Better Dressage – Exercises for improving lateral work.

Over the next few weeks I am going to write about some exercises which can improve the way you ride lateral work. They will be a few of my personal favourites and are not in any particular order of usefulness or technical difficulty. Most of them can be adapted to suit horses at different levels and can be ridden in any gait

The Staircase:- Half Pass to Shoulder In and back again.

This combines either half passes with shoulder in or you can ride leg yield instead of half pass. The exercise works particularly well to solve problems with shoulder control, which can be an issue in both leg yielding and half pass. If you find that your horse tends to take over when you set up a half pass, and goes onto auto pilot through the exercise, then this will encourage the focus back onto your aids. It keeps the horse listening to the rider’s inside leg and keeps the rider riding the inside half of the horse effectively.

To start with I would ride one section – that is one transition from half pass to shoulder in and then back again. Make three or four steps of each. Come off the wall or centre line, set up the flexion and position the horse’s shoulders. Half pass several steps. When I ride half pass I look at the marker I am riding towards; I don’t turn my head all the way to look at it because I would be tempted to turn my shoulders too far if I did, but my sightline is looking right at the marker. This is important because part of the transition to shoulder in is to change the sightline.

After a couple of steps, prepare the transition to shoulder in. The flexion and position of the horse is not going to change but the direction of travel is. Your weight emphasis may need to shift a little to the outside seat bone and your sightline will move to a point straight in front of you on the short side of the school. Sometimes the inside leg needs to take over at this point and encourage the shoulders down the new line.

Once the shoulders feel as though they are committed to the new line, and your shoulder in is established for a few good steps, prepare to transition back to the half pass. Usually the change of sightline and weight is enough to effect the change of movement.

When you feel confident in making one set of transitions you can add more sets to the exercise. Riding this exercise reminds me of a staircase, it is a line that goes across a bit, along a bit, across a bit more and so on; not exactly like a staircase but you get the idea!
Hints and Tips.

There are a few key ways I personally like to differentiate half pass and shoulder in when I am training the horse. In shoulder in I keep my outside rein close to the wither, in half pass I open it to influence the quarters. My horses know this little clue well enough for it to begin instigating change. The other difference is my outside leg. I try to keep it on the girth in the shoulder in and I slip it back a couple of inches for the half pass. If you remember that half pass is travers on a diagonal line then this makes even more sense. As I mentioned before I think the sightline is a key factor; your neck flexion should mirror the poll flexion of the horse, but your line of sight defines direction of travel.
Progression Exercises.

There is a more advanced progression exercise that follows neatly on from this one. It involves a change of direction in half pass through shoulder in. It goes something like this:

Half pass left several steps, shoulder in left for several steps, 10m circle left. Then 10m circle right, into shoulder in right, into half pass right. Then take out the circles and eventually lessen the steps of shoulder in to both directions. I love this exercise for teaching horses the counter change of hand, or zigzag. If you are progressing to this in canter it is a particularly useful exercise because you have a very easy set up for the flying change. Even when you omit the shoulder in altogether, and ride the zigzag as you would in a test, having used this prep exercise will help ensure you focus on the shoulders and avoid the issue of quarters leading after the change of direction.

Just like the first exercise, it is beneficial to work through this with the less trained horses too, substituting the leg yield for the half pass. As you will have noticed it is all about the shoulder control and not about pushing the back end over. Once you have precise control of the horse’s shoulders it is easy to build up some awesome crossing, knowing that you will never have to sacrifice accuracy or correctness to get it!

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