The Up And Down Of It – Shoulder Slope And Angle – Part 1

Shoulder slope and shoulder angle are two entirely different things when discussing equine conformation, yet many times the terms are used incorrectly or interchangeably. Shoulder slope references the slope at which the scapula sits in direct relation to the horizon, while shoulder angle is the angle created at the joining of the scapula and humerus bones.

Shoulder slope:  is marked from highest point of wither to point of shoulder and then measured against the horizon. The slope of the horse’s shoulder ranges between 40-60 degrees. A slope of 45 degrees is considered ‘laid back’ and is ideal for Dressage horses. A slope of 55 degrees is considered ‘straight or upright’ and is more useful in jumping or gaited horses for lifting the knee.  A shoulder slope of 50 degrees is what I call ‘utility or all-around’.

At the outer limits of range we have 40 and 60. A horse possessing a shoulder excessively laid back is still quite functional and not necessarily prone to lameness, but a horse designed like this will give their owner a headache when it comes to saddle fit. The scapula will lay back so much that it’s next to impossible for a saddle to be done up when it’s sitting in the correct position on the horse’s back. Placing it so it can be done up with the girth not around the horse’s belly puts it over the scapula.  As we know, a saddle in this position would block the ability of the scapula to move freely thusly also blocking movement of the horse’s entire front leg. Even a cutback saddle won’t always fit this conformation. The only horses I’ve ever seen carry this kind of conformation are some Friesians and some Drafts.  Note that for carriage or Draft horses, that a laid back shoulder is desired to more readily fit a collar.

 At the other end of the range, the very upright 60 degree shoulder also does not create unsoundness, in and of itself. Nor does it create a short, choppy stride as is often thought, though, a feeling of less elasticity can certainly be an outcome. What it does do is create added concussive stress through the entire forelimb, which in turn can cause unsoundness. Neither ends of the spectrum are desirable in a horse and should be avoided on principle alone, that principle being what’s best for horses and allowing them to perform their jobs without undue risk to longevity.

Shoulder angle:  is marked by adding a second line to the shoulder slope line from point of shoulder to point of elbow.  The subsequent angle created between the two lines is then measured. The angle created at the joint can range from 80-115 degrees. 90 degrees is the magic number here; anything less and the horse will be short-strided in the forelimb. No other combination of traits can make up for that short-stridedness, or nullify an angle below 90 degrees. In many cases it should be a deal breaker. Anything over and above 90 degrees is a bonus. Many of the GP jumpers who are able to bring their knees to their ears possess an angle at the higher limit of the range.

Skeleton

Let’s look at our random sampling of horses and see how they measure up.

Horse #1 – QH Stallion

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Our stallion carries a typical lovely shoulder slope of 50 degrees.  It’s the kind of trait that fits a versatile breed.  Not surprisingly, though, he also carries a shoulder angle of less than 90 degrees – about 85.  This latter is unfortunately a trait that is quite prevalent in the QH breed.

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Horse #2 – QH Gelding

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This horse’s shoulder slope is approximately 48 degrees, unfortunately he too has a closed shoulder angle and more so than our first horse.  It measures about 78 degrees.  However, this is not really his actually shoulder angle, which is closer to the same 85 as our first horse.  Note that this horse stands with his shoulder angle artificially closed by standing ‘over’ his point of shoulder with his forelimbs too far under his body – leaning forward.  If he stood how he should, his shoulder angle would open a bit, but still be less than 90 degrees.

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Horse #3 – 4yr old QH

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Here we have our first upright shoulder at 55 degrees.  What surprised me was that it’s combined with an open 95 degree shoulder angle.  This combination is unusual in QH’s, more often seen in TB’s.   I wonder if this guy isn’t expressing some TB influence in his pedigree.

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Horse #4 – Arabian Stallion

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Another lovely all-around shoulder slope of 50 degrees, but to my surprise his shoulder angle is also closed at 85 degrees.  This is highly unusual for an Arabian, such that I actually went back a few times to recheck the points and numbers.  The lighting in the photo, which perfectly highlights his bones, confirms the results.   If we account for the right front leg being, perhaps, a bit too far underneath then we can add a degree or two, but it still puts the angle short of adequate.  But then I had to consider the clubbed foot, which with its too high heel is going to artificially close the shoulder angle by lifting the elbow (note it also slightly buckles the horse’s knee putting him over at the knee on that leg).  I would bet some of my own money that if we had a photo from this horse’s other side, that the shoulder angle would measure the desired 90 degrees.

