To shift your horse closer to a gate, along a pole or away from the horse giving off bad vibes beside you in the class line-up, you’ll need to teach him to side pass.

What’s a side pass?

Most equine associations agree: the horse should step across and in front with the front and hind legs in unison when performing the side pass. The horse’s body stays straight while moving laterally in the specified direction.

Why side pass?

I use the side pass, as the most basic step in introducing the concept of lateral movement. Trainers of some disciplines may disagree, citing the tradition of preserving forward movement. But I’ll stand by my view, based on what we know from the science of equine learning: 1. Build a skill with the simplest concepts first; 2. Teach one response per signal – i.e. don’t combine cues such as sideways and forward. Keep signals separate and distinct.

Get started

Does your horse yield away from light pressure applied to his side from the ground? Everything you do on the ground will facilitate the process in the saddle. If you try to teach the side pass over a pole, you’ll likely overwhelm your horse. Prey animals feel particularly vulnerable with anything around their feet – not an ideal frame of mind to process a new skill. Some riders find it helpful to face a wall, as a barrier in front eliminates the forward option and leaves the sideways option more appealing.

The role of your leg is to create just enough pressure that the horse seeks for the key to shut off that pressure. When your horse chooses the “step sideways” answer, relax your cues and sit still a few seconds before asking for another step. The role of your hands is to keep your horse’s neck and head straight (perpendicular to the wall) and block any forward step.

What if…

• My horse is confused and backs up? Side passing is not a natural movement, so your horse may experiment with more obvious answers before stepping to the side. These may include stepping forward, tossing his head, turning or backing. Instead of interrupting your side pass cues to apply your forward cue (both legs), I’d suggest simply keeping your side pass cue in place. The horse finds no release (negative reinforcement) until he tries to answer correctly. This “step in the right direction” may be a lateral forehand/haunches mix at first, but do reward some semblance of sideways.

• My horse won’t budge? Sometimes a horse will just lock up in indecision, frustration or anxiety. Smoothly escalate your cues until your horse is motivated to search for options, and moves.

Shaping for perfection

Shaping, in learning science, is gradually teaching a new skill by rewarding each step or approximation of the skill until the target behaviour is achieved. (See the 2016 Canadian Horse Annual for more on shaping behaviours.)

Have you ever played the “hot and cold” game? As the player gets closer to the prize, you yell “hotter!” telling him that he’s on the right track. When I release my cue for a sidestep “try,” I’m telling my horse that he’s on the right track. Think of shaping a polished side pass through three levels:

1. Elementary. Sometimes the right try happens by accident, as if the horse is guessing. Your horse graduates when he’s no longer testing wrong answers. He feels your signal, and immediately takes a step sideways to find his reward.

2. Middle school. Two steps, three steps, four steps. Now the forehand and haunches move laterally in unison. Don’t be surprised if, when asked to straddle and sidestep along a pole, he gets flustered or freezes. Settle for one step followed by resting in “neutral.” Straddling the pole is a happy place to be. If you keep the pole visually aligned with your stirrup, it’ll be nicely centred under his belly. I stop along the pole in various places, to keep my horse guessing. Too many horses learn the routine of whizzing down to the end of the pole and walking away from the obstacle.

3. Advanced. As a judge, I’ll reward the horse demonstrating efficiency and softness. He travels in steady steps of even length. There’s no sign of tension, (cranking tail, rushing, fixed ears) or resistance (leaning on the bit, elevated head). To finish the shaping process, take off the training wheels – resist the urge to hold onto your horse to prevent him from stepping forward. Soften your reins and test his self-carriage. Expect a response from a light leg. Sit up straight and make it look effortless!