Move Over!—A Guide to Beginning Lateral Work
Asking your horse to move laterally can be a daunting step in your training—sometimes simply going forward with impulsion is hard enough! Top dressage riders do it with ease and grace, but they all started at the beginning like everyone else. But where do you even begin? And how? Lateral work expert Mary Bahniuk Lauritsen, a USDF Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medalist FEI rider and trainer of Millennium Dressage, has some tips to make the transition sideways a smooth one.
Lateral work is more than simply asking your horse to step sideways. The largest benefit of practicing lateral movements is suppleness—a key component of the second tier on the infamous dressage training pyramid and any horse’s movement. “Suppleness throughout the horse’s body as a whole can be achieved with proper lateral work. From suppleness comes throughness and a physical willingness from the horse,” explains Lauritsen. “I like to think of lateral work like yoga for my horses as a way to achieve the utmost flexibility.”
Like everything else in dressage training, lateral work should be practiced starting with the most basic movements and moving upwards— from a leg-yield to renvers. To begin, Lauritsen suggests working on a simple leg-yield and turn on the haunches as they encourage the horse to react similarly. “These two exercises go hand-in-hand; teaching the horse to yield from the inside leg to outside rein in a very clear and concise way,” she explains. Varying between these two actions also helps to prevent your horse from getting “stuck” in one particular exercise. You don’t want to drill a certain step or your horse will become resistant.
There is no shame in needing some help while learning these complicated movements! Lauritsen advocates practicing in an arena with mirrors or with a helper on the ground. “These are important for all work but especially for lateral movements to be sure the horses’ tracks and positioning are correct. If a rider and horse are just beginning this type of work, I highly recommend having either mirrors, a trainer, or educated eyes on the ground,” she says. These will aid in learning the movements correctly from the start and prevent having to make training adjustments later.
“The leg-yield is the first lateral movement introduced in dressage and improves all lateral movements going forward,” says Lauritsen. A simple movement to encourage the horse to move off the inside leg and into the outside rein, the leg-yield is a forward and sideways maneuver with a slight bend in the opposite direction of travel.
Just how do you do this? Starting at the walk, sit slightly heavier on your inside seat bone and use your inside leg slightly behind the girth to ask your horse to move to the outside while keeping forward movement. Keep your horse’s neck straight or just barely turned to the inside. Master the leg-yield from the quarter line to the wall before practicing wider distances and faster gaits.
Because asking the horse to move sideways is difficult for both parties, mistakes can be made even with a mirror or educated helper. The most common errors seen are leading too much with the shoulders or haunches and having too much flexion in the horse’s neck. “Try to ride the horse’s body completely aligned with a good feeling of suppleness through the horse’s poll and jaw to achieve a productive leg-yield. Also be sure to maintain the same tempo in your leg-yields unless you are asking otherwise so the horse remains in the optimal balance,” Lauritsen explains.
This basic movement is the stepping-stone for those to follow and is imperative to keep tuned even if your horse is a master. “Leg-yield can drastically improve the half-pass for the more advanced horse. Often I will school the very same lines of the Prix St. Georges half-pass with two flying changes through leg-yield rather than half-pass. This gives me a more honest feeling of the horse going sideways and also sets them up beautifully for flying changes,” elaborates Lauritsen. The leg-yield aids the horse and rider in every way, from proper understanding of connection and thoroughness to balance and engaging the hind legs.
You’ve mastered the leg-yield, now what? Lauritsen suggests moving on to shoulder-in as the next step toward advanced movements. “Once leg-yield and turn on the forehand feel easy for the horse and rider, shoulder-in on a circle can be a great next step. The circular shape helps the rider bring the shoulders to the inside and engage the horse in a clear and comfortable way,” she says.
Once you master each action, you’re ready to move onto a more advanced movement such as haunches-in or haunches-out. Soon enough you’ll be half-passing around the arena!