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Horse #5 – TB Gelding

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As expected, our TB has a more upright shoulder at approximately 54 degrees.  The angle is ever so slightly closed at 89 degrees, but note the left front leg is a bit too far underneath the body and so our TB actually possesses an adequate shoulder angle of 90 degrees (and possibly even a touch more).

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Horse #6 – Paint Mare

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Our paint mare has the most upright shoulder of the lot at approximately 57 degrees and an adequate angle of 90 degrees.

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In part two I’ll discuss the signficant importance of the humerus bone and its direct relation to the scapula.

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The Ugly And The Bad – Hyperflexion And Us

I’ve said it before, when people suggest I’m being overly critical about their breed or discipline of choice, that I play no favorites.  The following blog article written by Erica Franz covers many things that are wrong in Dressage – Hyperflexion Breaks The Rules

But don’t let the title of the article scare you off, this applies to all of us no matter what discipline we choose.  It’s not just about the Dressage coined term ‘hyperflexion’, or a bunch of FEI rules being ignored by judges, riders and trainers that should know better.  It’s about our shortcomings as human beings and making really bad decisions at the expense of the horse, which we claim to love so very much.  The hypocrisy is enough to choke an elephant.

I echo Ms. Franz’s closing words:  Get involved, speak out, make this unpopular. Why are we afraid to protect our horse from abusive training methods, to save face from those who are popular at the moment. Have we never left high-school and the cliques and peer pressure? The horse must come first!

I also add, that ‘this’ applies to anything and everything that isn’t in the best interest of the horse.  Don’t stop at ‘hyperflexion’ or think because you don’t do Dressage that ‘this’ doesn’t apply to you or your discipline of choice.  In whatever discipline you choose there’s something smelly going on that needs to be stopped for the sake of the horse. Be brave, speak up, take action.

The Bad: A Rule In Need Of Changing

Take a moment to read the short article I attached below about a pony competing and doing well in upper level Dressage. A pony who’s not allowed to compete in CDI events because of an old FEI rule that assumed every pony on the planet is ridden by a child. Did those who wrote that rule not realize that there are petite women (and men) in the world? Imagine if Karen O’Connor had been told that ‘Teddy’ was too short to compete at Rolex.  Imagine if the AQHA told all those big Cowboys on their pony-sized cutters that they couldn’t compete.

To implement a Dressage rule based on the height of the equine in question is a pretty big oversight. So, to all association members who fall under this FEI Dressage ruling, I ask you to contact those in charge and get this silly rule off the books. Here’s a link to get you started:  USEF

Pony – Oke Doke

Book Of The Summer Club – Tao, Part 3

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the last section of this book.  I thought it rather serendipitous that the author would mention Nikola Tesla, but that doesn’t belong on this blog.  Mostly she talked of results within her program and otherworldly connections between mankind and animals.  It stretches the beliefs for even the most spiritual.  Whether you buy into any of it or not, if you have any ability to see from another perspective or are willing to accept that sometimes things happen that you can’t explain, then there’s something to take away.

At the very least the author explores that special, often undefinable, connection that people have with their horses.  We sometimes forget it exists until it’s not there anymore.  I’ve had to say goodbye to my horses for the time being and it changes how I feel – about everything.  The empty void and restlessness can only be cured by a moment of contact with horse flesh.

There’s something magical about the horse.  Be as left brain as you want, it can’t be denied.  We all know it exists.  The author explores that cover to cover, and while you may not agree with her conclusions there’s enough every day evidence to know she’s right to ask the questions and explore.  Just listen to those who work in therapeutic riding programs describe how their uncommunicative pupil suddenly lights up; a poetic soliloquy erupting from their mouth as they nuzzle against the horse, or how that juvenile delinquent on a collision course for a long term jail cell quiets the rage inside and takes back control of their life simply by having to be responsible for a horse.

