There are many benefits to teaching your horse how to side pass effectively. This guide will help you master the move!
Whenever my husband happens in on a student’s lesson while I am teaching lateral work, he likes to tease them about not being able to travel in a straight line. Traveling sideways in any form is the result of refinement of the rider’s aids. Sideways movement is good physical therapy for the horse, and allows the horse and rider to safely maneuver through traffic, gates, trails, and random obstacles along the way. Training becomes a means of communication and partnership. Here is a clear method to teach your horse how to side pass.
Before you start
The most important prerequisite for learning something new is relaxation. Nervousness creates stiffness, which triggers the flight or fight instinct. It is essential to begin each training session with easy familiar work. Try something such as lunging that helps the horse move, breath, and relax.
It is helpful to start training the horse’s response to the aids from the ground. The two most important areas for cueing the side pass are the shoulders, and the point on the ribs just behind where the girth is placed.
For the shoulders, start with light pressure from your hand and ask for the shoulder to move away. Make sure to get an equal response on both sides (one aid, one answer).
Awaken the awareness to the leg cue behind the girth by pressing your thumb, or the butt end of the whip, against the horse’s side about where your leg pressure would be. Begin to shape the movement by rewarding small responses to this pressure.
Once there is a clear movement away from light pressure at these two points, then train the horse to move them together. Position her nose to the wall and hold the whip straight, like a sword, parallel to the side that you want her to move away from. She’ll learn to move away as you move into her.
After establishing relaxation and response to the cues, review the aids for stop and go. Yes, traveling forward and straight is a prerequisite to moving sideways. To succeed, the rider must have a clear separation of aids, and the understanding of how they frame the horse. The hands and reins frame and control the shoulders. The legs frame and control the hindquarters, and the weight of the seat acts as an editor. These aids are like doors – legs and reins are the side doors. Shifting the weight of the seat can close or open the back door, and encourage the horse to shift right, or left, much as the weight of a backpack would cause us to shift our shoulders evenly under it. The closed hands to bit is the front door. Pay attention to the hip elbow connection, as the control of the shoulder is lost when the elbow is placed too far forward.
Breaking it down through exercises
Teach the horse to move her shoulders by “riding a broken line” (see diagram). Beginning in a corner of the arena, apply gentle pressure to the horse’s neck to cue the shoulders away from the wall. It helps to slightly open the inside rein toward the desired direction. When the horse has moved away from the wall and toward the center of the arena, put both reins back toward the next corner. This exercise gives your horse a chance to practice responding to the framing of the rein aids.
The next step is to teach the horse to hold the shoulders and move the haunch. This can be taught by an exercise called “turn on the forehand” (see sidebar).
The next exercise is to teach the horse to hold the haunch and move the forehand. Practice the ability to direct the inside front leg. From the halt, create a direct line from your inside hand to the bit on the same side, open the rein slightly away from the horse’s neck and wait for the horse to move her inside front leg a step to the inside. Praise greatly. This begins the understanding of moving the shoulders around the stationary hindquarter.
Putting it all together for the perfect side pass
When there is an understanding of both the holding and moving in response to rider aids then it is time to put it all together for an actual side pass. Use the arena wall or a fence to help the horse understand that no forward movement is desired. Use the left leg (emphasize the lower leg and heel) to direct the haunch over, and both reins to frame and direct the shoulders, for a side pass to the right. Remember, your seat is an editor, so be sure to shift your weight into your right stirrup to help your horse understand that you are wanting her to step under your weight and move to the right.
When the horse is confident side passing both ways while facing the wall you can begin to teach the side pass over a pole. Place a pole about five feet away from the wall (parallel to it) for the horse to step over with her front feet only. Only ask for a few steps at first.
There is no timeframe for success – every horse is different. Remember to offer lots of reward for even the smallest effort. Always keep a strong intent and visualization of the successful movement in your mind. From there, the horse usually understands and can begin performing this movement anywhere.
The side pass is more than just a flashy movement. It is a way to safely maneuver gates and trail obstacles, and most importantly, to step away from danger.
Judi Whipple has been working in various aspects of the horse industry since 1970. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology with an Associates Degree in Sociology. She currently owns and operates Breckenridge Farm in Barre, VT. Judi has been instructing for over 40 years and was named one of The American Riding Instructors Association's (ARIA) “Top 50 Instructors” in 2007. Her trick minis have performed for schools and nursing homes, and she now holds monthly trick performances on her farm, featuring tricks that her students and their horses have recently learned. Follow Judi on Facebook, her animals on Instagram @notaponypepperoni, and Breckenridge Farm on Twitter.