by Mitzi Summers
Lateral work is important not only in the development of lateral flexion but also longitudinal flexion. We are, after all, in the final analysis seeking even loading of the horse’s legs so that he can maintain balance while being asked for more impulsion. The trainer’s intent in his flexion and lateral work is to give the horse the ability to extend the outer side of his body to the same degree that the inner side becomes concave.
The most important exercise on two tracks is the shoulder-in. It has been established that Francois de la Gueriniere invented this exercise and is explained in great detail in his books “Ecole de Cavalerie”, (1733, 1736, and 1751). Although he did not describe related exercises such as the counter movements, his expertise greatly elevated the art of horsemanship.
The shoulder-in is the basis for all lateral training, and it is most important in making a horse straight. The forehand of the horse is brought in about one and a half feet so that his forelegs are on a different track than his hindlegs, which stay on the original track. The inside foreleg will step over the outside foreleg. Importantly, the inside hind leg will move in toward the center of gravity of the horse. Thus the hindquarters carry a greater proportion of the horse’s weight, freeing the shoulders and causing the front legs to be able to move more freely. The Spanish Riding School maintains the tradition of the shoulder-in being ridden at such an angle that their Lipizzans are actually making four tracks. However it is standard in most schools of equitation and international competition for the shoulder-in to be ridden on three tracks — the outside being one track, the diagonal pair of the outside front leg and the inside hind leg comprising the second, and the inside foreleg becoming the third track.
Many Masters insist that the four track shoulder-in is the correct angle so that the purpose of the exercise — the bending of the three joints of the horse’s hind legs resulting in more freedom in the shoulder, increased confidence in contact with the bit, and an increase in suppleness and obedience of the horse will truly be achieved. I think this type of academic study of the horse’s biomechanics only results in a general increase in the knowledge of the movement of the horse. This is what makes true dressage so beneficial and fascinating. Unfortunately it is not always carried out in this manner. Only a month ago I watched a recognized judge “teaching” a novice on a young horse, demanding that she yank on his mouth and see-saw on the reins to bring his nose in. Hopefully this type of completely incorrect theory will lose favor in the near future.
The shoulder-in must be practiced so that eventually like all lateral work, the horse will be equal in the exercise on both sides. Horses usually perform the shoulder-in better on the rein where he readily accepts the bit, and try to avoid the exercise on his hollow side by over-bending his neck. Of course into this mix is the rider. Almost all of us are a bit crooked, and we are trying to make our horses ambidextrous. Thankfully today there are many options people can make use of to help make their bodies more equal — Centered Riding, Feldenkrais Technique or Alexander technique lessons, Pilates, Yoga, etc.
The best way to learn the aids and the feeling of correct lateral work is to ride a trained schoolmaster. When you give the correct signals he will respond and you will be able to feel the movement. If you are working with a horse that also does not know the exercise, work on the ground will help. An empathetic trainer working with you and your horse is necessary. Because of space I will not go into detail, but in general most riders will try to pull the horse into the position of shoulder-in using too much inside rein. The horse will merely bring his head and neck further off the track and nothing happens in his body. Therefore the exercise would only serve to increase the crookedness of the horse and interfere with the connection between the back, middle, and front of his body.
The feeling of shoulder-in when it is correct is a lifting feeling in the horse’s forehand as his shoulders free up. Before long you will be able to also feel the inside hind leg thrusting more underneath the belly of the horse, but it is imperative that you have a ground person.
It is also common for the horse to lose the position of three tracks and for the shoulder to move back to the outside. I always teach quarter turn on the haunches and shoulder fore before attempting shoulder-ins, so that my students have the knowledge of how to help the horse overcome these tendencies. The Spanish Riding School usually teaches this exercise at the trot because of the increased impulsion, but I find with most of my students and horses just starting out, that they need to walk first until the aids become more automatic.
The rider will maintain their inside leg on the girth, while their outside leg prevents the haunches from moving to the outside and thus destroying the efficacy of the movement. The outside rein is important as it aids the light and corresponding inside rein. Again, remember that you are influencing the body of the horse; not just bringing in his nose to the inside.
Travers (Haunches to the inside) requires the forehand to be kept on the track. Both reins are used, but the outside rein usually takes precedent and is supported by the inside rein and outside leg. The rider’s outside leg used behind the girth brings the haunches away from the track. The horse’s outside leg steps over and in front of the inside leg. The bend should be regular from poll to tail.
Correctly done, it increases the activity of the hindquarters and leads to more overall suppleness. It is interesting that the Spanish Riding School rarely uses this exercise as in their opinion the horse is already crooked so why teach an exercise taking the haunches from the wall? Again, in most schools and competitions and standard dressage tests it is included.
In renvers the haunches remain on the track. The forehand of the horse is taken in as in the shoulder-in except that the horse is bent to the outside and therefore is bent in the direction he is going and is looking. It might help to think of it as “haunches out”. This movement requires more from the horse; it is more difficult, thus care should be taken only to do a little bit at a time. This is true of any of these exercises — do not drill your horse. He needs to be rewarded frequently and given breaks so that he understands when he is starting to be correct. This is why a trainer develops a “tool box” of exercises, which benefit the horse and make a desired movement easier. Very often continuous repetition of an exercise is harmful. Many of these movements can first be taught in-hand.
The half-pass is the culmination of the forward and lateral movements. The horse is bent in the direction of his movement, which is an oblique line parallel to the track. I often start teaching the horse the rudiments of half pass from a half volte. A volte is a small circle 6 yards in diameter, which explains the level of training a horse should have reached before being asked to learn half-pass. Also remember the importance of the correct use of a rider’s weight in performing lateral work. The horse follows the weight of the rider.
Also remember while learning and improving you and your horse, that none of these movements should be considered “tricks” — learned so that the rider can perform a test at a certain level. It is all progressive and demonstrates the increased knowledge and physical and mental improvement of horse and rider. It is not easy, but it is all well worth it. I remember a sign at one of the stables where I teach — “If dressage were easy, then everyone would do it.”