Simple Steps to Stepping Your Horse Sideways

When a horse performs a relaxed, collected sidepass, it looks a lot like he's dancing. It's hard to imagine how a horse is able to master that footwork and step sideways with such effortless grace. It might seem like teaching your horse to move his feet (and as a result, his entire body) in a sidepass would be a complicated, drawn-out process—but nothing could be farther from the truth. By working through a few simple exercises, you can have your horse sidepassing in a couple of hours̵

When a horse performs a relaxed, collected sidepass, it looks a lot like he’s dancing. It’s hard to imagine how a horse is able to master that footwork and step sideways with such effortless grace. It might seem like teaching your horse to move his feet (and as a result, his entire body) in a sidepass would be a complicated, drawn-out process-but nothing could be farther from the truth. By working through a few simple exercises, you can have your horse sidepassing in a couple of hours-or even less.

Applying the Formula
Whenever we approach a particular lesson, we need to identify the four basic pieces of our training formula.

Motivator: What can we do to get our horse to change what he’s doing? To teach the sidepass, we’ll be taking the slack out of one rein. The horse will then try various options that will get us to release that rein pressure.

Spot: What specific part of the horse’s body are we trying to move? A good way to focus your attention is to imagine a spot the size of a quarter on whatever part you’re concerned with: jaw, shoulder, ear-anyplace you can physically touch your horse.

Direction: Where do we want the spot to move? For this lesson, we’ll be picturing our horse as being in the center of a clock, so we can think very specifically in terms of moving his feet toward one o’clock, three o’clock, and so forth.

Reward: How do we tell the horse he did what we wanted? We give him what he wants-a release of the rein.

Our sidepass lesson is built on several components, and each one will have its own set of these four elements. As we proceed, we’ll show you how they apply to each step.

Keeping It Simple
You may have heard people describe their methods for teaching a horse to sidepass, and it might have sounded like an elaborate process. But we never want to overcomplicate the way we communicate with our horses. For one thing, it’s hard for us to be consistent if we’re using (and trying to coordinate) a lot of signals. For another, it’s just plain confusing to the horse, who’s trying to determine what we’re asking. And finally, why burn up all our possible cues when we can get the desired response with just one? If we can get the correct movement with a single rein, we still have all our other cues for refining that movement as our training advances.

For the sidepass, we’ll actually use two cues-a speed-up cue and a one-rein cue. The speed-up cue is important because as we encourage the horse to move sideways, he will tend to slow down. That’s a good thing when you want to use lateral (sideways) movement to keep him from rocketing off down the trail or flying across the arena. But for the sidepass to work, we’ll need to keep him moving.

To get your horse to speed up, you squeeze or kick lightly with both legs. As soon as he gives you a noticeable change of speed, you can let your legs hang relaxed. Remember to stop kicking when he speeds up. Don’t nag him with your legs to keep him going, because if you do, he’ll begin to ignore your legs altogether. Being able to speed up your horse on cue is essential in all sorts of situations, so you’ll want to put in some time making sure you get a correct, consistent response. Other cues, such as leaning forward, kissing to the horse, or shaking the reins won’t be enough to make him move forward if he doesn’t want to.

We’re going to use the one-rein cue to ask for several things. The process is incremental, as your horse figures out what you want each time you take the slack out of the reins.

Give to the Bit
Motivator: The rein.
Spot: His jaw.
Direction: Left.
Reward: Releasing the rein.

When you pick up the rein, you want your horse to give you his mouth. It’s like you’re a dancer asking for your partner’s hand. You wouldn’t just grab it and yank your partner out onto the dance floor. By the same token, you don’t want to jerk your horse’s head to the side. Ask your horse to walk and then reach forward with your left hand, close it around the rein, and bring it back toward your left hip, taking the slack out of the rein. (We’ll use the left rein as our example here, but you’ll want to practice with the right side as well.)

Imagine that there’s a spot on your horse’s jaw, next to the bit. Hold the rein pressure until he moves that spot to the left. It doesn’t have to be a huge movement. The important thing is that he moves his jaw himself, without you dragging it to the side. At first, he may respond by moving his head up, down, or to the right. That’s okay; just make sure your hand stays put so that he doesn’t earn a release by creating slack in the rein. As soon as you get even the slightest movement of his head to the left, release the rein. Wait a couple of seconds and repeat the process. Do this until you can simply pick up on the left rein and have him bring his nose to the left.

What’s so Great About Diagonal Work?

The goal here may have been to teach the sidepass, which is handy when you want to open and close gates or retrieve your jacket from a fencepost, but an additional value of the lesson is in developing diagonal movement. Not only does it help you control your horse better, it provides a foundation for more advanced work, such as spins, sliding stops, lead changes, collection, and piaffe.

• Teach the horse not to push into the bridle. If he gets heavy on the reins or stiffens his neck, you can ask him to soften using one rein, as you do when requesting a diagonal movement.
• Provide a way to control a horse who gets too quick or is hard to handle. If you need to slow your horse down or if he’s spooking, jigging, or showing signs of bolting, asking him to soften and move on the diagonal slows his forward motion and helps calm him down.
• Position the horse to take the correct lead or make a lead change. Diagonals allow you to teach your horse to walk in the correct lead, before you introduce the excitement of speed.
• Help with a horse’s coordination and collection. This is a great skill for a horse who stumbles on the trail, as well as for performance horses. Moving correctly on the diagonal elevates your horse’s withers slightly and encourages him to drive from his hindquarters, which strengthens his back and improves coordination.
• Force you to become a better trainer, because you have to be specific in your request and release to get proper results.
• Give you better control when leading your horse. If you’ve taught your horse diagonals from the ground, you can move his shoulders over to keep him from bumping into you or dragging you off.

