Q&A: How Do I Teach My Horse to Move Laterally without Speeding Up?Nov 09, 2023
Q: When working on softening techniques such as counter-flexion or lateral movement, my horse seems to associate any leg pressure with speeding up rather than moving off my leg. What can I do to help her understand these concepts?
A: Most likely, before you taught your horse counter flexion and lateral movements, you taught her to move forward off certain cues, one of which most likely was squeezing with your calves, which is usually my second cue to move forward after rotating my pelvis forward and rising up in the saddle slightly. If my horse doesn’t move forward from the standstill with a pelvis shift and rising up/forward, I will add pressure by squeezing with my calves, then heels/spurs, or maybe lightly spanking with a rein or crop. Because most horses are taught to move forward or speed up with calf pressure, it’s typical, and even usually certain, that they will speed up going forward with one calf/leg pressure when asking for counter flexion or lateral movement such as sidepassing.
Knowing that most horses speed up when being asked for some kind of lateral movement (off the straight line) should give you comfort. Now let’s delve into how to correct this. Keep in mind that there is no one way to ask for a movement of your horse or correct mistakes. I’ll describe to you how I currently correct a horse that walks forward when asked for some kind of lateral movement, but remember it’s just one way that I do it at this time in my training program.
Generally, the most important answer to the problem of your horse walking forward instead of performing the desired lateral movement is to not release your leg pressure until your horse has significantly slowed down and begun lateral movement. If, when you place your leg to create a lateral movement of some kind, your horse moves forward, and you then take your leg off, you are teaching your horse that she did the right thing by moving forward. It’s a matter of timing of your release of leg pressure. Remember that horses learn from the release of pressure. When they do something, even if it isn’t what we want them to do, and then they feel a release of pressure, they will believe they did the right thing and will gravitate towards consistently doing that behavior. In your case of asking for counter flexion or side passing, when your horse goes forward, first and foremost, don’t stop pressing with your leg.
Let’s address counter flexion first. Before attempting counter flexion in the saddle, I would make sure my horse can perform Forward Bending at the walk and trot, yield the hindquarters and forequarters, laterally and vertically flex at the standstill; and can back up with good propulsion and vertical flexion and move her shoulders in/out of a circle and left/right off a straight line. Once your horse can do these exercises proficiently and with lightness in the bridle or headpiece you choose, then asking her for counter flexion will be easier for you to teach and for her to do. By being responsive laterally and vertically both standing still, going forward, and backing up, she will have less tendency to try to walk forward with leg pressure on one side, and when she does walk forward, it will be much easier to correct.
Counter flexion, or counter bending, is asking your horse to circle while leading with the shoulder. Her nose and hips shift to the outside and her shoulders to the inside of the circle. If going in a left circle, the nose and hips are to the right and the shoulders are leading to the left. Your left rein should guide her to the left and your right rein should be straight back and shortened slightly, effectively tipping her nose to the right. Your right leg will be on at the 1 position (near the girth) pushing her shoulders left. It’s best to start this exercise at the walk until your horse moves correctly in a counter bend. Add speed to a trot only after the walk is proficient. If, while asking for counter flexion, your horse goes forward instead of maintaining a circle and leading into the circle with her shoulder when your right leg goes “on”, keep the leg on and start to “shut the front door”, creating some back pressure on the reins. Now you wait. Your horse may continue to move forward, but keep the leg and reins positions the same, with some added back pressure on the reins to discourage forward motion. When you feel your horse start to counter bend correctly, moving the shoulders into leading the circle even just slightly, release all pressure and allow her to move forward in a straight, easy line for a few seconds. Then, set up the counter bend and corrective back pressure on the reins until she starts to initiate a correct counter bend. After numerous pressure and release-of-pressure sequences, your horse should start to counter bend with little desire to walk forward but will maintain the counter flexion circle.
Now, in response to sidepassing, when your horse wants to move forward during pure lateral movement, I first of all want to make sure she can sidepass on and off the fence on the ground. I try to never work on sidepassing in the saddle before helping my horse learn the movement on the ground first. Many issues in the saddle are corrected by working first on the ground.
I would define sidepassing in the saddle as moving one’s horse laterally, with the front and hind feet on the opposite side of the direction you are moving stepping in front of the feet on the side of the direction you are moving. For example, when sidepassing to the left, the right hind should step in front of the left hind and the right front should step in front of the left front. The nose will be slightly tipped to the right when sidepassing left or tipped to the left when sidepassing right during the beginning learning stages, and will become more straight forward as your horse advances in training. Make sure that your horse also knows how to yield the hindquarters and forequarters separately under saddle. This is a must.
Once ready to perform the sidepass, first ensure your horse doesn’t walk forward during sidepassing by closely facing the fence. It’s best if the fence is 5+ feet tall and has some kind of metal panels or wood fencing. Don’t do this facing wire fencing that your horse could step into and get caught in. You want a barrier in front of your horse that keeps her from walking forward. This will help her learn to sidepass without moving forward. Teaching the sidepass in its entirety is for another question, but the movement should now be clear.
Once your horse is proficient sidepassing facing the fence, start asking for a sidepass in the middle of the arena or any open area. If your horse tries to walk forward, draw your reins back to “shut the front door” and stop the forward motion while continuing to ask with your leg. Your leg that is “on” and pressing against the #2 position (middle of the barrel between the front and hind cinch) should continue pressing. Don’t stop pressing until your horse begins to move laterally without forward or backward motion, both of which are typical mistakes for green horses to make. Now it becomes a balancing act, with your giving slack in the reins when your horse goes backwards and bracing with them when your horse goes forward. If you’ve prepared well on the ground and in the saddle facing a fence, sidepassing off the fence shouldn’t be too difficult for your horse to understand, and before long, you’ll be making a clean sidepass you never thought was possible! If there seems to be a lot of confusion and mistakes for your horse, go back to the ground and sidepassing under saddle facing the fence to iron out any weaknesses your horse might have before returning to try sidepassing off the fence.
If performed correctly, sidepassing can be a very rewarding movement that I would consider one of the most important things you can teach your horse under saddle.
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