Written by: Alison King

Suppling exercises for horses at every age and stage.

Thumbnail for Lateral Thinking with Charlotte Dujardin

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Among the many lessons spectators gleaned from the 2018 Charlotte Dujardin clinics held in Calgary and Toronto, one that stood out was the importance of lateral work at every age and stage of the horse’s development. From the four-year-olds to the grand prix horses, Charlotte used a series of lateral exercises with each group, not only to work on the specific movements found in their dressage tests, but to improve suppleness, straightness, transitions, and the quality of the gaits.

“All horses are naturally stronger or more supple on one side than the other,” Charlotte says. “All riders are, too, which is why it’s not surprising that a rider usually shares his bad side with his horse. We need to address our own balance and weaknesses in the saddle so that the horse is always working evenly in both reins and is equally supple left and right. For the rider, that means time in the gym with a good trainer; for the horse, lateral work is the key.”

Training/First Level (FEI 4- & 5-year-olds)

At the earliest stages of training, Charlotte likes to use shoulder-fore to help develop balance and straightness in the young or green horse and to improve transitions between gaits. She mentioned that lateral work is also an excellent tool to keep the horse’s mind focused and deal with any issues of nervousness or spooking.

The leg yield first appears in the national dressage tests at first level, and it is the first lateral exercise Charlotte formally introduces to horses in training. She offered some easy tips everyone can use at home to teach or improve the leg yield:

  • Begin by turning straight down the centre line, then leg yielding to the wall.
  • Set the horse up as if going straight across the diagonal first, then add the sideways movement.
  • Resist the urge to use the inside rein! The horse needs to maintain straightness from the outside rein and move sideways away from the outside leg.
  • Too much inside rein and neck bend to the inside will result in the horse falling out through the outside shoulder. Nose should stay in the middle of the chest.
  • Focus on keeping the rhythm and contact exactly the same – nothing should change.
  • Increase the difficulty by beginning in the corner and leg yielding from the wall to the centre line.

Exercise #1: Leg Yield Zig-Zag

Once the leg yields to and away from the wall are well established, try a leg yield zig-zag in trot, either from the wall to the centre line and back, or for a specific number of strides on either side of the centre line. This exercise will really highlight whether you are working evenly on the left and right. If it takes you six strides to reach the centre line from the wall in trot, for example, it should take exactly six strides to then leg yield back to the wall again.

Second/Third Level (FEI 6- & 7-year olds)

Charlotte likes to perfect shoulder-in and travers at this stage of training, then builds upon them to create the half-pass – which she points out is simply travers on a diagonal line. Both movements appear in dressage tests at second and third level and are the foundation of more advanced lateral work such as the pirouette. Having control of the shoulders and haunches is also a critical step towards successfully introducing the flying change, which Charlotte typically does by the time the horse reaches age six, so mix your training up by including renvers as well. Her top tips for success included:

  • In shoulder-in, make sure you are actually bringing the horse’s shoulder in off the track, and not cheating by simply pushing the hindquarters out.
  • In both shoulder-in and travers, focus on developing a good stretch through the outside of the horse’s body and the correct bend around your inside leg.
  • Alternate between shoulder-in and travers at first on a long side and then, once that exercise is well-established, up the difficulty by alternating between the movements on a 15-metre circle.
  • To really test your horse’s suppleness, begin in shoulder-in down the long side, then change the flexion to switch to renvers. How easily can your horse switch between the two while maintaining the exact same rhythm and contact?

Exercise #2: Half-Pass Helper

This exercise is not only a great technique for introducing the half-pass, it’s also very helpful for improving it, and can be performed at the trot or the canter. Begin by turning straight down the centre line, then leg yield to the quarter line. Increase the flexion and think travers to finish in half-pass from the quarter line to the wall. Repeat in the opposite direction. Remember to look where you want to go; in the half-pass you should be able to see your destination letter between your horse’s ears.

Prix St. Georges/Small Tour

At this stage in the horse’s development, Charlotte works on adjustability within the gaits and between lateral movements, always focusing on the basics of rhythm, tempo, contact and suppleness. It’s tempting to train the ‘tricks’ such as pirouette every day, but Charlotte advises riders not to – it only creates unnecessary wear and tear on your horse. For pirouettes, the secret to success lies in creating a very collected canter while maintaining control of the haunches through each stride. Follow Charlotte’s advice to train pirouettes:

  • On a 15-metre canter circle, try gradually spiralling in to the smallest circle you can ride without allowing the canter to slow down or the contact to become unsteady. Gradually spiral back out to 15 metres.
  • Use tiny, frequent half-halts to keep the balance uphill and the energy coming from behind as the circle gets smaller.
  • Repeat the same exercise in shoulder-in, then in haunches-in. Then try switching between shoulder-in and haunches-in on the circle while spiralling in and out.
  • Always think of ‘lifting’ the horse up from your inside leg.

Exercise #3: Perfecting Pirouettes

Begin in canter and prepare to turn down the centre line. “Use the corner before to prepare for the turn and develop the correct flexion,” advises Charlotte. “If you ride a bad corner before, you will ride a bad movement after; I guarantee it.” Proceed down the centre line to X in shoulder-in, ride a 10-metre circle, then continue in half-pass from X to the wall. Perform a flying change. Turn up the centre line and repeat the exercise; shoulder-in to X, followed by the 10-metre circle, then half-pass to the wall. Each time you repeat the pattern, decrease the circle size until it becomes a pirouette.

Developing Grand Prix

One of the toughest movements in the grand prix test is the canter half-pass zig-zag. It’s a stern test of a rider’s ability to multitask and much can go wrong, from miscounted strides and flubbed flying changes, to covering an unequal distance from either side of the centre line or failing to leave enough room at the end of the line to straighten in time for the final single change. According to Charlotte, the most common pitfalls are too much sideways and not enough forward movement, too much forward and not enough sideways movement, and covering more ground in one direction than the other. To help deal with those issues and more, she offered the following advice:

  • Always set yourself up for success by riding a good corner first.
  • Use your arena mirrors or have a person on the ground confirm if you have more bend in one direction than the other.
  • Count the strides out loud: i.e. “One, two, straighten, change.”
  • If the horse anticipates the movement – for example, the 3-6-6-6-3 pattern in the grand prix zig-zag – change it up. Do it in seven strides, and then five to ensure you are controlling every step, not the horse.

Exercise #4: Back to Basics

To break the complex canter zig-zag into more simple, smaller parts, Charlotte goes right back to the most basic of lateral movements: leg yield. “Canter leg yield isn’t a movement you will find on any dressage test, but Carl [Hester] and I use it every day,” she says.” It’s easier for the horse to move sideways in leg yield than in half-pass, so it’s a great tool for teaching. Once they’ve mastered a movement in leg yield, you build on that success by doing it in half-pass.”

This exercise is nearly identical to the first exercise for young horses (see page 47), except performed in canter instead of trot. From the wall, leg yield exactly six strides over towards centre line, then six strides back. Did you finish right back at the wall? If not, you aren’t covering an equal amount of ground in each direction, and your zig-zag from the centre line will be lopsided. Don’t forget to check not only the distance you cover laterally in each direction, but also how many metres forward you travel each way.