An Introduction to Laterality by Dr. Ingeborg Hein

Dr. Ingeborg Hein and Ringo

Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult for many horses to bend equally on both sides? Like humans, most horses are  born favouring one side of their body. About 80% of these horses favour their right side, which means that they are right handed.

In horses the forelegs bear about 55% of the body weight and the hindlegs about 45%. In a right handed horse the body weight is not evenly distributed between both forelegs and both hindlegs, respectively. The right fore- and hindlegs each bear more weight than their left coutnerparts, which means that the centre of gravity is shifted towards the right foreleg.

This serves the horses well when they are living as wild animals in herds. It might even help these horses to synchronise their flight behaviour, e.g. all of them  turning in the same direction.  However, when being used as riding horses, problems start to arise.

When being put under the saddle for the first time many horses experience emotional and physical stress.  In the beginning they have problems to balance their bodies with the added weight of the rider. The dominant side of the body is used to keep their balance, similar to what we would do when trying to balance ourself in order to prevent us from falling. Over time the dominant side of the body might get even stronger and the other side weaker in a riding horse.

As a rider, the difference between both sides of the body of a horse is experienced most pronounced when riding through corners or on a circle. The stiff side of the horse is the dominant side and the hollow side is the weaker side. In a right handed horse the right foreleg is like a pole, firmly planted in the ground. On a circle to the right this leg is the inner foreleg. It is easy to imagine how difficult it is for such a horse to lift this leg up in order to get the inner shoulder out of the way.

When starting to retrain a horse to use both sides of its body more equally, it should be kept in mind that the muscles at the dominant side of the body are stronger than on the other side. Depending on how long the horse has been under saddle and how big the difference is between both sides, stress patterns might be present in the muslces, which in turn might have put stress on the skeleton. In addition, the way to use the muscles in the body in order to move is hardwired in the brain. Imagine how difficult it might be for you if you would have to retrain your writing behaviour, e.g. using your left hand instead your right hand to write or the other way round.

Thus, it is a matter of learning a new way to use the body in order to move. This might be easier for the horse to do if stress patterns in the skeleton and the muscles have been removed by chiropractic, osteopathy, massage and acupuncture. Since old habits die hard, regular check ups might be necessary. It might be a good idea to learn yourself how to perform some basic massage strokes and stretch exercises on your horse.

Training sessions should be kept short in the beginning in order to prevent muscle soreness. In addition, if we stick with the picture of the right handed horse, the left hind leg might be the weakest part of the body. Thus exercises to shift the weight back from the right foreleg to the left hindleg should be performed carefully. Strength in this leg has to be built up gradually. Otherwise, the joints and tendons of this leg might be put under too much stress.

To keep your horse balanced will be easier if your own body is balanced as well. Chiropractic, osteopathy, massage and yoga exercises might help you to balance your own body. You could use the winter months to get your horse and yourself in a better and more balanced shape for this year´s riding season!

Click here to view  Figure for laterality

About Dr. Hein: Dr. Hein studied veterinary medicine in Vienna. Upon completion of her dissertation she spent over a decade working in research at the Veterinary University of Vienna. From 2007 she became interested in alternative veterinary medicine, especially acupuncture, and various manual techniques such as lymphatic drainage and massage.
  • Cranio-Sacraler Energieausgleich für Tier und Mensch, Ausbildungszentrum Schildbachhof, Baden, Österreich (2009/2011)
  • Rehabilitation and Physiotherapy of Small Animals I, European School for Advanced Veterinary Studies (ESAVS), Wien, Österreich (2010)
  • Dauerakupunktur mit Goldimplantaten, Berliner Fortbildungen, Deutschland (2010)
  • Massage für Tiere, Ausbildungszentrum Schildbachhof, Baden, Österreich (2009)
  • IVAS Foundation Course in traditionell chinesischer Veterinärakupunktur, BEVAS, Hasselt, Belgien (2008/2009)
  • Foundation Course in westlicher Veterinärakupunktur, ABVA, Biggleswade, UK (2008)
  • Therapiekurs in Manueller Lymphdrainage nach Dr. Vodder für Pferde, Ausbildungszentrum Schildbachhof, Baden, Österreich (2008)
  • Basiskurs in Manueller Lymphdrainage nach Dr. Vodder für Pferde, Ausbildungszentrum Schildbachhof, Baden, Österreich (2007)

Click here to visit Dr. Hein’s website

Inge and Ringo wish you all the best for this year´s riding season!

L. Benedikt, V. Wirth. Yoga for equestrians. 2000. Trafalgar Square Publishing, USA, ISBN 1-57076-136-1.
K. Blingault. Stretch exersises for your horse. 2003. Trafalgar Square Books, USA, ISBN 978-1-57076-245-1.
N.C. Coumo, M. Whittle. Yoga on horseback. 2006. Alpine Publications, USA, ISBN 1-57779-080-4.
H.K. Kleven. Biomechanik und Physiotherapie für Pferde. 2009. FNverlag, Germany. ISBN 978-3-88542-734-6.
K.J. Ridgeway. Expanding your horizons. AVAS horse acupuncture seminar series. 2011. Drasing, Austria.
K. Schöneich, G. Rachen-Schöneich. Die Schiefen-Therapie. 2006. Müller Rüschlikon, Germany. ISBN 978-3275015177.


Use the comment box on the blog itself to send me your questions about horse training. You can also write in about any problems you might be having with your horse.Either I or one of the resident expert trainers will do our best to answer your questions.
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