Learning Lateral Work

How to learn lateral work without tying yourself in knots.

Lateral work is a great tool for developing straightness and symmetry. But the process of learning it can make you and your horse feel anything but symmetrical! Once you have both mastered a decent shoulder-in, you won’t know how you ever lived without it. However, except for the naturally talented few, most first attempts at shoulder-in or other lateral work seem to just get in the way of a horse’s ability to move freely forward. In other words, he was fine until that darn lateral work got in the way!

Common issues seen in first attempts at lateral work can include:

  • loss of energy
  • twisting or tilting neck
  • loss of bend
  • falling sideways
  • rider sitting unbalanced
  • needing too-strong aids
  • loss of the line of direction
  • general bracing against the contact

It’s worth muddling through the process, despite all this, and I’ll show you a way to minimize the muddling. When you have the ability to do lateral positions it enables you to instantly improve the balance, lightness, quality of gait, and connection of your horse. You can more precisely strengthen the weak leg and supple the stiff side, and over time this leads to a more symmetrical and functionally straight horse.

Six steps to better lateral work

It has been a big puzzle for me as an instructor and trainer to figure out a way to teach lateral work to students and horses in a way that allows them to get to the good stuff sooner and more easily. I would like to share some of what I have learned!

1. There are only three lateral exercises. If you asked a Grand Prix dressage horse how many lateral positions there are, he would say: “Three: the one where both my front and back legs go sideways the same amount, the one where my front end goes straight and my hind legs go sideways, and the one where my shoulders go sideways and my hind legs go straight.”

We call these moves different names depending on where in the arena they are done, but when it comes to the actual biomechanical challenge, there are only these three (on each side). So that is great news! It already sounds easier than having to learn shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in, haunches-in, renvers, half-pass, and leg yield!

2. Find the easiest place to ask for it. Remember all the choices you have. When I am teaching a horse his first lateral positions, my main thought is: “What is the easiest way for him?” Every horse is different. For some horses, the first haunches-in is much easier at the canter; for others, the first shoulder-in is easier when out on the trail. No matter how much experience I have, I always experiment to find the way a horse can experience the exercise with the most ease.

With that said, I will give you some hints. Most horses and riders have an easier time learning shoulder-in if they can do it with the wall on the inside of their bend. So if you are struggling with a shoulder-in right, for example, sometimes simply turning around (or doing it from the outside of the arena) and doing it when the wall happens to be on your right can be a tremendous help!

3. Sometimes the best gait is the halt. Most people don’t think of practicing lateral work at the halt, but for me it is pure gold. You will have a chance to quietly address any issues or contortions. Practicing halting in a lateral position puts a priority on balance, relaxation, and self-carriage in the easiest possible circumstance. Way before a young horse is ready to do a shoulder-in, he can gain confidence being in the position and associating it with relaxation. I think of it almost like a yoga pose: Shoulder-in Asana! Or you can pretend you are posing for a statue of a very important person doing a shoulder-in! Later, doing transitions in and out of the halt will build strength and coordination

4. Focus on the communication with your horse more than the shape. Lateral work won’t have value if you are crossing your hands over midline, squeezing your legs, holding him together, and having to tap him with the stick to keep going. It’s not about getting him into the shape, it’s about educating yourself and your horse to be able to have it as a tool, ready at your request. Lateral work is not an end point; it is something you need in order to achieve even greater qualities in your horse. But those qualities can’t manifest if you have to use strong aids. It is vital that you are able to sit relaxed and free during lateral work. It is a process to get there, but it’s worth it. If you take your time and commit to education rather than struggle, it will pay you back in the end with a horse that feels nimble, elastic, coordinated and balanced.

5. Name it later. I used to teach the theory first, but by the time students got on their horses they were so stressed about trying to remember all the intricacies and names of the movements that their brains and bodies could no longer function. Now I teach the theory last. I tell them to practice moving the shoulders or the haunches to each side in such a way that they end up with either a bend right or left. For example: Ask the shoulders to the left with a bend left, ask the shoulders to the left with a bend right. Ask the haunches to the right with a bend left, ask the haunches to the right with a bend right, and so on.

If you have to pick between naming it and doing it, I would rather you be able to DO it, then figure out later what each position is called.

6. Develop your skills away from your horse. We know the “blind leading the blind” is not ideal. Do what you need to in order to get more awareness and control over your own body. Yoga and Pilates can really help. Out of sheer desperation to help students, I created a lateral work kit that has a booklet, DVD and a “school master” made out of a pool noodle. It is incredibly enlightening and will make it really hard to blame your horse for any of your lateral work troubles!

I hope this gives you some ideas that can immediately help you enjoy the benefits of having the skill of lateral positions.

Karen Rohlf is the creator of Dressage Naturally, a compassionate and athletic program designed to achieve results in harmony with horses. Karen empowers students to independently problem-solve through her many resources including her book, DVDs, and Virtual Learning programs. You can find out more about her and pick up your free Starter Kit at dressagenaturally.net. (SiMoN the School Master Noodle is available at her webshop: dressagenaturally.net).


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