Winston Churchill got it right when he said, ‘There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.’  But there’s more to it than that.  There’s also something inside the horse that’s good for us all.

Thank you to those who’ve read this book along with me.  It was a tough read at times.  And thank you to all the others who participated in the discussion anyway.

Assessing The Youngster

Predicting how a growing baby will finish is tough.  Though we know the general rate at which the horse’s bones grow (see pages 7&8: Equine Studies – Ranger Article by Dr. Deb Bennett ) and we even know that foals are born with approximately 80% lower limb length, that still isn’t enough information to correctly predict final bone lengths and ratios, or joint angles; all of which can play significant roles in athletic potential for specific disciplines.

*Take the time to read the entire Dr. Deb Bennett article I linked.  It has invaluable information in it.

Here are some things we do know with certainty:

  • LS joint placement is set.  If it’s poorly placed in the youngster, it will remain poorly placed in the adult.  We’ve discussed before the importance of this joint location as an athletic potential gauge and for future ease or difficulty of engagement
  • Shoulder angle is set.  A closed shoulder angle (less than 90 degrees) is a serious fault in the horse.  If the youngster possesses one, it will remain so as the individual grows.  It must be noted, though, that the ‘crooked baby leg stance’ can artificially close the angle
  • Shoulder slope is set.  Since the withers are not fully developed, and therefore the highest point of wither is not easily seen, slope can be harder to see
  • Neck set is set.  This can be harder to see in the baby because, again, the withers are not yet developed, the scapula (that which we use to determine set) is still growing, and babies go through awkward stages of growth that can temporarily distort how the neck is held
  • Depth of neck is set.  This is purely an aesthetic trait and has no bearing on athleticism
  • The location, shape and set of the eyes and ears are set.  Any faults (such as pig eyes) in the youngster will remain into adulthood
  • If the neck, back or loin are long in the youngster, they will end up long in the adult
  • If the hind legs are post-legged in the youngster, they will end up post-legged in the adult

There are other things, but that’s enough to get us started.  Let’s examine a few youngsters and see what we can see.

Baby #1 – QH colt – Mozzie Man, owner: bokojones (Thank you!)

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Right off the bat we notice the huge hip on this baby, but that’s not surprising to see as it’s a trait we’ve come to expect to see in QH’s.  Already he shows the big muscle masses he’ll carry as an adult.  He’s compact front to back with a deep and super short loin (last rib is practically on top of his point of hip).  While this doesn’t mean he’ll end up with those features as an adult, it does increase the odds that he won’t end up long through the back and/or loin.  To know for sure, we’d have to look to his parents, grandparents and siblings.  His LS joint is solidly placed.  He also has a gorgeous neck, set deeply and higher than is often seen in QH’s; none of that will change as he grows.  He also has a beautiful large, almond shaped eye.  Currently he’s downhill and there’s no way to know if he’ll level out or finish downhill (though, a large percentage of QH’s are downhill built), other then again examining his parents, grandparents and siblings.  We should note here that currently his upper hind leg bones are ahead of growth compared to his upper forelimb legs. (Elbow and stifle are very close in height.)  This happens in a lot of individuals to various degrees, often associated with breed.  (Meaning, there are breeds that tend to grow more evenly than others.) 

So far there’s a lot to like about this youngster.  I do question that shoulder angle, though.  It looks like it’s closed (85 degrees with the horse currently standing with the joint artificially more open than it truly is with that front leg stance), which is typical of a lot of QH’s.  This results in limited stride length of the foreleg.

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 Baby #2 – Arabian colt – Sir Alie, owner: Abby (Thank you!)

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Right off we notice this youngster’s long neck.  It’ll finish long (and that’s a fault), but it is set on well.   It’s hard to tell from this angle, but it doesn’t appear his LS joint is as well-placed.  Certainly there is more general loin length and less depth than the QH suggesting this youngster might finish a bit weak behind in structure.  The overall longer, lankier look of this colt is partly due to breed and partly due to growth phase.  He doesn’t carry nearly as much hip as our QH, but then we wouldn’t expect him to.

