All too many riders avoid doing any lateral movements with their horse. This can be because of fear of doing them wrong or simply lack of knowledge and not knowing where to start or why such movements are so important. I constantly hear from those that say they "just enjoy hacking out", that they have no need for such fancy movements, or from those that “do” dressage declare they "don’t’ need lateral movements until they reach Medium Level".
I couldn’t disagree more; shoulder-in, along with most of the other lateral movements, are essential tools in helping your horse become straight and supple, two of the key elements in British Dressage's Scale of Training. In fact, Nuno Oliviero declared “shoulder-in is the aspirin of horseback riding - it cures everything!”
To me, using lateral movements, is like doing Pilates with your horse. Lateral movements can be used to help correct the horse’s natural asymmetry, to help him become equally strong and supple on both sides - without which you cannot have straightness. They can be used to improve his core and strengthen his back - which are fundamental requirements if you want to ride your horse. And finally they can help your horse learn to engage his hind legs by taking them further underneath his body, which is required if you want to ride in true collection rather than just with "head set". Lateral movements help keep your horse balanced and supple whilst only ever schooling or a riding on a single-track encourages stiffness in the and exacerbates your horse's natural asymmetry. Even if you never ride in a school you can incorporate simple stepping over exercises, such as leg yields at a walk, to positively influence your horse's basic balance.
Most horses find the lateral movements where the horse is bent against the direction of travel – such as shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, leg-yield-with-bend-against-the-direction-of-travel, and turn-on-the-forehand easier to learn than those where he is bent in the direction of travel – e.g. travers, renvers, half pass, turn-on-the-haunches and pirouette. But don’t take this as gospel, your horse may not have read this note!
If you have never done any lateral movements before, I'd recommend you start with turn-on-the-forehand, and then move on to shoulder-fore or leg-yield-with-bend at a walk. I'd also suggest you start with groundwork, where your weight can’t inadvertently make the movement harder to do, either by working on-line or in-hand. Which one of these methods you chose depends on which you prefer, but which ever method you chose make sure that you reward your horse for the slightest try. Only look for one step initially, don’t get greedy and immediately expect your horse to do a whole side of a school in a perfect 3-track shoulder-in.
These exercises are meant to benefit the horse and help him biomechanically – just as attending a yoga or pilates class helps you. Accept that things might not be perfect to start with. It is far more likely if you experience difficulties that you are either asking incorrectly or your horse can’t actually do what you are asking rather than won’t. Slow the request down and ask for less, such as only asking the front leg to move rather than the whole horse. Over time you will be able to ask and expect more. After all you wouldn’t expect your instructor to ask you to hold a plank for 60 seconds at your first ever Pilates class!
I tend to teach my horses on-line before doing the exercises in-hand but there is no right or wrong way, use which ever method you (and your horse) prefer. The most common mistake to look out for in any of the lateral movements-against-the-direction-of-travel is over bending the horse’s neck to the inside which causes the horse to fall onto his outside shoulder. This can be caused because we have asked for too much bend with our hand or because it is the horse’s hollow side and he has a natural tendency to bend that way. If you are working in-hand you can use your outside rein to prevent the excessive bend and support the outside shoulder, if you are working on-line you need to be able to use your stick to support the shoulder.
This is a super starter exercise which helps engage the core, mobilize the horse’s pelvis and bring a hind leg underneath his body. You will need a cavesson, a single line (such as a short lunge line) or rein attached to the central ring of the cavesson and schooling whip or cane. It is important that your horse is not frightened of the stick or cane, and he is quite happy for you to touch him anywhere on his body with it. If he is concerned and you can't touch him everywhere, you aren’t ready to do this exercise yet. Equally you should be confident and competent enough so that your horse won’t walk over you, strike you with a front leg or trample you! If you aren't confident about this - don't try the exercise.
- Stand in front of and facing your horse with one hand resting just in front of the horse’s nose holding the single rein or line. The arm should be straight (or slightly bent), so the horse is a couple of feet away from you.
- If you have mastered the art of stelling, flex your horse's nose slightly against the direction of travel. The rein should be lying across an open hand rather than held tight. Raising your energy, slowly raise your stick so that it points towards the horse’s tail and is parallel to the ground. Pulse the stick slightly towards the horse or gently tap your horse on his body with the full length of the stick (shoulder, through rib cage to hip).
- The moment the horse moves one step away from the stick, drop the stick and reward your horse.
- The hind leg that is closest to the stick should step under the horse’s body in front of the other hind leg away from the stick.
- The front leg that is closest to the stick should step in front of the other front leg away from the stick.
- You are eventually looking for your horse to circle around you with his hindquarters performing the largest circle and you performing the smallest.
There are a number of videos that cover teaching the horse lateral movements from the ground; these include but are not limited to Straightness Training, The Academic Art of Riding and Manolo Mandez. Books that cover the subject include Schooling Exercises in-hand which is published by Cadmos.