Hear us out on this one.
October’s upon us: for many, that means it’s the end of show season, the wrapping-up of a good summer of trail riding or the time in which we start anticipating spending a lot more time in the indoor and much less time enjoying a nice outdoor hack (especially when the days are growing short and it’s already almost dark by the time you leave work and get to the barn!)
That also means that October can be a great time to challenge yourself and your horse. That might mean finally conquering that weird shadowy corner of the arena, or trotting ten cavaletti in a row without knocking a single rail… or you could try something totally different that will keep you and your horse thinking.
What started as murmurings on social media is developing into a month-long challenge called #OffsideOctober: the premise of the challenge is to work your horse from the ground from the “offside” or the right side rather than the left.
There’s a long equestrian tradition of doing things from the left side: back in the days where riders carried swords, the weapon would typically hang off one’s left hip so it could be drawn with the right hand. It’s remarkably difficult to mount from the right side when you’ve got a sword hanging on your left. Ask me how I know.
From there, it became customary to handle the horse from the left side. Even in our most basic riding lessons, we learn to lead the horse from the left, and our tack is all designed to be applied from the left side — think about where you do up your bridle and halter buckles and where you tighten your girth or cinch.
Now, some readers at this point are probably shrugging and thinking “what’s the big deal? I do this already” while others might be shaking their heads and thinking “this totally bucks everything I’ve ever learned and sounds like a really bad idea.” Hear us out on this one.
The benefits: Working your horse — that is, leading, handling, and eventually mounting and dismounting — from the offside strengthens your abilities as a horseman and keeps your horse balanced. Especially for those of us who have been working with horses for as long as we can remember, we likely do a lot of things by rote or by muscle memory: how conscious are you about what you’re doing while you’re leading your horse out to pasture? Now imagine if you were leading your horse from the right-hand side, and how much more conscious you’d need to be of your body language and placement in relation to your horse.
You might never have been in a situation where you’ve had to do much handling from the right side, but having a horse that respects your space and your aids from the right side as easily as from the left can be a huge boon in all those situations you can’t predict. Especially if you’re a trail rider, you might find yourself in moments where you need to lead, mount or dismount from the right side depending on your surroundings, and knowing you’ve done your homework in those moments makes life a lot easier.
A word of caution: Before you take Star and trot right out to the arena to try leaping aboard from the right side, we recommend starting slow with #OffsideOctober.
- Start with basic handling from both sides: can you lead your horse from the right as well as the left? Does he walk on you or drift away? Can YOU function from the right side? Chances are, your horse will adjust to this much easier than you will.
- Move up towards more complex maneuvers: can you back your horse straight from the right side? How about turn him around away from you?
- When you’re comfortable handling your horse from the right side, you can start thinking about mounting and dismounting. You may find it’s a week-long challenge just to get your horse to stand at the mounting block when it’s on his right side and you’re standing there ready to get on! Some horses may find the rider waiting on their right side to be enough of a challenge; read your individual horse’s reactions carefully to know if mounting up from the right might be a problem.
- For horses reactive to right-side mounting, you might need help from a friend so you can start by leaning weight over the saddle before putting your toe in the stirrup and swinging. I’ve met horses who don’t hardly seem to notice when I get on from the right and I’ve met others who have had a total meltdown when I leaned over. It all depends on the individual.
- When you’re confident that your horse is mellow and relaxed with you preparing to mount from the right, put your toe in the stirrup and swing over! Again, this may be more of a challenge for the rider than the horse — make sure you’re still landing softly in the saddle and using your weight effectively as to not torque your saddle.
Stay safe and be smart when trying #OffsideOctober — but keep an open mind! Having a balanced horse should be a goal for any horseman — and being a balanced horseman who is dexterous from both sides of the horse should be equally important.