Young Rider

How to Sidepass Your Horse

A rider and her horse performing a sidepass
Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

The sidepass is a common maneuver for ranch and trail classes. In the show ring, your horse should move carefully and willingly sideways across a pole at your command without knocking the pole. He must move directly to the side without taking a step forward or back—all while keeping the pole evenly spaced between his front and back hooves.

While it may make sense to find a pole and start practicing for this precise obstacle, trainer Cody Crow teaches his ranch riding students to work without the pole first. Once you can control your horse’s shoulders and hips while you’re away from the pole, your sidepass over the obstacle will be fluid and easy.

Here, Cody helps make sure you’re warmed up and in the correct position to sidepass easily. He’ll also provide tips to help you overcome common show pen mishaps.

Warm Up

Before you practice sidepassing, make sure your horse is warmed up. Lope some large circles and practice a few turnarounds. You’ll begin by working in the middle of the arena, away from any obstacles or poles.

A western rider warming up
Warm up by loping some large circles, followed by turns on the forehand and haunches to make sure you can move your horse’s hips and shoulders independently. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

“Move the horse’s hips and shoulders around,” Cody says. “If you can’t move your horse’s hips and shoulders independently, you won’t be able to move them simultaneously, as required in the sidepass. Start with a simple turn on the forehand so that you can isolate your horse’s front end and move his hips freely. You’ll also want to do a turn on the haunches, moving his front legs and keeping the hips stationary.”

Cody encourages his horses to move forward freely as well as doing slow lateral work. Ask your horse to walk or trot forward, then cue him to move to the side without turning his neck. In this “two track” move, you can move your inside leg close to your horse’s girth to stop him from bending into a turn while your outside leg moves slightly back and applies pressure.

“Do a two-track to move the horse laterally,” Cody says. “You want some forward motion but move the horse [sideways]. Only after I have some forward motion will I do some sidepassing away from the pole. Can I move the hip? Can I move the front end? Can I sidepass without the pole? If you haven’t gotten the horse warmed up and moving freely, adding the pole can make the horse feel claustrophobic and stuck. When I have all those parts checked off, then I’ll introduce the pole.”

Pole in Position

If your heel falls naturally straight from the hip, you’ll be able to cue well. If the pole is placed right behind the heel, that gives you the most room between the pole and the horse’s hooves.

Demonstration of lining up with the pole
Begin with the pole placed right behind your heel. This will give your horse’s hooves the most room during the sidepass. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

“To initiate the sidepass, pick straight up on the reins first to block forward motion,” Cody says. “Going to the left, I’ll first move my reining hand straight up. Then I’ll place my left leg up by the front cinch and apply light pressure with my calf. My outside leg will be in the middle of the horse’s barrel or slightly (1 inch) back. I’ll push with that outside leg and cluck at the same time. The more clucking, the faster the tempo the horse should move.”

Cody says many horses will move first with their shoulder but leave their hip behind and to the outside. Rather than just pushing harder to get the hip to catch up, keep your inside leg up by the front cinch to slow the shoulder down. Move your outside leg back an inch or two to prompt the hip to catch up.

Sidepass Practice Tips

If your horse is just learning to sidepass, Cody suggests that you step the front legs over the pole, get in the right position, then sidepass off the pole. This will allow your horse to take just a few steps and be done. Your horse gets a reward for being calm. Only once he is comfortable with the pole between his legs should you start the sidepass from off the pole, onto it, and over the whole thing all in one movement.

Cody says many horses tend to rock back when sidepassing. If you can sidepass one or two steps and then allow the horse to move forward off the pole, it helps the horse associate the reward with moving forward.

Troubleshooting: If your horse steps back, walk forward and off the pole to help keep him calm and relaxed. If your horse hits the pole because he isn’t working off your leg easily, go back to sidepass off the pole. Don’t allow your horse to get stressed with the pole beneath his hooves.

Secrets for Sidepassing in the Show Pen

Cody says some horses anticipate the sidepass. In a show pattern, it’s common to trot up next to the pole, then stop and prepare to sidepass. If your horse starts to sidepass before you cue for it, he could step over before you’re lined up well.

To avoid this, trot up to the pole, then stand still in position for 30 seconds before sidepassing. The next time, trot up, stand, and move forward without doing the obstacle. Do the opposite of what your horse is anticipating.

Some horses rush over the pole. To correct this, sidepass a few steps, then stand and have the horse wait for another cue.

A horse and rider performing a sidepass over a pole
If your horse rushes through the sidepass, halt about halfway across. If he drags his feet toward the end of the pole, keep going past where you’d normally stop. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Other horses sidepass well over most of the pole, then drag their feet when they get to the end because they know they are almost done. For those horses, continue to sidepass even once you’ve reached the end of the pole.

“Make the horse realize that sidepassing doesn’t have to end just because the pole ends,” says Cody. “When you practice in open areas and mix up your training, your horse will listen to you instead of guessing what’s next.”

Special thanks to Payton Porterfield and her horse, Steps of Perfection, for demonstrating these exercises.

This article about how to sidepass a horse appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Heidi Melocco

Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; registered AQHA gelding, Charlie; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *