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.