Head Elevation
Motivator: The rein.
Spot: His left ear.
Direction: Down.
Reward: Releasing the rein.

We also want the horse’s head to be at a relaxed level. With your horse walking forward, pick up the left rein and have him give to the bit. But this time, don’t release the rein pressure when he moves his jaw to the left. He may pull on the bit for awhile, but just maintain steady pressure. After he tries a few “let go!” pulls, he’ll investigate some alternatives to find that release, moving his head in various directions. Imagine the spot this time is on the tip of his left ear. Don’t worry about where you’re headed-your focus needs to be on that ear, not on steering. As soon as you see the ear drop a quarter of an inch, release the rein. After a few seconds, go through the same routine. Practice this lesson until your horse’s head is at a nice, relaxed elevation.

Long Neck Muscle
Motivator: The rein.
Spot: Long muscle along left side of his neck.Direction: Right. (The neck will relax that way as his head comes to the left.)
Reward: Releasing the rein.

If your horse is traveling with a stiff neck, it will be difficult to get a light or fluid response. Think of dancing again-it would be hard to move your partner around the floor if his or her neck were tense.

Start by having your horse walk forward and ask for the give by taking up the left rein. Continue holding the rein until you get that relaxed head elevation. Now keep holding the rein until you see that long neck muscle soften. You aren’t really asking him to bring his head farther to the left-your focus should be on that neck muscle. As soon as you see it relax, you can release the rein and allow him to walk forward freely.

After you’ve practiced this for awhile, you’ll start to notice that your horse puts all the pieces together. When you pick up the rein, he’ll give, put his head at the right elevation, and relax his neck.

Jaw Toward the Shoulder
Motivator: The rein.
Spot: His jaw, left side.
Direction: Down and left, toward the base of his neck.
Reward: Releasing the rein.

Now we want to have the horse move that spot on his jaw toward a spot at the base of his neck, where it meets his shoulder. Ask your horse to walk forward and then have him give, get the proper head elevation, and relax his neck muscle. Maintain that rein pressure and think about him taking the jaw spot down and to the left. As soon as you feel movement in that direction, release the rein. Keep him walking forward and ask for this series again. Try to have him bring the spots closer without letting him stop. You’ll begin to notice that his left shoulder seems to be moving away from the left rein. To picture what’s happening, turn your head and look toward the left, around ten o’clock. Then drop your chin down toward your left collarbone and feel how your left shoulder wants to shift toward the right. This is what you want to happen with your horse.

Left Shoulder to the Right
Motivator: The rein.
Spot: His left shoulder.
Direction: Right.
Reward: Releasing the rein.

When you reach this point, your horse is probably already stepping sideways on his own from time to time. So all you have to do now is get the movement consistent and then play with the extent of the step.

Get your horse moving forward and then take the slack out of the left rein and ask him to give his jaw down to his shoulder, as in the previous step. When he does, give him a mini-release (release the rein pressure but immediately take up the slack again). This tells him he did the right thing but you want something more. Repeat the process until he moves his left shoulder to the right. As soon as the shoulder begins to move, give him a real release and let him walk forward.

You may wonder why you should be focusing on his shoulder movement instead of where his feet are going. The answer is simple: He moves his shoulder before he moves his feet. So we can reward the correct movement more quickly by giving him a release when the shoulder moves over. As long as the shoulder is doing the right thing, the feet will, too.

As you practice this step, your horse is likely to be walking in a pretty tight circle, and he may want to stop. Just use your speed-up cue to keep him going and concentrate on having him move that left shoulder to the right. Your goal is to have him move forward at a diagonal-toward one o’clock on that imaginary clock face. Continue to work on this exercise, giving him a release and letting him walk forward each time he moves his shoulder over for you. Eventually, he’ll keep walking forward when you give him your cue, but at a slight angle to the side.

From Diagonal to Sidepass
You’ve laid all the groundwork-now the fun begins! As your horse starts to consistently move his left shoulder to the right on cue, you can play with the shoulder spot. Think about having him step farther to the side, say, two o’clock. When he does, release the rein and let him walk forward. Continue to play with the shoulder spot, thinking “three o’clock.” When you get that step-straight to the right-you have your sidepass. From here, it’s just a matter of practice and fine-tuning. When you’re consistently getting that single step, you can think about taking additional steps and taking longer steps.

Incidentally, although we compressed the entire lesson into one continuous series of steps, you don’t have to. In fact, it might be better if you put in a few minutes here and there working on them as stand-alone exercises. Each step is a mini-lesson that will help you develop responsiveness and control. Once your horse has all the mechanics down, you can put everything together for the sidepass.

From the Ground
You can also teach this lesson from the ground. In fact, it’s a great foundation for a horse you aren’t riding yet. He’ll develop excellent leading manners (once you can move that shoulder over, he won’t crowd you). And when you do get on his back, you’ll already have a way to control him with the rein. Teaching the sidepass from the ground offers a number of other benefits:

• You can see exactly what’s going on, since your horse is right in front of you.
• You can release the rein more quickly-the instant you see the shoulder move.
• You can keep your horse moving forward without wearing out the speed-up cue.
• You can easily teach your horse to increase his reach or vary the direction of the step