Improve your horsemanship, and develop a kind, trustworthy relationship with your trail horse with top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight. Teach your horse to sidepass for greater on-trail maneuverability.
When you teach your horse to sidepass, you learn to control his every foot placement and guide his every step. If you teach your horse this skill correctly, he’ll respond to your every cue and to your natural aids (seat, hand, and leg).
Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight will teach you how to position your body so that your horse will quickly understand that you’re asking for sideways movement. She’ll help you reinforce this new skill by asking you to practice it using a fence line as a guide.
Natural-horsemanship lesson: You’ll learn how to use your primary natural aids – your seat, legs and hands – to cue the horse to move sideways. You’ll apply these aids to control his every step.
Why you need it on the trail: On the trail, sidepassing is an important skill. Without it, you may find yourself in a jam when you need to dodge through timber and tight openings or sidle next to another rider to offer aid. Sidepassing also comes in handy when it’s time to open a gate, drag a log, pony another horse, push aside brush, and avoid a rock or even a snake.
What you’ll do: You’ll begin by learning how to position your body so that your horse will understand the go-sideways cue. Next, you’ll reinforce your sidepass cues as you ride next to a fence or barrier to help him understand which direction to go. Once you’ve mastered your work on the fence line, you’ll progress to sidepassing over a ground pole and logs.
What you’ll need: If your horse hasn’t been trained to sidepass at all, it’s best to start out with a snaffle or curb bit with articulation between the shanks (rather than a solid mouthpiece). A bit with movement will help him better feel your side-to-side rein aids.
Skills your horse will need: Your horse needs to know how to stop with just a seat cue, go forward off your leg cue, and back up on cue (using more leg than rein).
Step #1. Learn the Cues
Tack up (see bit recommendation, above), and warm up as usual. Practice starting, stopping, and turns to make sure your horse is listening to your cues.
In this step, you’ll learn how to use your body to ask your horse for this precise cue. In the next step, you’ll introduce him to the training process by using the cue.
Keep in mind that there are only six ways a horse can move: forward, back, through the right shoulder, though the right hip, through the left shoulder, and through the left hip. Imagine these directions as the “doors” that you can open and close with your leg and rein aids. To start, we’ll open the doors to the right and close the doors to the front, back, and left.
Pick up the reins, and slightly shift your weight back to block your horse’s forward motion (that is, close the door to the front). For a sidepass to the right (shown), open the right rein (lift it slightly to encourage your horse to lift his shoulder), and slide your left hand to his neck’s midline (closing the “door” to movement to the left and opening a passageway to the right).
Open your right leg by stretching your foot to the right. (Be careful not to stiffen or brace this leg.) Close your left leg on his rib cage, and bump your lower leg against his side.
By disallowing forward movement with your hands, opening your right aids, and closing with your left aids, your horse will move toward the opening, that is, to the right (Photo 1).
Step #2. Use a Fence Line
Now that you know how to position your body, it’s time to teach your horse to move sideways. For this, you’ll need the help of a fence. Use a safe, solid fence to remind him to move sideways and that there’s no chance of moving forward.
Fence work will give you a visual guide to work with and provide a natural barrier to block your horse’s forward movement. You’ll also make sure that you’re truly moving to the left or right and quickly make any corrections.
Walk your horse up to a fence, and stop him with his nose to the rail and his body perpendicular to the fence. Keeping his body straight and perpendicular to the fence, ask him to sidepass using your opening and closing aids.
As soon as any movement occurs, release the cue, and return to a neutral sitting position. Reward your horse with a release and a pet no matter how small of a sidestep he takes. This lets him know that he moved in the correct direction.
Pause briefly, then ask your horse to move to the right once again. As soon as he steps to the side, however small, reward him with a quick release of cues
and a pet. When he associates your new cue with moving sideways, you can begin to ask for more steps before rewarding him.
Repeat these steps to ask for a sidepass to the left. That is, open the doors to the left, while closing the doors to the right, front, and back.
When your horse understands your sidepass cue and is responding well (that is, he’ll easily walk two or three steps before needing encouragement), ask him to sidepass a longer distance.
Troubleshooting tips: As you begin to teach your horse to sidepass, he may (1) move forward or back too much; (2) move his shoulder in front of his hips (this is most common and causes a turn instead of a sidepass), or (3) move his hip before his shoulder.
To fix these problems, use your aids either to block movement of a body part or to encourage more movement of another body part. For instance, if your horse moves his shoulders too far and lags with his hip, block his shoulder a little by closing with your right rein.
To do so, bring your hand back toward his neck (don’t pull back), and bring your left hand back and up toward your belly button in an “indirect rein.” At the same time, reach back more with your outside leg, and bump his side to encourage his hip to move. Apply slight, backward, equal rein pressure to close the door to forward movement.
Any time your horse moves correctly, or tries extra hard, reward him with a release and a pet. Moving laterally isn’t easy for him, so don’t overdo it. Once you get a few steps, reward him, and end on a good note.
If your horse gets nervous when working on this, he’s feeling too much pressure. Slow down, shorten your training sessions, and reward him for a smaller amount of steps.
Work on a sidepass to the right until your horse is compliant (Photos 2A and 2B). Repeat to the left. Then gradually increase the number of steps until he can sidepass 10 to 15 steps while staying fairly straight through his body.
When your horse is moving well off your aids, try sidepassing away from the fence, with his tail near the fence and his nose pointed away (Photo 2C). Focus on keeping him straight through his body so that his shoulders and hips are fairly even. In this position, he won’t have the fence to guide him visually, but you can easily note and correct any straightness problems.
Step #3. Add a Ground Pole
As your horse progresses, test your sidepassing skills over a ground pole. Work to keep the pole between your horse’s front and back feet. You’ll quickly notice any idiosyncrasies if your horse steps forward or back.
Work to the left and right, and always remember to stop and praise your horse for his efforts. Ride around the pole, then return to sidepass over it, in front of it, or behind it. Then he won’t learn that his feet must always be over a pole.
When your horse easily sidepasses over a ground pole, progress to sidepassing over larger logs on the trail. Look for other opportunities to sidepass, such as moving toward a post to pick up a slicker or rope.
Question: Dear Julie,
My understanding is that spurs are to be used to back up a request if the horse is not responding or to make a cue more clear as in lateral work. I was watching one of Julie’s DVD’s regarding the 3 positions of the use of the leg. It is hard for me to picture how to not have the spur contact the horse, especially in the most forward position when cueing with one’s leg. In general, should leg cues be given with the inside of the calf to avoid hitting the horse with the spur rather than turning the heel inward?
Answer: Casey, Thank you for your well-thought out question. The use of spurs has become a controversial subject and maybe a topic that would be good for a discussion on my http://juliegoodnightontheroad.blogspot.com blog. Like any training aid, spurs can be used correctly and incorrectly. But just like with bits, whether they are ultimately harsh or gentle for the horse is ultimately up to the rider.
Spurs have been used for millennium in the training of horses and throughout that time there have been those that have brutalized horses with misuse of the spur. But the spur has also been used throughout time as a high level training aid to help motivate the horse to perform difficult maneuvers and reach a higher level in his training.
Artificial aids (manmade items that aid in controlling the horse, like the spur, whip and tie-downs or martingales) should be used to reinforce the natural aids (seat, legs, hands, voice); in the case of the spur, it should only be used to reinforce the leg aid. I am not a fan of using the spur on lazy horses to make them go—I’d rather see these riders use a crop. Incorrect use of the spur could be inhumane use or it could be using the spur as a cue rather than as the reinforcement.
A horse is said to be “spur trained” when he has been ridden by a rider that uses a touch of the spur as the cue, instead of using the natural aid first. I have ridden many horses that are trained this way and if you do not have spurs on, it is as if they are deaf to any cue. You don’t have to use the spur hard on them; they just have to know you have them on. Not the kind of horse I like to ride—but there are enough of them out there that I have become trained to always bring my spurs with me to expos, where I’ll be riding an unknown horse in my demos, and don’t have time to teach him to listen to my leg.
