In my blogs earlier this year, I covered how to start working your horse in-hand and how to do circles in-hand. When the circles are balanced and easy, you can begin to ask your horse for some side steps. These side steps teach your horse to move their inside legs across the outside legs as a preparation exercise for lateral movements.
Come to the middle of the school and halt with your horse’s fore legs level. If they are not level, walk on and halt again. Then ask for a very small inside bend with the lunge line.
Use the whip to gently tap your horse’s inside hind leg until he moves it. You will need to balance him with the lunge line to prevent him from stepping forwards. At this stage it doesn’t matter how much he moves; some horses will lift a small amount, others will pick the leg up higher. Reward him when he moves the leg. If he becomes anxious, go back to some circles and try again another day.
Once your horse is lifting his hind leg up immediately when you touch it, you can ask him to step across by continuing to tap his leg once he has lifted it. When he steps it across the other hind leg, immediately stop tapping, halt (whip on the quarters) and reward him.
As always, some horses find this easy, others take more time to understand. If your horse is finding it easy, don’t be tempted to ask for too much too quickly. Take time to build his strength and suppleness. If he is finding it more difficult, go back to the work he is comfortable with and then try the side steps just once in each session, and if he doesn’t lift the leg it doesn’t matter. Don’t push things, patiently repeat the aid a little more robustly.
Continue to do single steps for a few days until your horse starts to offer the side step straight away, then you can ask for a second and third step.
As your horse steps across with his hind legs, you should allow his front feet to follow, crossing round a very small circle. Try to keep your feet moving round a small circle as well, not stepping backwards. If you plant your feet, you will block his movement and he will become twisted and stuck.
Take your time. Don’t expect it all on day one. Be satisfied with a calm lifting of the leg for day one and build it over several days; work in your horse’s time. When he is confidently offering the steps, allow him to make the movement for himself, and just make corrections.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer