Why on earth would smooth backwards and sideways make your horse better at anything else? What do they even have to do with everything else?

Backwards and sideways have everything to do with your horse’s impulsion and emotional fitness – which influences almost everything else your horse does. If you have a sticky, slow backup or a sideways with your horse bent like a banana (if he goes sideways at all), then chances are you have a horse that is impulsive (more go than whoa) or dull (more whoa than go). Either one is an impulsion problem. I would bet that if you put pressure on your horse to go backwards or straighten his sideways then he would become pretty upset, even to the point of exploding with a rear, buck or champing his mouth.

Impulsion means controlled energy. Yes, this refers to physical energy, but it also refers to mental and emotional energy. If a horse’s speed is controlled physically with a bit or various gadgets, but he is straining at the bit, champing his mouth, heavy on the forehand, constantly wanting to stop or barely being held back from bolting, then he doesn’t really have impulsion. Impulsion means that your horse’s go equals his whoa – with or without a bit in his mouth. It means that pressing with one leg on your horse’s side doesn’t mean go forward or go faster to him.

In the Yo-Yo Game (part four of the Parelli Natural Horse•Man•Ship Seven Games series) you learned how to teach your horse to back up. Then balanced his forward and backward movements until they were equal. You probably noticed a big difference in his attitude, emotions and how much attention he gave you too! In the Circling Game (part five) you taught your horse how to maintain gait and maintain direction. Now, in the Sideways Game, you will learn how to straighten your horse and have him yield laterally with softness and respect. All three of these games help develop your horse’s impulsion. Remember that you need the first five of the Seven Games under your belt before doing this sixth one because each game is built on the one before it. And, whenever you do run into problems, go back and review the earlier games until you get better results.

Why does the Sideways Game calm your horse’s emotions?

Sideways is a movement not readily used by horses. It is natural for them but is not as important to their survival as moving forwards. This is mainly because to move sideways the horse has to cross his legs over each other – not a great escape technique! In the wild a horse will cross his legs over only when turning around after fleeing danger to see if he is still being pursued; this is called “crossing the flight line.” After running flat out for a little more than 440 yards, a horse will disengage his hindquarter and briefly turn around. When he turns and crosses his hind legs, crossing the flight line, he goes from a flight (right brain) mode to a thinking (left brain) mode just for a few seconds so he can assess the situation and quickly decide if he needs to keep running.

When specifically asking your horse to disengage his hindquarter and cross his legs over as you do in the Porcupine, Driving and Sideways Games, you are causing him to switch into his thinking mode and use the left side of his brain. When you ask your horse to go sideways for some distance, you are helping him to stay in his left brain, thinking mode.

Disengaging the hindquarter is especially helpful in calming a flighty or upset horse. If your horse is in his right brain (afraid and not listening to you), doing a long stretch of the Sideways Game will help him switch into his left brain and tune back into you. This is true whether you are in the saddle or on the ground. It could take 200 yards for him to make the switch, but the Sideways Game will help him start thinking!

How important is it to teach your horse the Sideways Game?

Please notice that I call this the Sideways Game, not the side pass game. This game is about teaching the horse to athletically go sideways both to the right and the left with ease and a soft willingness. A side pass, on the other hand, is a specific maneuver with a very definite body position mostly used in the higher levels of dressage and reining.

By developing the simple maneuvers learned in the Sideways Game, you are building the foundation for teaching your horse to do a side pass. It is also the foundation skill used to develop more suspension, flying lead changes, spins, pirouettes, half passes, counter arcs, cow work and cutting skills. All of these advanced maneuvers require that your horse goes sideways – easily! If your horse doesn’t have a great sideways, you will probably have a lot of trouble getting him to do any one of these movements, especially without a fair amount of resistance.

On the more practical side, a great Sideways Game builds the foundation for teaching your horse how to get close enough to a gate to open and close it or come close to a rock or stump so you can mount, very useful when you are riding bareback. This game also helps you and your horse get close to the mailbox, get under a tree branch that needs trimming or make it easy to hand a water bottle to a friend while on the trail. Working cowboys know just how handy a great sideways maneuver can be when they need to get close to livestock or when traveling over dangerous trails.

Developing a great sideways

The first step of the Sideways Game is to go back to the Driving Game and make sure you can yield the horse’s hindquarters and then the forehand, independently of each other.

Once you have control over each end of the horse and from both sides, you are ready to ask him to go sideways. Start “slow and right!” With just the halter and lead rope on your horse, ask him to stand with his nose on a fence or rail to prevent him from going forwards. Position yourself facing his mid-section, and ask your horse to move one end or the other for just a step or two at a time. Start with the Driving Game to first move the forehand a little, then the hindquarter a little, then the forehand again, then the hindquarter. If you are using a PNH Carrot Stick, move it like a windshield wiper, slowly going back and forth, driving the forehand then the hindquarter until they are moving together and your horse is going sideways.

