One of our old teachers sometimes had students ask their horse to sidestep, and then told them: “We don’t need to give it a name yet. Because if we call it a shoulder-in or a haunches-in, we’re obligated to ride it with a specific bend and a specific angle.” I really liked that attitude because it removes the stress and the pressure of having to be perfect all the time. If you feel like you have to be perfect the first time you ride a movement, and then every time after that, to avoid harsh criticism, you put way too much pressure on yourself and your horse, and you set yourself and your horse up for failure and frustration.
We all know from experience that we can’t get everything at once, especially when we are teaching the horse a new movement, or when we ourselves are learning a new movement. It’s very difficult to have all ducks in a row. Often we’re lucky if they’re even all on the same lake.
This means that we have to make a decision as to what elements of a movement we want to establish first. Which aspects are the most important ones? Which aspects are fundamental? Which ones are peripheral and can be fixed later? In other words, we need to set priorities. We need to start with the most central, most important ingredient, and then work from the center to the periphery.
A good example to illustrate this idea is the nose-to-the-wall leg yield, counter-shoulder-in, and haunches-in. The advanced dressage horse should be able to perform them all in a clearly recognizable form, and it should be able to meet all the requirements for the three different movements.
But when you are introducing lateral movements to a lower level horse, that is not a realistic expectation.
So, you have to decide: What do I start with?
Line Of Travel, Tempo, Stride Length
The foundation for all movements is that you ride a specific line of travel, at a steady and appropriate tempo and stride length. The line of travel helps the horse find his lateral balance. The steady tempo and stride length help the horse find his longitudinal balance. When you have those, ask your horse to keep his front legs on your line of travel and move his hips a little sideways, away from the line of travel. Rotate your pelvis so that your hip on the side where the horse’s hind leg is supposed to cross moves back, and your hip on the side where the hind leg is supposed to go straight moves forward. Shift your weight towards the direction of travel, use your leg and rein on the crossing side to support each other in asking the hind leg to yield. Encourage a slight bend against the direction of travel, because it’s easier for most horses.
Sometimes the horse needs time to think: “… What am I supposed to do? …. Which leg is next? … Where is it supposed to go? … Where does my weight need to go so I don’t fall down? …” As a result the horse may slow down the tempo because his feet can only move as fast as his brain can think. In that case, you have to compromise on the tempo and allow him to slow down. Otherwise, the horse gets stressed.
Moving The Haunches To The Inside And Shifting The Weight
When yielding the haunches to the inside is still new, it is a good idea to do it only for 3-4 strides at a time, so that you practice the transition in and out of sidestepping. You mobilize the hindquarters by moving them. This also requires a lateral weight shift by the horse. He has to shift his weight in the direction in which the hind legs are moving, which can be a big challenge for many horses. If they feel unstable, like they could fall down, they will resist against moving sideways.
When moving the haunches sideways is becoming easier, you can work on controlling the angle more precisely which requires the use of the framing aids. Initially you may only be able to use your leg aid on the side of the crossing hind leg, with perhaps a little support from the rein on the same side. Once the hind legs are moving over, however, there comes a point when you have to let the horse know that there is a limit to how far you want him to yield. That’s the job of the forward driving leg aid on the other side of the horse.
Lateral Bend And Longitudinal Flexion
When you can keep the horse’s front legs on your line of travel while you are asking the hind legs to yield sideways, and when you can determine the angle between the horse’s body and the line of travel, you can start having a conversation with your horse about the bend and the longitudinal flexion.
Most horses find it easier to bend against the direction of travel than in the direction of travel in lateral movements. That’s why shoulder-in related movements are introduced before travers-related movements in training.
Some horses may lift their head a little too high at this point. Sometimes you can correct this by gently bending the neck laterally, in order to ask the horse to let go of the tension in his underneck.
Some trainers think that the horse’s neck has to be round at all times. Otherwise the horse is not “through the back”. However, the head and neck are a balancing device for the horse. So if you change his balance in a new and challenging way, he will often have to resort to using his neck for balance, until he learns to use his core muscles more. That’s why I tend to think that we have to be a little generous in this respect. Once the horse has regained his balance and feels secure in it, the head and neck will come into the correct position by themselves in most cases.
Some trainers reject the leg yield completely as a legitimate exercise, but at the stage where the horse has to learn that he is able to move his hips sideways, it can be helpful to focus on mobilizing the hind legs first. During this stage of the training, the sidestepping will look more like a leg yield. When this has become easy, you can work on creating a bend so that merely sidestepping turns into a counter shoulder-in. When the lateral and longitudinal flexibility of the hind legs has increased enough, the horse will be able to bend in the direction of travel as well, so that the counter shoulder-in transitions into a haunches-in.
If a mistake happens during the exercise, return to the basics. Return the horse’s feet to the line of travel on a single track, restore the tempo and stride length, then ask the haunches to yield again. It is often very helpful to ride a 10m volte on a single track before attempting the next lateral movement because it helps you connect the horse’s outside shoulder to your outside rein as a result of the turning aids, and it helps you connect the horse’s inside hind leg to your inside lower leg, if you activate the inside hind leg in a slightly enlarging kind of way. That creates favorable circumstances for your next attempt at asking the haunches to yield to the inside.
From the brief case study above you can extrapolate a certain roadmap that you can follow as a general guideline.
- Position the feet a) Line of travel, tempo, stride length b) Ask the haunches to yield
- Distribute the weight (shift the weight into the direction of travel)
- Lateral bend
- Longitudinal flexion
There is probably a certain flexibility in the sequence of these steps. Hardly anything in riding is really set in stone. For instance, you could shift your weight first and use this to introduce the yielding of the haunches. But if you insist too much on longitudinal flexion before the horse is aligned properly and before he has found his balance, you make it more difficult for him to find the right alignment and balance, and you may prevent the hind legs from stepping under the body and flexing their upper joints.
So, the next time you’re riding a movement, you can ask yourself: what is the most primary feature of this movement? What is a step in the direction of this feature? And start there. Then work from this very basic feature towards refinement. But don’t lose sight of the line of travel, tempo, stride length, and balance (weight distribution), as you are trying to improve details such as bend and longitudinal flexion. This way you create a foundation on which you can gradually build anatomically correct and gymnastically useful movements that deserve to be called shoulder-in, or haunches-in, or half pass.