This article contains a general overview over the topic of lateral movements. “Lateral movements” is the term that is used to designate exercises in which the horse moves not only forward, but also more or less sideways. They are introduced after the horse has learned to bend and turn on a single track and should be viewed as variations on the general theme of the basic gaits, not as separate, unrelated “tricks”. Lateral movements are developed within the walk, trot, or canter by moving either the horse’s shoulders or his hips off to one side of the track that is being followed, while bending his spine, and engaging the hind leg underneath the body mass that has to cross over as a consequence of the oblique angle of the horse’s body to the ridden track. This leads us to the general hierarchy of priorities that must be observed in practicing lateral work.
A pure, high quality walk, trot, or canter must be established before the lateral movement is started.
This quality gait has to be ridden on accurate arena patterns.
Only when the horse is going in a good quality gait and along precise arena patterns, the lateral movements can be added on top of this foundation.
The quality of the gait (regularity of rhythm, tempo and stride length, lightness, evenness and steadiness of the rein contact, balance, alignment of the horse’s hips and shoulders, bend, suppleness, impulsion, and collection) as well as the accuracy of the arena pattern must never be sacrificed when riding lateral movements. Otherwise the exercise loses all its gymnastic value and becomes detrimental not only to the horse’s development, but also to his soundness, since an unbalanced, crooked horse is stiff and braced which makes the gait jarring and increases the wear and tear on the horse’s joints considerably.
Why lateral work?
Well ridden lateral movements are elegant, graceful and beautiful to watch (and fun to ride), which is why they are included in exhibitions and competition tests. However, they were not invented as an end in themselves, but as a gymnastic means to an end. They fall under the topic of bending the horse in motion, which begins with simple curved arena patterns, such as circles, corners, serpentines, and turns on a single track. On these curved lines, the horse’s spine has to bend so as to form a segment of the arc of the pattern that is being ridden.
As the next level of difficulty in bending in motion, lateral movements are introduced to the horse as soon as he has mastered bending his spine along curved lines on a single track. Lateral movements have always played a key role in the training of the dressage horse, because they help the rider to develop the horse’s natural gaits by isolating a specific hind leg and engaging it, suppling it, and bending it underneath the combined body mass of horse and rider, which will then in turn improve the suppleness of the back, the neck, and the poll.
Gustav Steinbrecht, on whose book “Das Gymnasium des Pferdes” (1884) the German training system of the 20th century was based, made the concept of bending the horse in motion one of the central themes of his training method. Steinbrecht explains (p.128f.): “The spine finds one of its main supports in the hind legs; the resistance which the horse poses against lateral flexion of its body is thus usually to be found in the hind legs. If the horse bends correctly in the spine on a circle it bends the inside hind leg. An increased bend in the individual hind leg is conceivable only on a curved track and with the horse bent accordingly. Bending the spine is therefore the only means for primarily working the individual hind leg. It must unconditionally precede the uniform bending of both legs. This work on the inside hind leg by letting the horse carry itself in a bent position begins on one track on a circle and on other bent lines. From this then develops the shoulder-in with its various gradations which must be so well established that the remaining exercises on two tracks evolve correctly from it.”
Lateral movements can be used to improve the horse in many ways:
They improve the horse’s agility and maneuverability.
They improve the horse’s attentiveness and responsiveness to the aids.
They improve the horse’s suppleness.
They improve the horse’s balance.
They improve the horse’s straightness.
They allow the rider to engage and bend each hind leg individually.
They unlock the horse’s hips due to the crossing and engaging of either the inside or the outside hind leg.
They unlock the horse’s abdominal muscles due to the required lateral bend of the horse’s spine.
They strengthen the muscles on the inside and outside of the hind legs and front legs.
They increase the horse’s shoulder freedom as a result of the increased engagement and flexion of the haunches (i.e. collection).
Lateral Movements can be categorized along the lines of two main parameters, which combine to yield four distinct lateral movements.
Exercises in which the haunches remain on the track, while the shoulders are moved to the inside: shoulder-in and renvers.
Exercises in which the shoulders remain on the track, while the haunches are moved to the inside: counter-shoulder-in and haunches-in.
Exercises in which the inside legs cross over the outside legs, and the horse is bending away from the direction of travel: shoulder-in and counter-shoulder-in.
Exercises in which the outside legs cross over the inside legs, and the horse is bending towards the direction of travel: haunches-in, renvers, half pass.
The settings of both parameters, angle and bend, are a matter of degree, not of “all or nothing”. The combination of the two basic settings of both parameters yields four basic lateral movements:
Shoulder-in (sometimes referred to as plié), in which the shoulders are moved onto the second track, towards the inside of the arena. The horse is bending to the inside, away from the direction of travel. The inside legs have to cross in front of the outside legs.
Counter-Shoulder-in (some people call it “Shoulder-out”). This is the so-called counter movement to the shoulder-in. The horse’s haunches are on the second track, while his shoulders are closer to the wall. He is still bending away from the direction of travel, but due to his body alignment the bend is now towards the outside of the arena.
