What is lateral work, and how can it help my horse?

  • Lateral work for horses is an important element of any training program, no matter what level your horse is working at or which discipline he competes in. Correctly ridden lateral work encourages a horse to become more supple and flexible, both side to side (laterally) and over their topline (longitudinally), which will improve their balance, strength and expression in all three paces.

    So what is lateral work?

    Lateral work includes a range of schooling exercises during which the horse moves both forwards and sideways, while maintaining a bend through their body. Depending on your horse’s level of training and fitness, lateral exercises can be ridden in all gaits. The horse can also be taught many of the exercises from the ground, either in-hand or on long lines.

    The movements can be used during training at home to improve the horse’s way of going, and when riding in other situations, such as out hacking or in a competition warm-up to help maintain a horse’s concentration. Some movements are required during dressage competitions, starting with the leg yield at elementary level in British Dressage competitions.

    The lateral movements in increasing levels of difficulty

    One of the earliest yielding movements commonly taught to horses is the turn on the forehand. In this exercise the horse moves his hindquarters away from pressure applied by the rider’s leg when ridden (or the hand/whip when working the horse in-hand) and steps his hind legs around his front legs. Because there is little or no forward movement in the turn on the forehand, some riders do not consider it a true lateral movement, but it is a useful supplying exercise and good education for young horses before moving on other lateral exercises.

    In the leg yield the horse travels both forward and sideways at the same time, with a slight flexion away from the direction of movement. It can be ridden on a straight line or on a curved line (such as a 20m circle). It encourages the horse to step forward and under the body with the inside hind leg, improving strength and power.

    The next movement is shoulder-in (pictured top), which is ridden on three tracks with a soft bend throughout the horse’s body around the rider’s inside leg. The inside foreleg is on one track, the outside foreleg and inside hindleg are on a second track, while the outside hind is on a third track. Similar to leg yield, the horse is flexed away from the direction of travel. This is typically ridden on a straight line, but it can also be ridden on a curve once the movement is established. A similar but slightly easier exercise called shoulder-fore is ridden on four tracks requiring less bend.

    Travers is the first lateral movement where the horse is flexed in the same direction as it is going. It is also ridden on three tracks (four tracks if the horse is less advanced), but this time the outside foreleg is on one track, the inside fore and outside hind are on a second track, and the inside hind is on a third track so the hindquarters are brought in off the track while the shoulders remain on it and the horse is bent around the rider’s inside leg. Travers is more commonly ridden in walk and trot, but not in canter. This is because horses naturally to want to canter on three tracks with the inside hind to the inside because of a lack of strength, so it is not desirable to encourage this.

    Renvers is the reverse of travers with the horse’s hindquarters remaining on the track while the forehand is moved in off the track and the horse is bent in the direction it is moving. So when doing renvers with right bend, the right hind is on the outer track, the left hind and right fore is on a second track, and the left fore is on the third track, while the horse is bent through the body to the right.

    Work in travers and renvers helps the horse to become supple and strong enough to produce half pass, during which the horse is bent around the rider’s inside leg, while travelling sideways along a diagonal line across the school with both sets of legs crossing as they also travel forwards.

    Lateral work movements vary in difficulty, from the simple leg yield to the advanced half pass, pictured above

    What are the benefits of lateral work for horses?

    • Improves flexibility and rideability
    • Helps the horse to become more supple
    • Helps the horse to build muscle and strength
    • Keeps the training program varied and interesting
    • Teaches the horse to move away from the leg and respond to different aids
    • Can be used to guide calmly when the horse is reacting to something while ridden, for example, when spooking
    • Helps engage the horse’s hindlegs and develops collection
    • Is a strengthening tool for other areas of training, such as jumping or more advanced schooling
    • Helps minimise stiffness in older horses

    What are the benefits to riders?

    • Teaches rider co-ordination and helps develop feel
    • Helps the rider keep the horse’s attention while the horse is trying to spook
    • The rider learns how to use different parts of the body at the same time for different effects
    • Encourages the rider to use the leg to move the horse, rather than the hand

    When can my horse start to learn lateral work?

    Ensure your horse is working freely forward before introducing any lateral movement to schooling work.

    You can introduce basic yields and lateral movements from the ground when your horse is mentally and physically ready to start light work. Every horse is an individual and it’s important to ensure that the horse is sufficiently developed to commence any type of training.

    As with all forms of training, lateral work should be introduced gradually, taking an appropriate amount of time to establish each movement before moving on to the next.

    Under saddle, basic lateral work movements, such as leg yield and shoulder fore (a preparation for shoulder-in), can be introduced once the horse is established in moving forwards and is responsive to basic aids while remaining relaxed. Ideally, the horse will know how to move through all paces and be able to work in a rhythmical way while remaining soft over his back.

    In the early stages, it’s important to do little and often. Between riding the lateral movements, go back to basics and ensure the horse is moving freely forwards into a light contact without rushing. This is even more important if he shows signs that he doesn’t understand what is being asked.

    If you are inexperienced at riding lateral work, it is advisable to practice the movements on a horse that is established and with help from a trainer before trying to teach the movements to a less experienced horse.

    Can I teach my horse lateral work from the ground?

    Lateral movements, such as leg-yield, can be introduced on the long reins before a rider gets on

    Horses can be taught lateral work in-hand and on long reins. Incorporating basic lateral work from the ground helps the horse develop awareness of his body without having to balance a rider on top at the same time. This can help the horse to use their body to maximum efficiency, encouraging suppleness and flexibility.

    Teaching the horse the basic lateral movements from the ground first can make it easier for the horse to understand the exercises when you get on. However, you need to make sure your horse is comfortable and confident working in-hand or on long reins before using them to train any lateral movements.

    How to introduce lateral work from the ground

    How teach lateral work on the long reins

    A good initial lateral exercise to introduce on the long reins is to encourage the horse to leg-yield back to the track, by gently half halting with the outside rein and flicking the inside rein on the horse’s side to ask them to move over – this introduces the concept in the same way as if you were riding the horse.

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