Lateral work plays an essential role on the way to higher collection, which is expressed in a high degree of suppleness, carrying strength and self-carriage and is an indispensable element of the daily training of all my horses. My father, Georg Theodorescu, had a guiding motto that every rider should be aware of: “A horse doesn’t get collected through hand and spurs, but through exercises.” The correct seat and position of the rider allow lateral movements to initiate the stepping-under, longitudinal flexion, throughness, straightness and suppleness that are all part of the German Training Scale—the ever-valid and ever-present guideline I use when I work my horses.
Which kind of lateral movement and exercise is needed and included in a training session depends on the horse. This means that a rider has to analyze daily what a horse needs in general and on a particular day. Different exercises that cater to a horse’s individual needs will increasingly straighten and strengthen him, increase suppleness and also improve his balance. For example, a young horse’s lateral work will be dictated by his weaker direction, whereas lateral movements such as a not too steeply ridden half pass serve a Grand Prix horse as gymnastics and animates him to swing through his whole body. But whether working with a novice or Grand Prix horse, correctly done lateral work will always improve the horse’s gaits and most of all, the trot.
Since horses are all individuals, I cannot give you universal recipes in this article, but hopefully you’ll see some ideas and suggestions for your own work.
When is My Horse Ready for Lateral Work?
People often ask at what age a horse is ready to start with the first lateral movements. But because horses, like ourselves, are individuals and develop differently, it is difficult to determine a specific age. It makes more sense to name the preconditions that have to be fulfilled if you want to achieve the positive effects of lateral work that I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Most important is that the horse has already learned to correctly work on bending lines such as circles. “Correct” means that the horse remains relaxed and thus keeps his rhythm in both directions with an even contact so that he begins to show some suppleness under the rider.
The First Lateral Movements
Whatever I aim for when training horses, one working principle from my father rings in my ears: The horse should consider the exercises easy and keep the joy and eagerness throughout his training. For that reason it is paramount that when we teach the horse lateral movements, we thoroughly prepare him and ask only for a few steps at the beginning. This is to ensure that he doesn’t lose his balance and get tense, but instead experiences something positive on which we can build in the future training.
The first lateral movements I teach the horse are leg yielding and shoulder-fore. Both do not require more collection and serve two different purposes in the horse’s education. Leg yielding is a movement that does not require or foster any collection or lateral bending, but is useful to teach the horse the diagonal aids and the obedience to them. Shoulder-fore, on the other hand, already requires some slight collection and lateral bending and therefore prepares the horse for the most important lateral movement, shoulder-in.
General Principles When Working in Lateral Movements
• The lower level lateral movements should be ridden in working gaits while the advanced movements are ridden in collection. The tempo can be ridden a bit freer if the horse is a lazier type.
• Never feel tempted to improve a mistake in the movement itself. Instead, stop riding the movement, prepare for it more thoroughly and attempt it again.
• Ride short repetitions sideways: Quality, not quantity is what counts.
Unlike in any other lateral movement, in the leg yield the horse remains straight in his body and neck, except for a slight flexion of the poll against the direction he is moving. While leg yielding doesn’t serve collection, it is still beneficial for teaching the young horse to move away from the inside leg and generally to acquaint him with the diagonal aids. It is also quite useful for a horse of any level to help him loosen up during the warm-up phase because the crossing of the hind legs allows the horse to give his back and come onto the bit.
Leg yielding is not a demanding movement, but like everything else, it needs to be well done and as always: less is more. So when you ride it, take care that the horse promptly moves away from the inside leg, shows a clear diagonal crossing, is forward enough and retains his rhythm. I personally do not like to ride leg yield or anything else with the head against the wall of the arena because this has a slowing down effect and no horse likes to go with his head against the wall. Leg yielding can be started from the track across the diagonal or from the centerline toward the track. When riding this movement with an inexperienced horse across the diagonal, you must only ask for steps that fulfill the requirements mentioned. Do not ask for these steps on a steep diagonal because it would mean a significant crossing, which might easily throw the youngster off balance.
