It can be the most frustrating thing in the world. You ask your horse to go one way—say, turn to the right—and you feel his energy “escaping” out the back cinch on the opposite side, as his hind end drifts or bulges to the left.
I call this a horse’s bilateral tendency, where the movement at the front of your horse’s body causes an opposing movement at the other end. Yes, both ends are working, but not toward the same purpose, the way you want them to.
This tendency creates endless challenges for you as a rider. I talk about it a lot in my clinics, because understanding and learning to circumvent this tendency will greatly speed your horse’s development as a supple, responsive partner.
So, in this article, I’m going to define precisely what I mean by “bilateral tendency,” explain how it can negatively affect your horse’s responses, and give you an exercise that will help you begin to control and overcome it.
The easiest way to understand a horse’s bilateral tendency is to think of a man holding a 10-foot-long two-by-four under one arm. Five feet of the board stick out in front of him, and five feet extend behind him. If the man starts to turn to the left, so that the front of the board swings left, he’d better be darn sure he knows what’s behind him to the right, because that’s where the back part of the board will swing.
In other words, as the front end goes one way, the board pivots in the middle, and its back end goes the other way.
Pretty basic, and your horse’s body wants to work the same way. When you ask his front end to go left, his hind end automatically wants to go right. And if he’s stiff in his body—like a board—instead of supple, this tendency is magnified.
THE MISCHIEF IT CAUSES
How does this affect your riding? Here are just a few examples of the mischief it can cause:
Turns. When you ask your horse to turn one way, his hind end drifts in the opposite direction. Your horse will exaggerate this effect, especially when he doesn’t want to go the way you’re pointing him in the first place. Think of when you’re trying to keep him from drifting toward the out gate; you steer him away from the gate, and though his head moves in that direction, his body continues to move toward the gate.
Circles. You ask your horse to tip his nose to the inside going around the circle, and in response, his hip naturally falls to the outside of the circle. Rather than bending his body in an even arc along the curvature of the circle, his hind end drifts beyond the circle. This same opposite-side swing of the hind end can cause him to fall out of lead behind while he’s galloping a circle—especially when you’re getting ready to ask him to transition to a smaller, slower circle.
Rollbacks. You ask your horse to stop and roll back to change direction along the fence, and instead of holding his hip in place while rotating his front end, say, to the right, he kicks his hip out to the left, losing the pivot. In competition, this same effect will cause your horse to pick up the wrong lead after a rollback in a reining pattern.
Turnarounds. You ask your horse for a spin to the left, and instead of planting his hind end, he pivots in the center, swinging his hip right as his front end goes left—“swapping ends” instead of spinning. Or, in a slightly lesser effect, he’ll fail to maintain his inside pivot foot.
Working a cow. Your horse is looking at the cow and preparing to follow it, but before moving his front end toward the cow, he kicks his hip away in the opposite direction, losing the force and precision of the turn—and precious time in heading the cow.
Those are just a few of the ways your horse’s bilateral tendency interferes with what you’re asking him to do.
COUNTER WITH A TROT CIRCLE
To counteract this bilateral effect, you must become aware of and control the action of your horse’s hind end. This is a long-term goal of horsemanship, because it involves a lot of what we call “feel”—being aware of what every part of your horse’s body is doing without looking.
It’s also closely related to the concept of collection, where your horse begins to balance himself off of and carry more weight on his hind end. Old-time horsemen refer to “connecting his head to his inside hind foot,” which refers to collection with proper vertical and lateral flexion.
One basic exercise you can use to become more aware of your horse’s hind end and to begin to control its movement is an extra-bending trot circle. Trotting in a circle, you tip your horse’s head and his hip slightly to the inside of the circle. This supples him and counteracts that bilateral tendency, because instead of going in the opposite direction, the hip is being encouraged to tip in the same direction as the head.
Here’s how to do it. Get your horse moving at a trot on a large circle (about 50 to 60 feet in diameter). With your inside rein, tip your horse’s head slightly to the inside of the circle, so that you can easily see his eye on that side of his head.
At the same time, bump rhythmically with your outside leg several inches behind the cinch to encourage your horse’s hind end to move slightly to the inside, as well. (Tip: Having a helper watch you from the ground will aid you in learning how it feels when the hips do come in from the circle.)
Think “forward and around” as you move around the circle in this way.
At first, you may have to settle for simply keeping your horse’s hind end from drifting out of the circle—what it naturally wants to do. Then, as you repeat the exercise in both directions and your horse becomes more supple over time, you’ll be able to move and hold his hips farther to the inside.
Once you master this exercise, you’ll be on your way to feeling and controlling your horse’s hind end—the first step in counteracting that pesky bilateral tendency.
Al Dunning of Scottsdale, Arizona, has produced world champion horses and riders in multiple disciplines. Learn more at aldunning.com, and check out his online training program at teamadinternational.com.