Notice this baby is pretty close to level built.  Arabians are one of those breeds where individuals tend to grow more evenly and certainly most end up level or close to level in build.  We can assume that for this one as well. 

The front limbs look straighter, whereas our QH baby looks to toe out.  This is a non-concern for our QH.  Wide chested horses will often toe out as babies, and you want them to because as the chest widens the forelimb will rotate in its socket and straighten.  Arabians are much narrower bodied individuals, so you don’t want to see them toeing out noticeably as babies.  

This one has a better shoulder angle, even though, he too is standing with it a touch artificially open.  He possesses nice length to his vertical humerus bone (an excellent trait) and has a loose elbow.  This youngster will finish with much more expression in his front leg gait and a longer, looser stride through the entire length of his limb than the QH.

The picture cuts off his right front foot a bit (and I can’t see the left at all), but this youngster seems to be carrying more heel than is normal.  It might be a farrier issue, or it might be this one has a club foot.   

Baby #3 – Spanish Norman (AndalusianXPercheron) filly – Alexia EP, owner: Sarah

Now let’s look at some progression pictures.

15 Days

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Very leggy, big hip, laid back shoulder, long humerus, short forearm and deeply set neck are the features that stick out at quick glance.  Forelimbs toe out a lot and that’s not just from an awkward stance. 

4 Months

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Looks like a different horse already, eh?  That deeply set neck looks ultra-short (but we don’t worry about that, yet, since the neck is one of the last things to stop growing) and the hip appears to have lost its size.  The other difference to note is that the loin suddenly got long.  At this early stage of growth, that’s a bad sign and likely foretells of a long loin in adulthood.  The forearm still looks shortish, but the humerus is long.  Look at the right front…there’s a hint of the toe out.

10 Months

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Phew!  The neck lengthened and the hip grew, but that loin still looks too long for this early on.   We’ve also hit a phase of butt highness and this has stressed the horse’s posture.    That forearm still appears short.  Look at the front limb stance, toed out.

18 Months – 15.2h

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She’s looking more compact again, but that loin lacks depth.  Notice the toed out stance, still.

3 Years

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The hip shows plenty of length, but the loin is long.  Much less toe out in front.

5 Years – 17.2h

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As an adult with the same deeply set neck, set high on a laidback shoulder, and a good sized hip.  The loin finished long, the humerus has good length, and though the fence cuts off the rest of the front legs, the forearm is shorter than ideal.  The horse no longer toes out.

10 Years

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This picture shows the massive width in the chest and why as a youngster this horse toed out so much.

 

The best indicators for baby growth will always be examining the parents, grandparents and siblings.  An individual will be a combination of traits of its parents and to a lesser degree its grandparents (and negligibly great-grandparents), where recessive genes and traits that ‘skip a generation’ can come from.  There’s absolutely no use pulling out a picture of some distant relative and thinking that’s what you’re going to get, unless the sire or dam look like that.

If you breed a short-backed horse to a long-backed horse you aren’t going to get a medium-backed horse.  You’re going to get either a short-backed or a long-backed one, so if your goal is to shorten that long-backed mare, then the stallion should come from medium-backed parents, be of a medium back and be prepotent for that medium back, otherwise there’s a good chance you’ll get a long-backed offspring.

Bachlorette Blooper

On a lighter note…

As my husband sat down on the couch beside me, he said, “You have two choices.  You can watch voluntarily, or I’ll make you watch by putting toothpicks under your eyelids.”

Clearly I opted for the voluntary option – under GREAT duress.  He turned the station to ABC and Desiree was riding a big, bay draft cross down a path in Antigua.  Waiting at the other end was Drew, who hauled himself up onto an almost equally large Paint cross. 

I thought, ‘Wow, those are some nice looking horses.  Shiny, in good condition.  Usually when you see people on a tropical island vacation going for a ride, they’re on sickly looking old nags.’  What I said was,  “Wow, those are some nice looking horses.  Shiny, in good condition.  Usually when you see people on a tropical island vacation going for a ride, they’re on sickly looking old nags.” 

So enthralled with the show, hubby said nothing, so I repeated myself.

*Grunt*  (Awesome!  He’s listening.)

