I love lateral movements for so many reasons:
- improving suppleness, forwardness, and self-carriage
- refining communication
- stretching between exercises
Also, nothing feels quite as dressage-y as a few steps sideways.
After our warm up, Harley was trotting along with a nice rhythm. I was rising to the trot. I wanted to feel more fluidity in his strides, so I brought him down the quarter line and nudged him over to the track. The trick to lateral motion while rising to the trot is to post on the "wrong diagonal". More specifically, post with the front leg that is on the same side as the hind leg with which you would like to communicate. So if I want to leg yield to the left, I post with the front right leg. Each time that I sit, I apply my right leg and I release the aid as I rise. Repeat for as many steps as you would like to travel in leg yield. Of course your horse must be balanced between your reins and legs with sufficient forward energy, but the posting trick really helps with the timing of the aid. I have taught several riders this trick with great success. I call it a trick, because lateral work is typically conducted in sitting trot, but giving your horse a chance to practice the movement without your full weight in the saddle can be very beneficial. It is also interesting to feel how your horse responds to your weight and legs when you cannot push your seat around in the saddle. I have found this practice quite enlightening, especially when I return to sitting trot.
After a few passes at leg yield, Harley's trot is flowing much better. He heads for the long side and I carry the bend from the corner into shoulder-in. I am still posting on the inside diagonal, as I ask him to move down the long side with a gentle bend. As he works to shift his weight back, I feel him tighten the base of his neck, so I take the inside rein to the side, asking him to let his neck go. We have been working on this "letting go" on circles and straight lines, so asking him to keep the base of his neck soft is a familiar cue. He releases his neck and reaches for the bit. This lovely reach continues as we straighten and ride forward. I gently steady my hands just above the withers, and Harley's neck arches like a bow with his nose ahead of the vertical.
Haunches-in or travers is next on the list. Again, I begin from the corner and ride a small circle. Upon returning to the track, I keep the bend from the circle and ask him to carry his hindquarters just to the inside. At first he thinks that I want to canter, so I say "trot" and keep my legs in the haunches-in position. His hesitation is momentary, as he assumes the haunches-in and trots forward. This movement is considerably more challenging than shoulder-in. He tightens his neck, even though he obediently steps under his weight with the outside hind. Again, I coax him to release his neck and straighten between the reins. He shows his trust by letting go a little, dropping his head, and relaxing his shoulders. I immediately feel his hind legs swing more easily. This exercise requires a lot of tact. If I push too much, my muscle tension spoils his ability to move. If I drop the supports, his energy leaks out inefficiently, usually resulting in more neck tension and heavy shoulders. The beautiful thing about this movement is that your horse does not have to perform perfectly to reap the benefits of the exercise. With each attempt, Harley becomes more supple, more forward, and lifts his shoulders towards a light contact. I encourage him to carry his improved forwardness into the next movement, and he is able to give me a couple really nice tries, especially in left bend. The right bend is noticeably more difficult for him, so I sit the trot a little to get a direct line of communication between his haunches and my seat. When he blows through his nose and offers a lengthening from haunches-in right, I know that the exercise has served its purpose.
We finish our ride with a very simple test. Not a competition test, but a dressage test nonetheless. We ride around in trot and I keep my hands just about at his withers. I give little nudges with my legs, to see if he is in front of my leg. He keeps his rhythm and the softness in his body, but powers on from behind. Without moving my reins, I feel how much he can lift in front, just from those little nudges. His trot is floaty and wonderful. I imagine what he must look like, as we soar around the ring. I love this part, because he feels so easy to ride. And Harley is not easy. I think that he is most challenging horse that I have ever ridden. Not challenging in the confrontational sense, although he can get angry and has gotten angry with me more than once in our time together, but in the search for balance. Lasting balance. The kind that lets him carry me around effortlessly and trot to the gate at dinner time, with a soft lift in his body even when boots and saddles are no where to be found.