his hind end drift out while the forehand somewhat collapses the circle.
To correct this, pick up his inside shoulder with a move I call "key in the ignition" (because it's similar to the motion we make when turning the ignition key in a car). Bring your inside rein hand close to his neck, lift it a bit, then twist your wrist as if you're turning a key in an ignition, so your palm comes to face upward, making your pinkie finger closest to your horse's neck (while keeping that rein on that side of his neck—do not bring your hand over the neck or withers, a common error). This tightens the rein slightly while giving a lifting motion that helps lift the shoulder on that side (see photo, "Key In Ignition," at right).
At the same time, apply pressure with your inside leg directly behind the cinch to encourage more bend, while pulling your outside rein slightly outward, moving your horse's shoulders out to help stop the forehand from collapsing in on the circle. If necessary, use your outside leg a few inches behind the cinch to keep his hindquarters from moving out.
Dealing with magnets. How you compensate for a magnet will depend on where you are on the circle with respect to the magnet. If you're on the side of the circle that's farthest from the magnet (say, the barn), your horse will fall into the circle toward the magnet (see diagram, "Magnets," below). In other words, he'll speed up and cut in on the circle because he wants to get to the barn. Fix this by picking up the shoulder that's falling in, using the key-in-ignition movement I described earlier.
At the same time, pull your outside rein away from the magnet and use your inside leg at the cinch to push his shoulders outward, back onto the circle. Then, overcorrect slightly by making your horse move a bit farther out on the far side of the circle, while still maintaining his body on the same arc of the circle. (Overcorrections work because they eventually enable the two of you to "meet" in the middle—that is, correct—ground.)
If you're on the side of the circle closest to the magnet, your horse will bulge out of the circle as he's drawn to the barn (refer again to the diagram). Fix this by drawing your outside rein back and against your horse's neck, to stop the outward drift of his shoulder, and applying your outside leg just behind the cinch to correct the outward bulge in his barrel. Overcorrect by making him cut across the circle (as if, on a baseball diamond, you're going from "first base" to "third," leaving out "second").
Now you know how to overcome asymmetry and magnets to make your circles truly round. Apply these techniques every time you ride a circle, and be sure to work equally in both directions.
'Stiff' Vs. 'Hollow': The Eye Has It?
Theories abound as to why horses tend to be stiff going in one direction (usually to the left, in my experience) and hollow or "too bendable" in the other (usually to the right). These include the way foals lie in their mothers' bellies; the asymmetrical distribution of horses' internal organs; and/or the fact that we handle horses more from the left than from the right.
But the hypothesis that makes the most sense to me has to do with eye dominance. Most horses become left-eye dominant as they mature, meaning they prefer to see things predominantly through their left eye. This requires a slight tweak in their atlas vertebra (at the base of the skull) to tip the head fractionally to the right, bringing the left eye more into play. That's balanced by a slight "S" shape to the neck, followed by other offsetting corrections in their shoulders, ribcage, and hips, all of which wind up making them stiffer to the left.
Sounds plausible, but who knows? Ultimately, it doesn't matter why horses tend to be this way; what does matter is that we do our best to get them "evened up."
Sandy Collier is the author of Reining Essentials: How to Excel In Western's Hottest Sport, from which this article was adapted. The California trainer is the only woman to have won the open division of the World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity; she's also an AQHA World Show champion (in junior working cow horse).