Photos by Alana Harrison
Does your horse willingly bend in one direction, but not as much in the other? When you enter the practice pen, does he prefer heading out in his better-bend direction? At the lope, does he prefer the lead on that same side?
If so, he's likely what I call a one-sided horse, meaning he prefers using one side of his body over the other. He's more agile and flexible on his favorite side, thus more comfortable traveling in that direction.
Here, I'll tell you how to assess your horse to determine whether he favors one side over the other (many horses do, see "Causes of One-Sidedness," page 2). Then I'll give you some exercises to improve his less flexible side, so you can develop a more supple, balanced horse that works well in both directions.
You'll learn to extra-bend your horse's less supple side on a circle, then on a straight line. Finally, you'll also use side- passing to target the side that needs work.
Test for One-Sidedness
To assess the relative flexibility/stiffness in your horse's neck, ask him to bend in one direction, then the other, at a walk and trot, being careful to use the same degree of rein pressure to ask for the bend to each side. Note if he turns and bends much easier in one direction than the other.
To test for stiffness in his ribcage, ask him to sidepass in each direction. All you need is a step or two each way to judge which direction seems easier for him. (For how-to help with sidepassing, skip ahead to that part of the text.)
Finally, ask him to pick up a lope without specifying a particular lead. Do this several times, along different straight stretches of your arena, and traveling in both directions. Notice which lead your horse "volunteers," which will also tend to be the one he seems most comfortable on. On a circle at the lope, he'll be able to maintain a proper bend while on that lead, but probably won't maintain it as well while on the other lead.
If your horse favors his right side, he'll tend to bend best to the right and favor his right lead, plus sidepass most easily to the left (because sidepassing left uses his right side). If he favors his left side, he'll bend and lope best to the left, and sidepass best to the right.
His favored side is his more flexible side. To balance him out, you'll need to work his other side more for a while, in the manner I'll describe.
Caveat: If your horse does seem to be one-sided, confirm that his tendency to favor that side isn't the result of a physical problem. Before you get busy with my exercises, have your vet examine him for any sources of pain or resistance, including his teeth. If any are found, deal with those first before attempting a fix through training.
To Get the Most Out of These Exercises
- Use the bridle and bit your horse is most comfortable with.
- Work on soft, even ground.
- Warm your horse up thoroughly before asking for any maneuvers requiring flexibility. Spend at least 15 minutes working through the walk, jog, and lope around the perimeter of your arena, without asking for any bending, small circles, or tight turns. This will loosen up his muscles, joints, and ligaments, making the bending you're going to ask him for more doable and comfortable.
- Double-check your own position. You should be sitting directly in the middle of your saddle, with your reins of equal length, equal weight in each stirrup, and the same amount of contact with each leg. I see many people ride while "hanging on" with one leg, which can contribute to a horse's one-sidedness. Make sure you're looking up and in the direction you're traveling as you ride.
- Be patient. Developing your horse so that he's equally supple in both directions takes time and consistent practice. Work in small increments and build up the workload over time to give your horse's muscles time to develop and adapt to the work.
Get Bending: Here's How
For the purposes of illustration, we're going to pretend your horse is left-sided, so needs more work on his right side. (If he's right-sided, simply reverse the instructions so you're working his left side more.) Here's what to do.
On a circle.
After your warm-up, begin by making a large circle tracking to the right at an energetic trot. Be sure to make your circle large enough, at least 30 to 35 feet in diameter, that he's at liberty to bend in small increments.
Using a gentle but steady right-rein cue and pressure at the cinch with your right leg, ask your horse for a slightly "extra" bend to the right. A normal bend on a circle would enable you to just see the corner of his inside eye. Here, I want you to bring his head around a little farther than that, remember, you need to over-bend his stiffer direction for a while to raise his level of flexibility to that of his preferred side.
Whenever he does respond with an extra bend, reward him with a slight lessening of the rein pressure so he knows he's done the right thing. Then "ask" again.
After you feel him start to become lighter in your hand and more willing to bend to the right, give him a break. Drop to a walk, and allow him to proceed at ease on a straight line and loose rein for a few minutes. Then repeat the exercise, circling again to the right at a trot with a moderate bend.
After another rest break, go at it again, still in the same direction, but this time asking for a bit more bend to the right. Visualize bringing your horse's nose to his shoulder as you circle. He doesn't actually need to bend that far, but the visualization will help you encourage him to "give" adequately with his head and neck.
If your horse at any point resists bending, ask him to trot a little faster. Forward motion is your ally here, as it will encourage him to loosen up and become more supple.
Give him another break, then do the same exercises circling to the left, only ask for less bend and circle fewer times than you did to the right. (All told, spend only about half the amount of time you spent on his stiffer side.)
On a straight line. Now, ask your horse to bend once again through his stiffer right side, only this time while traveling on a straight line. If it helps, ride along the fence line. Using gentle contact with your right rein, ask him to bend through the neck while continuing to travel straight ahead. Use your left rein as need be to keep him from turning right instead of bending. (And remember always to reward him with a slight softening of your hand whenever he does respond.)
If he doesn't immediately give, remain soft in your cues and try again. He may resist by tossing his head or even counter-bending to the left. If he does, maintain the pressure to the right to give him ample time to respond.
If he continues to resist, drop back to the circle exercises to the right and get him bending there before returning to work on a straight line. Eventually, he'll get the idea.
Then work his other side on a straight line, again asking for less bend and spending less time at it than you did for his stiffer side.
Sidepassing. For this part of the suppling, you'll use lateral work (sidepassing) to loosen up your horse's ribcage. Position your horse so he's facing into the arena fence to inhibit his forward movement.
Then, maintaining neutral pressure in each rein (just what's needed to keep him from turning), apply steady pressure with your right leg at or just behind the cinch to ask him to take one lateral step to the left. (Moving left will require him to work and bend his stiffer right side.) If he does, reward him by releasing all pressure for a moment, then ask again, going one step at a time. If he resists, be patient and apply a little more pressure with your right leg. Eventually you should begin to feel a little "give" in his right ribcage.
Once he gets the hang of it, reverse these cues and sidepass in the other direction?again, working about half the amount of time on that side to begin to even up the suppleness on both sides of his body.
Causes of One-Sidedness
Horses tend to be naturally right- or left-sided, the same way people are right- or left-handed. As riders, we compound the problem when we tend to work our horses more in their "easy" direction, and/or sit unevenly in the saddle or "hang on" with one leg.
Then, too, your horse's prior training and riding may have gotten his one-sidedness firmly entrenched, especially if he was ridden by a beginner or novice who let him "have his way."
The good news, however, is that your horse can learn to use both sides of his body equally through bending exercises. I'll show you how to use these exercises to recondition his body.