For young horses, I start introducing lateral work and the rein-back unmounted. This way, I can check that they already understand these movements naturally, without the weight of the rider which can disturb them. And finally, to see whether they can manage to cross their legs on both sides by themselves.
How do you introduce unmounted lateral work ?
To ask a horse to cross his legs, I use a rather traditional method: stand next to him, take the inner rein and bring his nose towards you by pulling on it. With the other hand, the one not holding the rein, tickle his ribs while nudging him a little. The horse will start to turn around you, pulled by your hand holding the rein, and pushed away by the hand in contact with the ribs.
Once he’s circling around you, watch how the hind legs cross. They should always cross in front of each other and not behind (i.e. the inside hindquarter should reach in front of the outside hindquarter).
When doing this exercise, you may have the tendency of asking too much flexion. If the horse rushes, he may start crossing behind. So, only ask a few steps at a time because they can’t do a full circle. Then change sides.
For the rein back (still unmounted!), I ask for one or two steps back and then I move forward because it is essential to keep the horse ‘thinking forwards. You must keep your horse wanting to move forwards. To begin, simply press with two fingers on either side of the bridge of the nose. Pressing hard in this way will create discomfort. The horse should react to this discomfort and will naturally move backwards.
When you start teaching the rein-back, you have to be satisfied with one step only. You must release the pressure with your fingers as soon as your horse barely begins to step back. You have to squeeze your fingers hard, until your horse yields and moves backwards. When he starts to lift up a leg, you must release the pressure very quickly as a reward to make him understand that he has done what you were asking.
How to introduce mounted lateral work?
Before working on leg-yielding, which is a movement you’ll have to do in many dressage tests, I always do some lateral steps along the rail of the arena. Use the wall to encourage your horse to move sideways.
To do it, use very simple aids. Start by opening your hand on the side of the wall widely. Then, move your leg back on the side of the wall as well. This way, you ask your horse to move sideways and cross his hindquarters. He has to cross at every step!
The only thing you have to be careful about is to keep the other hand at the withers to control the shoulders. You must take your time and go slowly to do these exercises, even more so for horses that are just starting to learn.
A useful tip: Lateral work makes you lose a lot of impulsion, so it’s a good idea to alternate with some extended movements.
For the rein-back, always stand on the track along the rail to encourage straightness. Keep your fingers closed but always with a supple contact. Then, apply the legs.
For a horse that is learning the rein-back, don’t ask too much. Just ask for a few steps and be careful to walk out straight afterwards. To walk out of the rein-back, do not open your fingers. Keep them closed and push harder with your legs so that the horse stays rounded on the bit (by applying your leg in an upward scooping manner).
Lateral work and rein-back are part of the basics of dressage. They’re some of the first things I teach my young horses and it is useful in all disciplines. In dressage, in eventing and even in show jumping. We sometimes see great riders reining back a few steps before starting their jumping round to ‘sit’ their horse on their hindquarters.
Whatever the discipline you practice, don’t hesitate to do some lateral work and practise the rein-back because they’re a very good foundation.
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