Here are two simple exercises to train the young horse to listen to your diagonal aids:
Exercise 1. Alternate a few steps of leg yield across the diagonal with a few steps straight forward and back again to leg yielding and so on (see above diagram). The horse learns to react quicker and in a more refined way to the diagonal aids, which will help you later on when teaching more collected lateral movements.
Exercise 2. Start leg yielding out of a corner of the arena, as shown in the diagram at the bottom of p. 32. Ride a few steps straight, then leg yield until you reach the centerline. There, ride a few steps straight, followed by leg yield in the other direction back to the same wall. If your horse begins moving too fast or the steps become slow and inconsistent or the horse throws his head up, it all indicates that he has lost his balance. At that point, ride a big circle to restore lost balance, choose a less steep angle and ask for fewer steps when attempting leg yield again.
Shoulder-fore is a lateral movement that isn’t talked about much, but is very important in the training of a young horse because it is, in principle, the same movement as the more well-known shoulder-in only with longitudinal flexion and a smaller angle from the wall. Ridden on three tracks with a slight flexion in line with the body, shoulder-fore already asks for a certain degree of collection as the inner hind leg gets animated to step under, carry more weight and the shoulder freedom increases.
You can develop shoulder-fore out of a corner of the arena or a volte to easily prepare the needed longitudinal flexion. Take care that you lead the shoulders into the arena with the outside rein and bend the horse around your inside leg instead of feeling tempted to pull his head in, as this will rob the movement of any benefit. The inside rein is there to yield or correct the horse if he gets tilted in his neck. Incorrect use of the inside rein only results in the horse falling onto the outside shoulder instead of stepping under with his inside hind leg.
Collected Lateral Movements
Advanced lateral movements like shoulder-in, travers, renvers and the half pass require a certain degree of collection and when practiced regularly and correctly will increase collection at the same time. The higher the degree of collection, the more weight the horse’s hind legs will carry and the lighter his shoulders will become. In turn, this determines the degree of balance of the horse, and all lateral work helps us with our goal to bring him into the best possible balance. But because it is impossible to speak about all of these advanced movements in one article, I will focus only on the shoulder-in and the half pass, which are both required in advanced dressage tests.
François Robichon de la Guérinière (1688-1751), the French father of what we consider classical equitation today, called the shoulder-in the “cure-all” of equitation. And, indeed, the shoulder-in prepares and improves collection in multiple ways:
• Lateral and longitudinal flexion improve.
• The inside hind leg gets more engaged and steps under the horse’s center of gravity.
• The carrying power improves and, with it, the freedom of the horse’s shoulders.
• The horse’s throughness increases because his reaction to the diagonal aids becomes refined.
The shoulder-in is also a movement that allows the rider to vary a bit regarding the angle in which the horse is placed from the wall or centerline. The usual shoulder-in is ridden on three tracks with the hind legs not crossing. However, it is also possible to ride it on four tracks for some moments to ask for more bending of the horse’s body. On four tracks the hind legs get animated to cross, but the rider must take care that the outside hind leg is not escaping.
The clear and correct beginning and ending of the shoulder-in are of extra importance in order to get its full value. To correctly ask for the shoulder-in, you can ride a volte and use the bend to continue in shoulder-in by riding the horse with your inside leg to the outside rein.
With horses who have not really learned to be ridden on the outside rein or when the rider lacks experience, the horse can easily be brought in by the inside rein alone. Then the whole movement gets turned upside down, with the horse falling onto the outside shoulder instead of stepping under and showing some longitudinal flexion.
To finish the shoulder-in, the horse needs to be straightened again by bringing the forehand back on the first track. To do this, the rider, whose shoulders should be parallel to those of the horse during the lateral movement, shifts her weight back to what my father always called a “neutral position.” The horse learns that this ever-so-slight shift of weight means he must move straight again.
The wall or fence of the arena is a great guide to use at the beginning, but to truly check if you have your horse framed and in balance, the shoulder-in ridden along the centerline is the real touchstone.
