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How to Introduce Lateral Work (And in What Order)

How to Introduce Lateral Work (And in What Order) Dressage


Lateral work is an essential part of your daily schooling sessions, as well as being included in the more advanced level dressage tests.

If you’re just starting out training a young horse or retraining an older one, you’ll need to know how to introduce lateral movements to your daily training regimen and in what order they should be tackled.

In this article, we discuss what’s so important about lateral work, when and how it should be introduced, and in what order you should teach the various movements.

What is the purpose of lateral work?

Lateral work is the gateway to developing higher collection. That collection is shown through greater carrying strength, more longitudinal and lateral suppleness, and better self-carriage.

In your daily training sessions, lateral work is useful for strengthening and straightening the horse, as well as for developing suppleness.

Horses for courses

The type of lateral exercises that you include in your training sessions is generally dependent on the horse’s stage of training and his individual developmental needs. Those needs can vary from day to day, so you must be reactive in your choice of exercises for your horse.

Whatever lateral work you choose, when performed correctly, lateral exercises will improve the paces, especially the trot.

For example, if you have a young horse, the lateral work that you choose will be focused on his weaker side. At the other end of the scale, a Grand Prix horse will benefit from the gymnastic work of shallow half-passes that encourage him to become more active and swing through his whole body.

When is the horse ready to begin lateral work?

Horses are all individuals, and they develop physically and mentally at different rates, so when to start lateral work very much depends on the horse. However, there are a few important preconditions that must be fulfilled to ensure that the horse gets the benefits that lateral work brings.

Ideally, the horse has learned how to bend correctly around circles, and he is able to work in a rhythmical, relaxed way into an even, elastic contact with some degree of suppleness through his back.

In other words, the horse is able to work “on the bit.”

Once that way of going is achieved, lateral work lessons can begin.

Basic principles of training lateral work

The lateral movements should be approached in a particular order, beginning with the easiest. That ensures that the horse finds his work easy and fun and, therefore, maintains his enthusiasm for his job.

Start anything new by asking your horse for just a few steps. That prevents the horse from becoming tense and upset, which would destroy the rhythm, suppleness, and balance that you are seeking to improve.

When you’re teaching the lower-level work, ride it in working paces, switching to collection when the horse becomes more established in the engagement and is able to take on more advanced movements.

If you have a lazy horse, ride the exercises in a slightly freer tempo so that the impulsion and longitudinal suppleness are not lost.

If things go wrong, don’t persist in trying to correct the mistake in the movement itself. Instead, abandon the exercise, re-establish the horse’s correct way of going, and ride the movement again.

When it comes to riding lateral movements, it’s the quality of the steps that count, not the quantity. In other words, ask for just a few steps or an angle that’s manageable for the horse.

What to teach first?

The first two lateral movements to teach are leg-yielding and shoulder-fore. Both these exercises don’t require much collection to achieve and are very beneficial to your horse’s education.

Leg-yielding doesn’t demand any lateral bend or collection. However, the exercise does teach the horse the aids to move sideways away from the rider’s leg and to be obedient to them.

Shoulder-fore does require a small amount of collection and some lateral bend. Shoulder-fore also prepares the horse for the shoulder-in, which is perhaps the most important of all the lateral exercises.

1. Leg-yielding

In leg-yield, the horse is straight through his body and neck with just a very slight flexion at the poll away from the direction in which he is moving.

The exercise teaches the horse obedience to the rider’s aids to move sideways.

It’s also a useful warm-up and loosening exercise for horses working at all levels, as the crossing of the horse’s hind legs encourages the horse to be loose through his back and, therefore, work “through” to seek the contact and come onto the bit.

Leg-yielding is also a very versatile and useful movement in that it can be ridden on the diagonal line from the track and back again or from the centerline to the track. But be careful not to make the angle too steep or you will kill the energy and lose the suppleness and looseness that the exercise creates.

Leg-yielding is the first lateral exercise to appear in low-level dressage tests.

For more information, check out – How to Leg Yield

2. Shoulder-fore

Shoulder-fore is a movement that doesn’t appear in dressage tests, although it is generally used as the precursor to teaching shoulder-in.

Shoulder-fore is extremely useful as a training exercise as it helps to develop engagement, suppleness, and straightness, and is a great way of preventing the horse’s quarters from coming in when in canter.

You ride shoulder-fore on three tracks with a small degree of flexion in line with the horse’s body. The exercise demands some collection, as the horse’s inside hind leg becomes more active to step under his body and carry more weight, therefore, increasing the freedom of the shoulder.

The bend and positioning of shoulder-fore can be developed as you exit a circle or a ride through a corner of the arena. Be careful to lead the horse’s shoulders off the circle with your outside rein and create the bend around your inside leg. Only use your inside rein to correct a head tilt and not to attempt to create the bend.

3. Shoulder-in

Once your horse understands the shoulder-fore, you can progress to teaching him shoulder-in.

Shoulder-in is an incredibly useful exercise that helps to develop engagement, lightness of the forehand, and, ultimately, collection. Shoulder-in has lots of benefits, including:

  • Improving longitudinal and lateral flexion
  • Developing the engagement of the horse’s inside hind leg
  • Improving the carrying power of the horse’s hindquarters
  • Lifting the horse’s forehand and improving his balance
  • Increasing the throughness as the horse’s reaction to your diagonal aids becomes more refined

You can ride shoulder-in along the wall, on a circle, on the centerline, and across the diagonal.

