How to Tell if Your Horse is Left-Handed or Right-Handed
You’ve noticed your gelding has a tendency to “fall in” when circling to the left, and he seems to have a harder time picking up the right lead.
What’s going on here?
Quite possibly, it’s just laterality in action.
What is Laterality?
Horses, like humans, have an innate preference for either their left or right side.
He’ll be more well-muscled on one side, have an easier time picking up one canter lead than the other, and will be smoother working with his dominant side to the outside.
An important caveat, though: difficulty moving in one direction could also be a sign of poorly fitting tack or lameness, so it’s wise to check your tack fit and seek advice from an experienced trainer as well.
Why Does it Matter?
Most horses develop longer muscles on their dominant side, or the side they are worked to most, meaning the muscles on the opposite side are shorter. Even the hooves on the dominant side will be larger!
Your horse will work better with his dominant side to the outside, and bend more easily towards the side with the shorter muscles. The opposite is also true; he will have a harder time turning away from the side with the shorter muscles.
Laterality can work for you, too. Training new movements on your horse’s dominant side means the first few tries are more manageable for him.
A well-balanced horse that can work in both directions carries himself—and his rider —better. The result is smoother turns, balanced circles, more effortless and graceful lateral movements, more even stride length in both directions, more rhythmic canter and transitions, and better flying lead changes.
Is My Horse Left or Right Lateral?
The best way to determine your horse’s preference is by being aware of how he moves, or working with a trainer who can watch how your horse moves.
You may notice a preference for one canter lead over the other, or that he picks up one lead more easily. He probably has a lateral preference for the lead he canters best on.
The ease with which he bends in one direction over the other is also a good indicator.
A study published in the Applied Animal Behavior Science journal concluded that mares show more right lateral preferences and male horses more left-handed preferences.
According to researchers from the University of Limerick, horses with more counterclockwise whorls had more left-sided preferences. Horses with more clockwise whorls tended to favor the right side.
What About You?
The rider’s left or right preference could leave them unbalanced, leaning to one side, or keeping too much tension on one rein. Be mindful of your own balance when attempting to correct your mount’s.
Researchers in Germany observed that right-dominant horses received more even rein tension on the right rein from right-handed riders. They concluded that “horse-rider combinations with the same direction of laterality seemed to be better coordinated and kept rein contact more stable.”
Build Better Balance on the Ground
If you longe your horse, make sure that you’re longeing him equally in both directions to reduce the likelihood he’ll end up overdeveloped on one side.
You may also want to consider long lining or ground driving as an alternative groundwork, which doesn’t involve repeated turns.
In the stable, practice the “carrot stretch” to help stretch his neck muscles. Bring a carrot back towards his shoulder, asking him to bend his neck to get a bite. Do this on both sides, but don’t ask the horse to stretch more than he comfortably can.
In the Saddle
Regardless of your discipline, training some second- and third- level dressage movements will help lengthen the muscles on your horse’s short side (for an overview of all the dressage movements through the levels, read our guide here)
To begin with, make sure you and your horse have an effective leg yield. This basic lateral maneuver is an excellent way to start working his sides, and the first step towards more complex movements.
Incorporate as many circles, serpentines, figure eights, and bends into your groundwork as possible, making sure that you’re asking him to bend in both directions.
Laterality is inevitable, but it’s not unconquerable. With a little awareness, you can use your horse’s lateral preference to your advantage, while still strengthening and lengthening his nonpreferred side.
The result is a more balanced, well-rounded horse and rider combination.
Is your horse left or right side dominant? How does it affect your riding? Share below!