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Turn on the forehand

The turn on the forehand is the most basic of all dressage lateral movements.

Turn on the forehandWhat: The horse's forefeet remain in approximately the same place in the arena, while the hind legs describe a circle around the forehand. The horse is bent slightly away from the direction of movement: in other words, if a horse is moving his hindquarters to the right, he's bent slightly to the left.

Why: It is designed to teach the horse to move sideways, and to help the horse understand that not all leg aids mean "go faster." It's the beginning step toward gaining control over your horse's haunches. Besides, it's useful for opening and closing gates while on horseback.

When: Early in the horse's training, even before he's broke to ride. Turn on the forehand is the most basic lateral movement because it's the easiest lateral movement for a horse to perform. (It makes sense to start with the easy stuff first.) It's easiest for several reasons:

  • the horse needs to move only one pair of legs sideways
  • the horse moves the less-weighted (hind) pair of legs -- horses at rest, and unschooled horses, carry most of their weight on their forehands
  • the horse is being asked to move sideways away from the direction of bend, which is much easier than moving toward the direction of bend

Which tests: The turn on the forehand is not required in any "regular" USEF/USDF test, but is now included in the USEF First Level Rider Test.

How: To perform a turn on the forehand away from the left leg (the haunches swing to the right) bend the horse slightly left using your left rein. (Slightly is the operative term here -- you should be able to see the bulge of the horse's inside eye, but not much more.) Your right rein prevents the horse from overbending or moving forward. Your left leg is applied behind the girth to ask the haunches to move. Your right leg prevents the horse from backing up.

It's important to understand the purpose of this movement: to teach the horse to move away from leg pressure. Many riders, when they find that their leg aids aren't productive, tend to try to pull the horse around the turn with the inside rein. That's like fixing your cars brakes by looking at the steering wheel -- it just doesn't work. Instead, rein pressure should be applied only until the horse bends, and then the rein should relax. If the horse fails to respond to leg pressure, the rider can augment the pressure with a touch of the whip or a bump of the spur. Using a rougher or stronger leg aid only teaches the horse to ignore light aids.

It's also important to remember that the turn on the forehand is not a speed event -- faster is not necessarily better. The horse should take one step sideways -- in this movement and all the other lateral work as well -- for each application of leg pressure. You should release that leg pressure as soon as the horse responds. It's very useful at the beginning of training to ask the horse for one step of turn on the forehand and then halt, so the horse learns to wait for the next request, rather than running from the leg aid.

("Horrors!" I hear some of my dressage colleagues say. "You must always move forward after a lateral movement!" Right, you must move forward after the horse responds to your request, but most horses, understandably, respond to your early requests for turn on the forehand by dragging you forward instead. After all, up till now leg has meant "go." I don't want your horse to drag you out of the turn.)

A horse should never learn to avoid your lateral movement requests by backing up, but most horses don't have this backwards tendency. It works well for both you and the horse to begin your turn-on-the-forehand work by taking one step, waiting, and then either walking forward or asking for another step. The horse then learns to wait for your requests. Otherwise, you ask for one step, the horse says "Oh, sure, I know what you mean! Hang on!" and you lose control of the rest of the exercise.

The trick is -- and this is much harder than it appears -- to relax your leg pressure only when, but exactly when the horse responds correctly to your leg, by moving his haunches sideways. If you take your leg off because the horse takes a forward step, you've rewarded him for taking that forward step.

Of course, the horse has to move his forelegs slightly during the turn on the forehand, unless he's one of those talented circus-bound types that can twist his forelegs like a pretzel. Make sure you don't punish him for those little adjustment steps.

As the horse becomes more adept at taking single steps (usually in one work session) you can ask for additional steps, but try to make each step an individual request. Many riders tend, when learning to do lateral work, to clamp one set of aids on the horse, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style, and not react to the horse's response. Remember, this isn't a speed event. Slow and rhythmic is better than lightning fast.

A horses can be taught the basics of turn on the forehand long before he's ridden. While the horse is in a stall, tied or crosstied, or tacked up in preparation for work, hold the horse's head steady with one hand and apply pressure to the horse's barrel with the other hand in approximately the same area where your leg will be applied. Remember to release the pressure as soon as the horse responds correctly.

Below is a short video by the USDF of well-ridden turns on the forehand, as they should be demonstrated in the First Level Rider test.

Before you start

"Inside" vs. "Outside"

Direction of bend

Lateral work chart

Turn on the forehand

Leg Yield
 Leg yield parallel
 Leg yield head to wall
 How to ride

Shoulder in

Travers

Renvers

Half pass

Pirouettes

Pronunciation 101

Lateral work game