KEY EXERCISES FROM MONICA THEODORESCU
Germany’s Monica Theodorescu discusses this indispensable element in the daily training of her horses.
Lateral work plays an essential role on the way to higher collection, which is expressed in a high degree of suppleness, carrying strength and self-carriage and is an indispensable element of the daily training of all my horses. My father, Georg Theodorescu, had a guiding motto that every rider should be aware of: “A horse doesn’t get collected through hand and spurs, but through exercises.” The correct seat and position of the rider allow lateral movements to initiate the stepping-under, longitudinal flexion, throughness, straightness and suppleness that are all part of the German Training Scale—the ever-valid and ever-present guideline I use when I work my horses.
Which kind of lateral movement and exercise is needed and included in a training session depends on the horse. This means that a rider has to analyze daily what a horse needs in general and on a particular day. Different exercises that cater to a horse’s individual needs will increasingly straighten and strengthen him, increase suppleness and also improve his balance. For example, a young horse’s lateral work will be dictated by his weaker direction, whereas lateral movements such as a not too steeply ridden half pass serve a Grand Prix horse as gymnastics and animates him to swing through his whole body. But whether working with a novice or Grand Prix horse, correctly done lateral work will always improve the horse’s gaits and most of all, the trot.
Since horses are all individuals, I cannot give you universal recipes in this article, but hopefully you’ll see some ideas and suggestions for your own work.
When is My Horse Ready for Lateral Work?
People often ask at what age a horse is ready to start with the first lateral movements. But because horses, like ourselves, are individuals and develop differently, it is difficult to determine a specific age. It makes more sense to name the preconditions that have to be fulfilled if you want to achieve the positive effects of lateral work that I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Most important is that the horse has already learned to correctly work on bending lines such as circles. “Correct” means that the horse remains relaxed and thus keeps his rhythm in both directions with an even contact so that he begins to show some suppleness under the rider.
The First Lateral Movements
Whatever I aim for when training horses, one working principle from my father rings in my ears: The horse should consider the exercises easy and keep the joy and eagerness throughout his training. For that reason it is paramount that when we teach the horse lateral movements, we
thoroughly prepare him and ask only for a few steps at the beginning. This is to ensure that he doesn’t lose his balance and get tense, but instead experiences something positive on which we can build in the future training.
The first lateral movements I teach the horse are leg yielding and shoulder-fore. Both do not require more collection and serve two different purposes in the horse’s education. Leg yielding is a movement that does not require or foster any collection or lateral bending, but is useful to teach the horse the diagonal aids and the obedience to them. Shoulder-fore, on the other hand, already requires some slight collection and lateral bending and therefore prepares the horse for the most important lateral movement, shoulder-in.
Unlike in any other lateral movement, in the leg yield the horse remains straight in his body and neck, except for a slight flexion of the poll against the direction he is moving. While leg yielding doesn’t serve collection, it is still beneficial for teaching the young horse to move away from the inside leg and generally to acquaint him with the diagonal aids. It is also quite useful for a horse of any level to help him loosen up during the warm-up phase because the crossing of the hind legs allows the horse to give his back and come onto the bit.
Leg yielding is not a demanding movement, but like everything else, it needs to be well done and as always: less is more. So when you ride it, take care that the horse promptly moves away from the inside leg, shows a clear diagonal crossing, is forward enough and retains his rhythm. I personally do not like to ride leg yield or anything else with the head against the wall of the arena because this has a slowing down effect and no horse likes to go with his head against the wall. Leg yielding can be started from the track across the diagonal or from the centerline toward the track. When riding this movement with an inexperienced horse across the diagonal, you must only ask for steps that fulfill the requirements mentioned. Do not ask for these steps on a steep diagonal because it would mean a significant crossing, which might easily throw the youngster off balance.
Here are two simple exercises to train the young horse to listen to your diagonal aids:
Exercise 1. Alternate a few steps of leg yield across the diagonal with a few steps straight forward and back again to leg yielding and so on (see above diagram). The horse learns to react quicker and in a more refined way to the diagonal aids, which will help you later on when teaching more collected lateral movements.
Exercise 2. Start leg yielding out of a corner of the arena, as shown in the diagram at the bottom of p. 32. Ride a few steps straight, then leg yield until you reach the centerline. There, ride a few steps straight, followed by leg yield in the other direction back to the same wall. If your horse begins moving too fast or the steps become slow and inconsistent or the horse throws his head up, it all indicates that he has lost his balance. At that point, ride a big circle to restore lost balance, choose a less steep angle and ask for fewer steps when attempting leg yield again.
Shoulder-fore is a lateral movement that isn’t talked about much, but is very important in the training of a young horse because it is, in principle, the same movement as the more well-known shoulder-in only with longitudinal flexion and a smaller angle from the wall. Ridden on three tracks with a slight flexion in line with the body, shoulder-fore already asks for a certain degree of collection as the inner hind leg gets animated to step under, carry more weight and the shoulder freedom increases.
You can develop shoulder-fore out of a corner of the arena or a volte to easily prepare the needed longitudinal flexion. Take care that you lead the shoulders into the arena with the outside rein and bend the horse around your inside leg instead of feeling tempted to pull his head in, as this will rob the movement of any benefit. The inside rein is there to yield or correct the horse if he gets tilted in his neck. Incorrect use of the inside rein only results in the horse falling onto the outside shoulder instead of stepping under with his inside hind leg.
Collected Lateral Movements
Advanced lateral movements like shoulder-in, travers, renvers and the half pass require a certain degree of collection and when practiced regularly and correctly will increase collection at the same time. The higher the degree of collection, the more weight the horse’s hind legs will carry and the lighter his shoulders will become. In turn, this determines the degree of balance of the horse, and all lateral work helps us with our goal to bring him into the best possible balance. But because it is impossible to speak about all of these advanced movements in one article, I will focus only on the shoulder-in and the half pass, which are both required in advanced dressage tests.
François Robichon de la Guérinière
A young horse like 7-year-old Quadrille xx ridden by Theodorescu’s student Louise Robson, will show less bending and crossing in a half pass than a Grand Prix horse will later on.
Leg Yield, Exercise 2
Leg Yield, Exercise 1
Once the horse is able to do the shoulder-in properly, the more demanding travers can be introduced. Both movements can be alternated along the wall or arena boundary.
Robson rides Quadrille in shoulderfore, which requires slight collection and lateral bending and prepares the young horse for the most important lateral movement, shoulder-in.