Have you ever wondered why we train and ride lateral work?

Did you think it was just to make more interesting patterns in the higher-level tests?

Or even that it’s just to prove that we can?

For many riders, ‘going sideways’ is a goal – the first real dressage movements that they ride.

In the UK, the first sideways movement we ask for is leg yield in an Elementary test. Not until Medium are we required to produce any other sideways movements, and then suddenly, we want most of them!

(Note – shoulder in will be reintroduced at Elementary level in 2019 in a few select tests, so be prepared.)

Too often, riders achieve Elementary with reasonable results, and only then, because they are looking to move up, do they start to teach their horse the movements required at Medium level.

Riders, this is too late, and you’ve missed the point.

So, what is the point of lateral work?

Lateral movements should be used to train your horse, not the other way around!

In other words, we shouldn’t train our horses to do lateral movements in order to ride a test – we should use lateral movements to help train our horse to become an accomplished athlete that is capable of doing competition tests.

Lateral work should be treated as a means of developing your horse’s rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and, ultimately, collection (scales of training, anyone?) and not as an end in themselves.

Each lateral movement was developed historically to target a specific aspect of a horse’s training. For example, shoulder in, is known variously as:

  • the corner stone of dressage

  • the pillar of the art of riding

  • the mother of all exercises

  • and even the aspirin of riding, because the exercise was supposed to solve all riding problems.


And is primarily an engaging exercise. When ridden correctly it brings the inside hind leg forward under the point of balance/centre of gravity, which is beneath the rider’s weight.


·       strengthens the inside hind (by increased weight carriage)

·       supples the inside hind leg joints, which should bend more to reach forward

·       and increases lightness and freedom of the shoulders by transferring weight to the hind quarters.

·       It also stretches the outer back muscles (if the bend is correct) which in turn

·       increases acceptance of the outside rein.

·       used equally on both reins it will help develop ambidexterity – equal bending and carriage on both sides of his body.

·       in canter (in particular) it can be used (usually at the lesser angle of shoulder fore) to counteract the natural tendency to curl up to the inside, i.e. crookedness, promoting correct physical alignment (straightness)

Now do you see why it is called such grand names? And yet, shoulder in can be – and should be - started in baby fashion at an early stage of training, and developed slowly so that by the time your horse achieves Medium competition level, it will be something he knows and is perfectly comfortable with, and not a new ‘trick’.

Haunches in, or travers, teaches the horse to

·       put the outside hind leg under the body weight, strengthening that limb

·       bend the outside hind leg joints more, so suppling the joints and lowering the croup (collection)

·       lighten the shoulders, particularly the inside shoulder (which will be directly in front of the hind leg that is carrying more weight

·       increase lateral bending (more body bend is necessary to place the outside hind leg forward/under than the inside one, as in shoulder in.)

·       prepare for further movements, such as half pass and canter pirouette (haunches in on a circle in canter)

When, and how, should you start lateral work?

It is important not to push a horse into doing these movements in their final form at too early a stage, because of the extra pressures they place on the joints and supporting muscles, but they should be taught in a ‘baby fashion’ first, with just the tiniest bit of displacement, and for only a few metres at a time.

Initially, ‘going sideways’ should be simply about teaching your horse to move sideways away from one leg, so he begins to understand that the leg does not only mean ‘go forward’.

 Turn around the forehand

Start by teaching him to turn around the forehand. This is similar to turn on the forehand, but performed at walk, as opposed to bringing him to a standstill. The goal is that he walks a very small circle with his front legs and moves his hind quarters away from your leg, so that his hind legs cross over, always with the inside hind leg passing in front of the outside (this can only be achieved if he is allowed to move a little forward, hence, riding this movement at walk). This can be taught as soon as he understands a little about the rein aids for steering and slowing, so you can control the front end while displacing the hind end.

It is often easiest to teach it first from the ground, simply asking him to move his quarters away from you while keeping the front end turning towards you. When he understands this, add the rider’s aids at the same time as someone else gives the aids from the ground.

The value in turn around the forehand is in the understanding of moving away from the inside leg, and introduces the concept of the diagonal aids – inside leg into outside rein. It can also improve suppleness through the crossing of the hind legs (more bending of the joints to achieve the crossing), and the stretching of the back muscles.

An added value is for the rider, who must learn to stay balanced and central in the saddle in lateral work, and to control both ends of the horse at once without tightening and blocking the movement. Because it is performed at walk (and at first just two or three steps), there is time to think and coordinate without any pressure.

Leg yield

 Once he understands turn around the forehand, you can teach him leg yield. This is also primarily about educating him in moving away from one leg. In its easiest form, simply ride down the inside track and use the inside leg alone (let the outside leg hang passively) to push him back to the track. The psychological draw of the track will help you, but make sure not to allow him to speed up (use your seat for this, with only small half halts on the reins or you will cause him to stiffen, which is exactly what you don’t want).

 There are many leg yield exercises (patterns) that suit different temperaments – hot or lazy, anxious or indifferent – and you should pick the one that suits your individual to achieve the desired result: that he goes sideways off your leg without changing speed or outline, and (eventually) with crossing of both sets of legs, front and back. Initially it is okay for him to go a little out through the outside shoulder (the ‘baby’ fashion) until he is comfortable with the aids.

 ‘Baby’ leg yield, allowing the shoulder to lead more than in the final product.

‘Baby’ leg yield, allowing the shoulder to lead more than in the final product.


What comes next?

It’s important to teach lateral movements in a progressive order, both for the sake of the horse’s understanding, and for his gradual physical development. The two movements above are mostly about teaching the understanding of the aids. Next comes shoulder in, but it should be started as shoulder fore - a lesser angle, where if you are riding towards a mirror, you will see all four legs, with the inside hind visible between the two front legs.

As your horse becomes more accomplished at attaining and holding this position, without creeping forward off the track, you can gradually increase the angle. It is critical that you monitor the quality of his gait – he should not lose suspension or tempo – if he does, go back to a shallower angle until he is stronger.

Sometimes a horse (and rider!) will find shoulder in easier to learn on a circle, rather than a straight line.

Preparatory movements can and should be used to help – e.g. going from a small circle into a shoulder in, where the first step of your shoulder in is the first step of a new circle, but with the forward momentum translated into the sideways step by half halts on the outside rein in coordination with the use of the inside leg.

Shoulder in may look like leg yield performed along the wall, but there are critical differences:

·      In leg yield the body is kept straight, with only a small flexion away from the direction of travel at the poll. In shoulder in there must be bend through the length of the horse’s frame.

·      In leg yield both front and hind legs cross over. In shoulder in, the hind legs travel down the track in a straight line, with the forehand brought to the side as a result of the body bend. This means the hind legs do not cross over, but instead the inside hind leg travels forward beneath the centre of the horse’s body, i.e. developing improved carriage of the forehand, otherwise known as collection.

Haunches in (travers) comes next, but on no account should be introduced until you have secure control of your horse’s shoulders.

Horses naturally swing their quarters to avoid stepping forward under if they find a demand too hard, and teaching haunches in too early encourages this evasion. Canter is particularly vulnerable to this type or evasion, as the sequence of legs (with the two inside legs always in advance of the two outside legs) predisposes the horse to ‘curling up’ to the inside, and travelling with his quarters in. Such crookedness should always be corrected by replacing the shoulders until they are in front of the haunches, never the other way around, as this causes disengagement.

After haunches in, your horse will be ready to move on to half pass and begin walk pirouettes. Renvers can also be introduced – although this is not required in any tests, it is the most engaging lateral exercise of all - an extremely useful training aid.

Increasing position, bend, and depth of crossing are all yet further developments for these movements which will serve to enhance your horse’s gymnastic ability.

During all lateral work, maintenance of the way of going must be your primary goal, as these movements are designed to enhance the basics, not to break them down.

Now do you see why we train lateral movements?

Trained and used correctly, lateral movements are designed to progressively increase

·       Strength

·       Suppleness of the hind leg joints and

·       Develop the weight carrying capacity of your horse’s hind legs/hind quarters.

·       As a result, you gain increased lightness of his shoulders, i.e. produce a more ‘uphill’ balance and self-carriage which

·       Makes all his work appear easier and effortless and produces

·       True collection