There are plenty of exercises of varying difficulty that include shoulder-in. Here are two:
Exercise 1. A change of bend is required in this exercise in which you use a volte to get into shoulder-in, ride a few steps, then straighten the horse again. Ride another volte and use the bend you develop from it just before finishing the arc to switch into travers, in which you continue.
Exercise 2. Because the shoulder-in activates the horse’s hind legs, it is also useful to develop trot extensions out of it, as it takes care the horse steps energetically forward. For that, ride about half of the long side in shoulder-in, then turn the horse onto the diagonal, apply a half halt and start the extension.
The most majestic of all lateral movements, the half pass, is also the most demanding of them all with regard to impulsion, collection and throughness. This even increases when ridden as zig-zags across the centerline, which is as it appears in the Grand Prix.
When training half pass, remind yourself of the fact that the steeper you cross the diagonal, the more the horse’s legs will cross and the more balance will be required. That implies that when you begin teaching the half pass, you approach the diagonal in a flat angle, riding more forward than sideways and with a comparatively small degree of bend to keep the rhythm and forward motion.
To prepare for a half pass you can ride a 10-meter volte in the direction of travel. Keep the bend at the end of the volte and ask for the half pass by turning the horse’s shoulders in the direction of travel and using your outside leg.
A very useful exercise to school the horse to bend around your inside leg is to ride a sequence alternating a few steps of trot half passes with a few steps of shoulder-in and so on, as shown in the above diagram. This exercise can also be useful if a horse falls onto his forehand instead of lifting his shoulders.
One of the biggest problems in half pass in any gait is caused by the rider who sits against the direction in which the horse travels. In that position, a rider is unable to give the correct aids. If you sit to the outside, the inside leg isn’t in the right position to initiate the bending. As a result, the rider pulls the head and neck to the inside and no bending through the horse’s body happens. Thus, as a direct result, the horse will lack balance, impulsion and cadence. To solve the problem, the rider must have her own head slightly in the direction in which the horse moves and take care that her shoulders are in unity with those of her horse.
The Importance of Seat and Position
A correct seat and position are of great importance for all movements, but incorrect position has an extra negative effect on the horse’s balance in the lateral movements. If something goes wrong, the first thing to check is one’s seat and position because they determine the way aids are applied.
Sitting against the direction in which the horse travels almost always causes serious consequences, most of which result in the horse’s balance being negatively affected. The weight aid in lateral movements has to be absolutely correct, with the rider’s shoulders in line with the horse’s and the rider slightly shifting her weight to the direction of the movement.
To a student who would make this mistake, my father would always explain that in the half pass, for example, the outside hind leg of the horse should be unburdened because it has to travel the farthest and needs to be able to stride freely. So if the rider makes the mistake of sitting to the outside, it also gets harder for the horse to cross his legs.
You can imagine that this mistake increases the difficulty of zig-zag half passes, which require a slight change of weight after each change of direction. Sooner or later it is impossible for a horse to compensate for his rider’s error and mistakes in rhythm and loss of impulsion might be the undesired results.
So by shifting the weight from the neutral position slightly to the inside, the outside hind leg isn’t only unburdened, but at the same time, the horse’s inside hind leg is accordingly more burdened. That way, the inside hind is supported when stepping under and the rider is in the ideal position to bend the horse around his inside leg.
Another trap into which riders sometimes fall is that they overuse the leg aid by squeezing the horse forward. If a horse fails in lateral work, there’s almost always an important reason and a logical explanation for it. Pushing the horse instead of stopping and analyzing the situation isn’t only useless, but harmful. Of course, some horses become a bit lazy, but squeezing the horse continuously by increasing the pressure of aids is still not recommended.
It is important to always keep the old saying, “too much aid kills the aid” in the back of your mind. It is much better to simply give a short but clear impulse with one of the driving aids.
Monica Theodorescu’s star-studded career includes three German team gold medals from Olympic Games—Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. She won team gold and individual bronze medals at the Stockholm World Championships in 1990 and she won several gold, silver and bronze medals at European Championships. In addition, she won two World Cup titles. Today she serves as coach of the German dressage team.