Lateral work is helpful in strengthening and suppling the equine body, and in teaching the horse more advanced moves in performance.

Most people start moving a horse’s shoulders and hips sideways from the saddle. For example, they might ride to an arena corner, face the corner, and ask with their outside leg behind the girth and steady hands for a turn on the forehand.

For a turn on the haunches, they would follow a similar procedure, placing the horse’s hind end in the corner then using their inside hand and outside leg at or slightly in front of the girth for a turn on the haunches.

You might notice from trying to parse that paragraph, that this can get complicated! Sometimes, a youngster just doesn’t understand what we want him to do. My green warmblood True was one of those youngsters. He was willing and motivated, but confused.

After you’ve mastered the groundwork I described in the past few articles of this column—”Groundwork on the move” and “More on Movement During Groundwork“—you can teach your horse to move her shoulders and hips from the ground. It’s an easy way to signal the direction you wish the horse to move. And it reduces the anxiety that can emerge when a young horse is being ridden at the same time she is asked to do something completely new.

Put the horse through a little longeing or round pen exercise for 15 minutes of easy exercise to soften the edges, then start in the middle of a quiet open space where the horse can concentrate on you.

Have your horse do the standstill she learned in the previous two articles, and position yourself looking at the horse’s left shoulder from a left front angle. In other words, if her head is pointing toward noon, your body is going to be at 11:00. Stand a little more than arm’s distance away, so you can’t quite touch her shoulder with your hand.

Now, gently bump the halter toward the horse’s right side. Probably nothing will happen.

If it doesn’t, bump again and tap the horse’s left shoulder with your stick. (Remember, we use a long whip or stick as an extension of our arms, just to touch distant body parts but not to inflict fear or pain.) Keep tapping the shoulder and bumping the halter until the horse moves one front foot sideways to her right.

As soon as you get just one step, praise and pet that horse like she’s worth a million bucks!

Lead the horse around to “reset” her mind, and try again. Five minutes of practice is enough the first time, and be sure to praise and stroke when even only one step is taken in the proper direction. You can ask for a second step tomorrow.

Great. But what about the horse who roots to the ground like a statue and will not move her forehand to the right no matter how much tapping and bumping you offer?

Enter True. He seemed to believe that he had been taught to stand STILL, not to move his feet, and indeed he had. So I had to persuade him that it was OK to move when asked.

There are three ways to do this.

One involves a flag that you point or shake near the horse’s left shoulder. He will move away from it, taking a step to the right. This requires some advance work with flags, and flags often scare other horses nearby. I’m not a big flag waver because I don’t want to spook my horse into moving—I’d rather teach him to move at the simple pointing of a finger. And I don’t want to spook other people’s horses at all.

A second method—theoretically—involves using the whip or stick more harshly, moving from a tap to a thump, to multiple whacks. We are definitely not going to do that! The whole idea with brain-based horsemanship is to keep the horse calm, positive, and motivated. And to use the human brain’s capacity for thought instead of the body’s capacity for force.

So I like option three. You’ve already taught the horse to keep a spatial distance from you, to respect your bubble. Put that knowledge to use by taking a step toward the horse’s left shoulder. If that doesn’t work, try again with a bigger, more assertive step. Add direct eye contact into the mix.

Prey brains consider eye contact to be a warning. It says, “I am a predator, you need to move away from me.” I tried this with True, and Mr. Stubborn immediately moved his front feet to the right. I praised and stroked him. He very quickly learned that this maneuver was different from the standstill exercise, and he never appeared to become confused between the two.

But what if your little stinker still won’t move? Take a second step, right in to her shoulder. Push her shoulder with your body until she steps to the right. It won’t take much push. Then praise, stroke, reset with some walking, and try again.

After one or two sessions, she’ll have the right idea.

I stuck with these turns on the haunches for about two weeks before suggesting to True that turns on the forehand also exist. Once you’ve taught the shoulders to move independently, the hips are easier.

For that lesson, just place the horse in a standstill, walk to her left hip, and tap or step toward the hip until she moves her right hind leg away from you. If necessary, at first, push slightly with your hand against her left hip. When she moves away, be sure to praise and stroke! It’s important to let horses know not only what the wrong behavior is, but also what the right behavior is. 

From here, you can practice moving shoulders and hips in arena corners, back and forth along the rail, and eventually from the saddle. Under saddle, start in the arena corners and work gradually to turns on the forehand and haunches out in the open part of an arena or field. Baby steps win the race!

 Why bother with all this? Because it’s the start of lateral movement in the horse’s training. Many equine performance maneuvers in reining, jumping, and dressage, for example, require lateral movement—shoulder-ins, leg yields, half passes, side passes, canter pirouettes, and spins, to mention only a few.

And these moves are not just for dressage competition.

I use shoulder-ins to reset a quality jumping canter in corners on a hunt course, side passes for trail horses to traverse log obstacles in rough country, and leg yields to straighten the gallop or reverse lines in a reining pattern.

They can also be used to supple any horse’s body, creating greater flexibility in the horse’s muscles and joints. 

Lateral movement also allows you to teach your horse a number of important basic skills—to pay attention to you, to yield to your body on the ground, to learn that physical aids have meaning, to understand that humans and horses can communicate using body language, and to give you your spatial safety bubble.

Good luck, and happy riding!

More on ground work:

Brain-Based Horsemanship is a weekly column that chronicles Janet Jones, PhD, and her journey with True, a Dutch Warmblood she trained from age three using neuroscience best practices. Read more about brain-based training in Jones’ award winning book Horse Brain, Human Brain.

A version of this story originally appeared on It is reprinted here with permission.