They rode at a lackadaisical walk down to the beach and dismounted.  A few seconds later I perked up.  “Did I just see that?!”

“Yep,” he said.

“That really happened, didn’t it?!”

“Yep,” he repeated.

So what did the rest of you think when you saw that?  Oh, you don’t watch reality TV, really?  Tsk, tsk.  Well, the show had edited out the part where our lovebirds had dismounted.  On the beach and getting settled down to have that ‘I’m breaking up with you’ heart-to-heart talk, for a split second the Paint cross walked into the camera shot, his/her head down sniffing the sand for a blade of grass with the reins dragging on the ground, then another quick edit and the horse was gone.

I live for these TV and movie gaffs  It’s an opportunity to act incredulous.  Like The Mask Of Zorro movie, starring Anthony Hopkins as the aged Zorro.  The narration in the background talking about Toronado being a rare, black Andalusian, while a Friesian filled the movie screen.  I darn near leapt to my feet, feeling insulted on all fronts that the producers thought they could fool me into mistaking a Friesian for an Andalusian.  Pfft!  Not even if I was blind, dudes.

For fun, let’s list all the TV and movie horse errors that Hollywood has made.

How To Start The Engagement Process

1.      Find a sucker…
2.      …with a six-figure salary
3.      Tell them what they want to hear
4.      Don’t fart or burp at the dinner table, or…
5.   … apply for The Bachelor/The Bachelorette and you’ve narrowed competition down to just 24 other – fill in adjective/s of choice – people (those are damn fine odds!)

I have a point, but I’ll come back to it in another article.  Right now I want to discuss the other kind of engagement, the one that involves horses.  Here is another blogger article called:  Five Ways To Engage Your Horse’s Hind Leg

*We* take exception to a few things about this article; the first being the use of the terminology ‘rocking him back on his hind leg‘.  Ugh!  All day long, every day.

Thank you to jrga for addressing this specifically:

This article contains some basic misconceptions that really shouldn’t be perpetuated.

One is that you can rock a horse back onto its hind legs. Technically that is correct, but generally what you are saying is you will unbalance the horse so much it rears. Engaging the hind leg is not about pulling the horse back onto its rear legs, but asking the rear legs to come forward, up and more importantly, under to the midline. As soon as you ask an overly hand-obsessed human being (and we are made that way, why else walk on two legs) to start doing things like rock a horse back, you will have too much hand and defeat your ultimate purpose.

If you want the rear legs to move, you don’t rock them, you don’t shift weight onto them in any kind of backwards motion, traction on the reins, etc. You get weight on them by getting the horse to step under and put the weight on them.

So yes, proper transitions, proper half halts, can help get a horse under itself. But they aren’t magic and done improperly will leave the horse more strung out. Hill work is great (and some Tevis or Tevis-like picture is a poor illustration of hill work) done properly too; meaning slowly, one step at a time with each hind leg coming under equally to bear weight, no crookedness, crabbing movement up or down the hill. If you have no idea how to straighten a horse on flat ground, you won’t be able to do it on hills either. The hill won’t fix the horse automatically. A horse accepts the challenge of the hill by going to a higher gait, not walking straighter and exercising its rear to develop weight bearing.

The basic movement to engage the hindquarter is to ask the inside foot to step under towards the midline.  You can practice this on a leadline; ask them to walk forward in a nice comfortable loose walk, then using a dressage whip or the end of the lead line if it is long enough, point to the inside hind near the flank, and ask the horse to step slightly more inward.  At first you may have to touch the horse or swing the rope so it makes a big movement so they step away rather hurriedly, which will stop their forward movement in many cases. Just start over, most horses catch on quickly that you just want them to get that hind foot under them. Remember with horses, that a cue like this works best when the horse is off the foot, so time your cue for when the swing forward of the foot is just beginning, the horse can adjust the placement of any foot when it is in the air, can’t do anything about a foot on the ground. If you pay attention, you will notice that the horse’s rib cage will swing more inward out of the way so the stifle can move into the spot where the rib cage was. (See recent video linked by saraannon http://vimeo.com/19772295) That increases the amount of apparent bend the horse can make, so now you are killing two birds with one stone, more engagement of the hind foot, and building in the flexibility and stretch into a bend.

When you start, your horse may have a definite ability to step up and under much better on one side or the other. Congratulations, you now have an actual visual for crookedness, both hind legs cannot step up and under with equal ease to bear weight, which means on one side the horse pushes off with more power, moving the horse more strongly on that side, and voila, drift off the center line or whatever straight line you meant to walk.

Next you practice with this at the walk on the horse’s back. Other than your first step every time you mount a horse, ie, ask for flexion to the inside so that the first vertebra (refer to blog article Optimal Neck Position) unlocks the spine by moving slightly right or left, not pulling the head around, but again, ask the horse to unlock at the poll. Then start asking the inside hind foot on a bend (can be a large circle, down the track, but create an inside bend of large circumference) to come under. Remember the hind foot is coming forward when your hip sinks on that side of the horse (have a practice session or two if you can’t find that cadence in the walk where you feel the hind foot on the ground/off the ground, use a ground person to help if at all possible), which makes sense, once the horse’s foot is off the ground nothing is holding your weight up on that corner of the horse. At that point, you will feel a subtle shift of the rib cage moving away from your leg as it accommodates the swing of the stifle. The stifle is narrower than the belly, for a big step up and under, the ribcage has to get out of the way so the stifle can fold up. Hence the reason your horse should be a back mover (feel the swing of the back as the rib cage shifts) and not a leg mover, leg movers don’t have room to step up and under. You encourage a slightly larger step up and under as you feel your hip sink and the rib cage start to swing by letting your leg move in with the rib cage with a little more weight, to encourage it to move just a little further than in your horse’s normal walk. Your horse, if the sensitive type may take a really big step or even do a transition upwards, don’t pull back or punish, just start over. It did what you asked. On a really dull-sided horse, it may not feel like you got any response at all, if possible, use your surroundings to your benefit, if he tends to like to head for the gate, practice this at first heading for the gate.

Once you get some reaction, experiment, a couple big steps, then remove the aid and allow a normal step, just see what happens to the horse as you change how much under you ask for. Remember, you are bending the horse, and just with an actual circle, we never lean in or look down at the ground, it overweights that leg, inhibiting it from doing what we asked, stay in the middle of the saddle, head up, looking out in the direction of travel. Notice this in not about hands or reins. If your horse can’t walk on a loose rein, you may need to do course corrections, but you are teaching your horse to move off a leg aid, a very subtle one here. You don’t need heel, spur, kicking or generally even a whip for this, you just exaggerate slightly what your horse would do in any event.

Practice both directions. Once your horse starts to understand and step under on the bend, experiment again.  See what you get doing a shallow serpentine.  Can you get your change of bend almost entirely with your legs?  Can you do a circle almost entirely with your legs?  Can you start to do lateral movement off a straight line just with moving the hind feet?

If your horse tenses up in any of this, gets hollow or high-headed, address the tension, get it to create flexion and relax, and start over.

Now you have the proper tool to help you start doing better transitions where you can straighten the horse, walk up and down hills on a straighter horse, and get the benefits of these exercises rather than perpetuating crooked movement through the exercises and missing the benefit.

Adding: This is Buck Brannaman doing the circle exercise, using a flag:

A flag is a strong aid, maybe not something to use if you don’t have help in person to get it right. Note that Brannaman is much more sophisticated than me, or what I just described. He has a ton of experience and skill, and this horse has done this before. He uses the flag to the rear of the horse for impulsion, going forward, note his body position, hand and eyes are at the flank of the horse, asking for the over (note early in the video where he steps into the horse to first get it moving and stepping over (yield away from me), that is another ‘strong’ aid).

But watch those hind feet step up and under and the amount the hip of the horse engages. Occasionally the horse actually crosses over the midline, you don’t need to start there, that is lateral movement beyond what you need to start, because a horse needs some strength to bear that weight without damaging joints. Just start at up and in enough to follow the line of the front hoof on the inside, not cross over.

Brannaman is also able to time aids on the lead rope to encourage softness and rounding up slightly, that is another whole level of skill you will eventually want to get to, but nobody starts there.