Although the correct angle for shoulder-in when ridden in dressage tests is roughly 30 degrees, you can ride the exercise on four tracks with a steeper angle to create more bend and increase the activity of the horse’s hind legs.

When you ride shoulder-in, it’s extremely important that you make the horse straight again after the exercise and ride him forward with lots of energy to maintain the purity and quality of the pace.

Shoulder-in is included in dressage tests from Second/Elementary level upward.

For more information, check out – How to Ride Shoulder-In

4. Travers

Travers (haunches-in) is generally used as a preparatory exercise for teaching the half-pass.

As a movement in dressage tests, travers appears in Second/Medium level dressage tests.

Travers helps to develop the horse’s longitudinal and lateral suppleness, as well as bringing his inside hind leg more underneath him to increase the carrying power, throughness, and uphill carriage.

Travers can be ridden along the wall and on a circle as a precursor to teaching pirouettes.

For more information, check out – How to Ride Haunches-In (Travers)

5. Half-pass

Half-pass is the most demanding of all the lateral movements as regards the amount of impulsion, throughness, and degree of collection that are required.

Half-pass is demanded in dressage tests from Third/Medium level. The higher up the levels you go, the more difficult the exercise becomes, as the angles asked for are steeper and require more collection and engagement.

At Grand Prix level, half-pass zig-zags are required, which is the most challenging version of the half-pass exercise and demands the highest levels of impulsion and collection.

Essentially, half-pass is simply travers ridden on a diagonal line. The steeper the angle you demand, the more the horse’s legs will need to cross, and the more collection will be demanded. So, when teaching half-pass to a young horse, keep the angle relatively flat and ride more forward than sideways, asking only for a small degree of bend to that you don’t kill the energy and rhythm.

As you would do for shoulder-in, prepare the horse for half-pass by riding a 10-meter circle in the direction of travel. Maintain the bend as you ask for half-pass by using your outside leg and turning the horse’s shoulders.

You can combine the half-pass with shoulder-in as an effective exercise to lift the horse’s forehand and improve throughness. To do that, ride a few steps of trot half-pass, alternated with a few steps of shoulder-in, and so forth.

For more information, check out – How to Half-Pass

How are lateral exercises related to general schooling?

Your general schooling work is intrinsically linked to your lateral work by a basic principle. That is that a horse can either be bent or straight.

Now consider this simple fact. A horse that is correctly bent will be bent at his loin area. The horse’s rib cage has very little flexibility to bend laterally and actually only moves in the direction in which the horse is bent. The horse’s neck is an extension of his rib cage and should not appear to be obviously forced to bend by the rider pulling on the reins. Finally, the horse is flexed at his poll.

In terms of schooling, the horse in the lateral exercises, you start with large circles, progressing to smaller circles when you introduce shoulder-in, travers, etc. Always start with the easier movements, gradually progressing to the more difficult ones. Remember that the degree of difficulty lies in the amount of engagement and collection that you demand of the horse, rather than the movement itself.

Examples of related lateral movements

Example #1: 10m circle to shoulder-in

  • Ride your horse on a circle, so that he is already bent around that circle.
  • Leave the circle and put your horse into shoulder-in as you continue down the long side of the arena, keeping exactly the same degree of bend.
  • If you begin to lose the bend, pick up another circle, and then continue to ride the same exercise.

Example #2: 10m circle to travers

  • Ride your horse on a circle, making sure that you have the correct bend.
  • Exit the circle and put your horse into travers as you ride down the long side of the arena. Keep the degree of bend that you had on the circle.
  • If you lose the bend or rhythm, ride another circle, and then put the horse back into travers.

In both cases, although your aids for the lateral movements will be slightly different, as far as the horse is concerned, the movement itself is essentially the same.

Don’t make lateral work harder than it really is!

Dressage riders have a habit of making lateral work more difficult than it really needs to be, simply because they view lateral movements as separate exercises, rather than related to the overall work.

When preparing for a dressage test, many riders view lateral exercises as new movements that they have to learn, when in reality, they are not.

Try these exercises to see what we mean:

#Exercise 1: Shoulder-in to travers

  • Position your horse as though you were about to begin a 10-meter circle.
  • Rather than continuing on the circle, ride shoulder-in for a few steps.
  • Now, reposition the horse as if you were coming out of a 10m circle and put him into travers for a few strides.

Riding a half-pass can be approached in a similar way:

#Exercise 2: 10m circle to half-pass

  • Position the horse as though you were riding travers out of a 10-meter circle to establish the bend you need.
  • Now, push the horse across the diagonal line, as though you were riding him in travers down a fence. That’s a half-pass!

By introducing lateral exercises to your horse in that way, you are ensuring that you have plenty of correct bend before you begin moving your horse laterally, and, therefore, you should never see the comment, “lacking bend” on your dressage score sheet.

In conclusion

Lateral work is extremely useful as an integral part of your horse’s dressage training, helping to develop suppleness, throughness, connection, and collection.

Rather than viewing lateral work as a series of individual exercises that you must perform in dressage tests, try to regard the “sideways” work as an extension of the movements that your horse can already perform and an integral part of your daily schooling regimen.

Have you taught your horse the lateral movements? In what order did you teach the exercises, and which were the most challenging? Share your experiences with us in the comments box below.

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