The primary part of your leg that you should use for cueing the horse to move is the inside of your calf first, then your Achilles area, and then finally the spur if the horse is not responding. It is never correct for your heel to come up to cue a horse for anything—whether you have spurs on or not. Your lower leg should always remain long, with your heel down and the spur well away from your horse’s sides, whether you are using the leg in the forward, middle or backward position. A rider that is competent enough to use spurs should be able to ride through any circumstance without ever accidentally touching the horse with the spur. Unless and until the rider has reached this high level of riding, spurs should not be used.
Most of the time I wear spurs when I ride my horse, but rarely would I ever touch him with them and I am not hostage to them—he’ll work just fine without. If the spur is used to reinforce a leg aid, my calf was used first, then a stronger (lower) leg aid; about 99% of the time, that’s more than I need to get a good response from my horse. If I didn’t, I might touch him lightly with the spur as a reminder that I can apply more pressure to motivate him to work harder if I need to. If he still is not responding with enough effort, I may bump him with the spur. But each time I cue the horse again, I’ll always go back to the lightest possible leg aid, high up in my calf.
When aids are consistently sequenced from light to firm, the horse will learn to respond to the lightest aid because he knows the reinforcement will come if he doesn’t. That is why many trainers, particularly those training high-level performance horses, always wear spurs—you never know when a horse might need a little reminder to respond to a light leg aid. And since they have 100% control of the spur, it is never applied haphazardly or inadvertently.
To me, the spur should not be used as an aid to make a lazy horse go faster, but to achieve high levels of performance. I am more likely to use a spur on a not-lazy horse. Using the spur on a lazy horse may end up training him to only respond to the spur. Also, since most lazy horses are insensitive, they may learn to ignore the spur just as much as they ignore the rider’s leg. And since these insensitive and lazy horses are more likely to be beginner’s horses, the use of the spur is questionable because the rider has inadequate skill.
For the lazy horse, I’d rather see the rider use a crop and give the horse a few spankings to reinforce the leg aids. Always ask the horse to move forward with a light leg aid (combined with a shift of your weight forward and a release of the reins); if he does not respond, put your reins in one hand and give him a sharp spank with the stick right where you cued him with your leg. He will likely leap forward (make sure you hold on and don’t snatch him in the mouth for doing something you told him to do) and the next time you ask politely, he should march off enthusiastically without an argument (if you used enough pressure with the spank). Make sure you don’t jerk back on the reins as you spank, inadvertently pulling back on the reins when you want him to go.
As you advance to doing lateral work, you may find that your horse is not as responsive to your leg aids, now that what you are asking of him requires more effort on his part. The more effort that is required of the horse to comply with what you are asking of him, the longer it takes to train that response and the more pressure is required to motivate him.
As you begin lateral work with a horse, you are at the beginning stages of higher performance and you should be riding at an advanced level; you may find you need spurs. But still, the correct way to use the spur is only as reinforcement, after applying the leg aid with increasing pressure first. Then give the horse a warning that the spur is coming, followed by a bump of the spur if needed. But find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to respond to the lighter leg aid and make sure you have good timing with your correction.
Be careful not to become dependent on the spur—if you have to use it every time you ask the horse for lateral movement, you may not be using it correctly. Either you are not using enough pressure to motivate the horse to try harder, or you may not be using the right timing with the correction from the spur. For the horse to associate the bump of the spur with the initial light leg aid, the correction with the spur must follow within three second of the initial cue—and the sooner the better.
Spurs should never be used inhumanely—that’s brutal and poor horsemanship. At no time should there ever be any evidence after riding that a spur was used on the horse. If there is swelling, welts, raw skin or blood or if the horse flinches when being touched, it is an indication that the spur has been abused by the rider. It is highly likely the horse has become resistant because he is totally confused over what the rider is asking or the rider is demanding more than the horse is capable of giving.
There’s lots more articles in my Training Library that relates in some way or another to this question and I have two riding videos that would help clarify the use of the natural aids and also lateral movements and more advanced maneuvers. They are Volume 2: Communication and Control and Volume 5: Refinement and Collection, in my Principles of Riding series.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host