Haunches-in, in which the shoulders are on the first track, next to the wall, while the haunches are moved onto the second track, closer to the center of the arena. The horse is bending towards the inside of the arena, in the direction of travel, so that it is the outside legs that have to cross in front of the inside legs.
Renvers (some people call it “Haunches-out”), the counter movement to haunches-in. The haunches are closer to the wall, the shoulders are on the inside track, while the horse is bending towards the outside of the arena. His outside legs are crossing in front of the inside legs.
We see from the description above that each lateral movement has two aspects in common with its counter movement, while differing in one other aspect. Conversely, each lateral movement shares one feature in common with its complementary movement, while differing in two other aspects.
These commonalities and differences make combinations of lateral movements especially interesting to ride and gymnastically as well as mentally effective. The reason is that when changing from one exercise to the next one feature remains the same, whereas the other two have to change. In other cases, two features remain the same, while the third one is changed.
Shoulder-in and counter-shoulder-in share in common that the horse is bending away from the direction of travel and that his inside legs have to cross. The difference is that in the shoulder-in the haunches are on the outside track and the shoulders are on the inside track, whereas in the counter-shoulder-in the shoulders have the outside track, while the haunches are on the inside track.
Shoulder-in and haunches-in share in common that the horse is bending towards the inside of the arena. They differ in that in the shoulder-in the haunches have the outside track, while the shoulders have the inside track. In the haunches-in, by comparison, the shoulders have the outside track, while the haunches are on the outside. Another difference is that in the shoulder-in the horse is bending away from the direction of travel, i.e. his inside legs have to cross over the outside ones, whereas in the haunches-in, it is the other way around. The horse bends into the direction of travel in the haunches-in, and the outside legs have to cross in front of the inside ones.
Shoulder-in and renvers share the relative position of hips and shoulders. In both movements, the horse’s haunches are on the outside track, while the shoulders are on the inside track. They differ, however, in the direction of the bend. In the shoulder-in the horse is bending away from the direction of travel, so that his inside legs have to cross, whereas in the renvers the horse bends into the direction of travel, so that the outside pair of legs has to cross.
Haunches-in and renvers have in common that the horse bends into the direction of travel, with the outside legs crossing. The difference is that in the haunches-in the hindquarters are on the inside track, while the shoulders are on the outside. In the renvers, the opposite is the case: The haunches are on the outside, while the shoulders are on the inside track.
Haunches-in and counter-shoulder-in also share the relative position of hips and shoulders. In both movements, the horse’s shoulders are on the outside track, while the hips are on an inside track. The difference is again the direction of the bend. In the haunches-in, the horse is bending into the direction of travel (outside legs are crossing), whereas in the counter-shoulder-in the horse is bending away from the direction of travel (inside legs are crossing).
Counter-shoulder-in and renvers share the bend towards the outside of the arena, which we refer to as “counterbending”, and these two exercises are therefore called “counter movements”. They differ in both the relative position of hips and haunches, and the direction of the bend in relation to the direction of travel. In the counter-shoulder-in the shoulders have the outside track, while the haunches are on the inside track, and the horse is bending away from the direction of travel, so that the inside legs are crossing. In the renvers the haunches have the outside track and the horse is bending into the direction of travel, so that the outside legs are crossing.
All of these lateral movements can be ridden on straight lines as well as on curved lines and through corners. The half pass is a variation on the general haunches-in theme. It is ridden on the diagonals of the arena. What sets it apart from the simple haunches-in is that it has become customary to ride the half pass with a larger angle of the horse’s body to the line of travel (the diagonal) than the haunches-in. In the showring, the horse’s body is close to parallel to the long side of the arena during the half pass, whereas at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, that is not allowed, as this angle is considered to be too steep.
In terms of the training progression, bending away from the direction of travel is easier for the horse than bending into the direction of travel, which means that the shoulder-in and counter-shoulder-in will precede the haunches-in, renvers, and half pass in the horse’s training.
To sum up, the lateral movements are intended to improve the quality of the horse’s gaits, which means that the walk, trot, or canter on a single track along the short side that immediately follows the shoulder-in, counter-shoulder-in, haunches-in, or renvers on the long side, or the half pass on the diagonal should be of a better quality than the walk, trot, or canter the horse was showing on the short side before the lateral movement. If the basic gait does not improve in terms of balance, straightness, suppleness, rein contact, cadence, impulsion, and collection, then the rider probably made a mistake in the execution of the lateral movement.
This article serves as a brief systematic overview of the gymnastic purpose of lateral movements. In the following issues, I will explain each one of these movements in greater detail, including the aids necessary and the most common mistakes that tend to occur in the execution of the movement.
It is easy to get carried away in practicing lateral movements, but even the most beneficial exercise will eventually show negative side effects, if it is practiced too often or for too long. That is why I want to conclude this article with a warning by the Prussian captain and squadron leader of the 4th cuirassier regiment Friedrich v.Krane (Die Dressur des Reitpferdes, 1856, 228, translation: TR) that we all should remember when riding and training: “It must be mentioned that the lateral movements and turns must not accumulate so much that the freshness of the gait suffers in the walk and the trot. Therefore, movements on a straight line without a lateral position must always be inserted from time to time.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: DR. THOMAS RITTER