Ask your horse for just a few steps at first and then build up to where you can send him sideways for 20, 30 or even 50 feet at a time. See how little it takes to get your horse to go sideways. Do you have to touch him or can you just touch the air to get him to move? Is he responding with the lightest suggestion or do you have to move around a lot? Once your horse is responding well to the Sideways Game using the Driving Game technique, try asking him to go sideways using the Porcupine Game technique.

If your horse pulls backwards while you are asking him to go sideways it is usually due to fear and confusion. Make sure you play plenty of Friendly Game (part 1) and continue to improve your Driving and Porcupine Games until your horse no longer feels threatened by them.

If, during the Sideways Game, you can see more of your horse’s butt than his head, it means he is dragging his hindquarter. This actually means he is moving forwards with his hind legs rather than crossing them over to go sideways. Don’t worry about it too much at first. As your horse gains confidence and relaxes, you can ask him to yield a bit more hindquarter each time. Build his straightness progressively until he is finally traveling along the fence line perfectly straight from nose to tail.

If your horse kicks out when you drive one end or the other, he is still showing a lot of Opposition Reflex. Go back and practice all of the first five of the Seven Games. Your horse is trying to stop you from moving that part of his body because he’s trying to dominate you, doesn’t respect you as his leader, or it’s a reaction of self defense because he feels threatened, trapped or afraid. Stay calm, don’t get tense, and especially don’t get aggressive! Your horse could interpret aggressiveness, frustration or anger as predatory behavior and it will only make him worse. Be passively persistent in the proper position. And, use prior and proper preparation by getting better at the previous games.

How light is your horse?

The softer and lighter you can be on the ground, the softer and lighter you can be in the saddle. Your horse learns how to be light and responsive on the ground first, or he doesn’t. Playing the Seven Games on the ground is the first step because how he responds to you from the ground is intrinsically connected to how he responds to you in the saddle. It’s all about developing feel, in your horse and yourself.

That’s why it makes so much sense to teach your horse how to move forward, backward, right, left, up and down from on the ground. It provides the opportunity to exaggerate while you are teaching and helps your horse understand the concepts of what you want. Once your horse understands the concept, you can refine your skills to almost imperceptible suggestions. One day it will look like your horse does what you ask by reading your mind.

You become infinitely more effective teaching things first on the ground because you are able to put your hand or Carrot Stick in exactly in the right place to get the response you are after. Once in the saddle, you become far more limited as to where you can touch your horse. For example, when first teaching your horse to move his hindquarter over in the Porcupine Game, you started by pressing your fingers directly into the side of your horse’s hip using the Four Phases. This is really difficult, if not impossible, to do while in the saddle. Once your horse understands the concept of moving his hindquarter away from the lightest pressure of your hand, you are able to move your hand a little further forward each time. After a short while your hand will be in the same location that your leg would be if you asked him to move his hindquarter over from the saddle. This is how you can progressively teach your horse to respond to lighter and lighter leg aids.

The other key to success is to always use Four Phases. By asking your horse to do something very slowly and releasing very quickly the moment he does it, your horse learns to respond to softer and softer suggestions. In my program, my students spend a lot of time perfecting the skill of having hands (and legs) that close slowly and open quickly. As natural born predators, this is not an instinctive ability in humans. Instead we are far more inclined to dig in quickly with our hands or legs and release slowly.

Have you ever had a little, purring house predator on your lap when a dog walks in the room? Chong! In go the claws quickly as the hair stands on end. Do the claws come out quickly or slowly? Sometimes it’s painfully slow. Just like that little house predator, humans are programmed by nature to dig in fast and release slowly. You need to be extremely conscious of this tendency until you can establish the new habit of closing your hands slowly and opening them quickly.

Horses, by their nature, are mistrustful of predators because their survival depends on it! These prey animals are programmed to do the opposite of what a predator wants and how you use your “claws” can bring that opposition right to the surface. When a horse doesn’t do what he is asked, the human usually gets frustrated, a bit angry, closes his hands a little faster and with some extra force – and the horse gets worse and worse! What you need to do is relax, smile and start over at Phase 1 of the Four Phases. Become passively persistent in the proper position until the horse gets it.

One last but very important reason to teach new skills or develop light responsiveness in your horse on the ground first, is that you take the rider’s balance, confidence, or skill level issues right out of the picture. The horse becomes free to develop his attitude, knowledge, and athletic ability without having to balance a rider on his back and in his mouth. He develops self-carriage and finds his natural way of moving. Then when you add a saddle and finally a rider, he has a strong foundation to draw from.  The Sideways Game is a perfect example. Most riders have all kinds of trouble teaching their horse to go sideways in the saddle or perfecting their half passes, side passes and counter arcs. So much so, that lateral movements are considered “difficult” and relegated to higher levels of training. It does not need to be this way. The Sideways Game is the simplest way I know of to teach a horse how to move laterally and with softness. From there, the high level maneuvers become simple matters.

Coming in our next issue of Horse-Canada: The Squeeze Game