Spiraling Into a Better Ride

Use lateral work as part of your horse-training regimen.

Editor's Note: This lesson is part of AQHA's FREE report, Riding Dressage. Download your FREE copy today and learn the fundamentals of dressage from one of the industry's best trainers.

Spiraling can be done at any gait, and it will help your horse learn to balance himself, to be steady and trust your aids. By teaching your horse to spiral, you can improve transitions, create a more balanced and responsive horse, move a western pleasure horse on and off the wall, and maneuver a roping horse in the box.

Begin the exercise on a 20-meter circle, tracking left at a walk.

Let’s take a look at how your aids should work:

    • Your inside (left) leg aid should be at the girth, because the ribcage has got to stay moving to the outside.



    • Your outside (right) rein controls the shoulder and the neck to stay steady and balanced.


    • Your outside (right) leg controls the ribcage and the hip from moving too far out.

Lateral First

When we first ask our horse to move away from our leg, his response is usually, “huh?” To help him understand, first squeeze your calf. If he steps away from your leg, reward him and release your leg. If he doesn’t respond, don’t reach for spurs – try to teach respect of your leg without that. So first squeeze, then kick him. If he moves away, reward him. If not, go to a whap! with your leg. Then return to asking with a squeeze. If you have to, you can use spurs or a dressage whip to reinforce your lateral squeeze.

When he understands the cue, we ask for those initial lateral steps. Most horses will want to just go sideways and not keep the impulsion going forward. They say, “I understand what you want – to go sideways!” but they miss the forward part and lose the impulsion.

To keep the hind legs active, you have to combine the two. If your horse is just moving sideways off your left leg, then you’re not using your right leg enough, and not allowing enough forward motion with your seat. You have to allow the forward movement through your body, seat and hands and keep your inside leg more active, with your outside leg balancing. The inside rein is the softening rein, and the outside rein is the steadying rein. If a horse feels like he wants to suck back and get stuck, I always ask for more forward.

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Let’s Spiral

Once your horse has got the hang of combining sideways and forward, it’s time to spiral. Your goal is to move between a 20-meter (66-foot) and a 15-meter (49-foot) circle. As your horse progresses in training and collection, you can begin to spiral down to a much smaller circle.

    • Keep a soft bend to the inside and move laterally for two to three steps. With the correct lateral movement, you will feel the horse moving sideways and forward.


    • Spiraling out of a circle gets a horse to soften and relax, while spiraling into a circle teaches collection.


    • You will generally find it harder spiraling in, because the horse has to work harder; he has to put more weight over his inside hind leg, and he has to hold his inside bend and make that circle smaller. He has to use his body and his topline more, and he may resist that level of work.

When he reaches the size of circle I want, then I half-halt and adjust my outside aids to say, “OK, now let’s continue forward on this circle.” Then I’ll do it again.

Once you’ve mastered the foundation of spiraling the horse in and out of a circle, begin to increase the difficulty by asking the horse to repeat the exercise at a trot (or jog) and eventually a canter (or lope). It is much harder for the horse to be balanced at the canter, so be sure to progress slowly and keep your circles large enough for your horse’s level of training.

Once you’ve mastered the spiral, you can use it to help with other problems. For example, if your horse is stiff in the shoulders, neck or jaw, you can counter bend him and move laterally to soften them, or you can work to improve your circles and transitions. If my horse gets heavy on his forehand in the canter to the right, I spiral in (to the right) a little, then transition down to the trot to put his weight onto that inside hind leg. Make sure the trot stays in forward motion by giving a mini half-halt before cueing the trot, then add leg for forward energy. If he gets too quick, I’ll slow his rhythm by slowing my posting.

This is also the first step of leg-yield work. It’s much easier to first train a horse to leg-yield going into and out of a circle than it is going straight.