Jennifer specializes in articles about horse training, care, and purchasing.
What Is a One-Sided Horse?
Quite simply, a one-sided horse is a horse that turns much better in one direction than to the other. In extreme cases, the horse may continue to flex in the preferred direction even when turning the other way.
Some one-sided horses may actually have one hind leg stronger than the other, even to the point where the difference in muscle development is visible to the trained eye.
An extremely one-sided horse may seem perfectly sound until turned in its weak direction, when it will immediately go lame. This can, however, also happen with a minor lameness in one hind leg caused by other reasons. The horse may also show behavioral resistance to turning in its weak direction.
There are four causes of one-sided behavior and development in horses.
All horses have a preferred side naturally. This may be caused by a similar mechanism to the one which causes handedness in humans.
A green, untrained horse is almost certainly going to be a little bit one-sided, and a good trainer will establish which side is weak and focus a little more attention on that side, in order to even the horse out.
This kind of one-sidedness generally vanishes with correct training, but may reappear after a long layoff or in horses ridden primarily by beginners (if a horse can get away with not bending to its weak side, it likely will).
Pain Might Be a Cause
One-sidedness that develops over time in a horse that is being correctly ridden is likely due to pain.
There are two primary problems that can manifest as one-sidedness.
- The first is a misalignment in the spine, hips, or tail. Any horse that starts to develop one-sided behavior despite being ridden correctly and worked evenly on both reins should be checked by a chiropractor.
- The second is a minor lameness in one hind leg. Older horses (over 15) who start to show one-sidedness may be developing arthritis in one hock, but any kind of extremely minor lameness can show up in this manner.
A Crooked Rider
Sometimes it is not the horse that is one-sided after all—it is the rider. Some people may sit crooked in the saddle without even realizing it.
In fact, some riders are naturally crooked and have one leg shorter than the other. Because trainers focus on checking stirrups are even, people who have different leg lengths may end up learning to sit crooked when they would be better off bringing one stirrup up, so they are even. Also, some riders may be more comfortable posting on one diagonal as opposed to the other.
All of this can cause or worsen one-sidedness in the horse. It's always worth having a trainer or experienced friend watch you ride to see if you are crooked. In some cases getting the chiropractor to check you for a misalignment might be a good idea.
Finally, one-sidedness can be caused by bad training. I have ridden supposedly finished horses who acted like they had never turned in one direction in their lives.
This is particularly a problem with lazy or low-quality barrels training. As the horses only ever run to the right, a trainer who focuses entirely on pattern speed to the expense of basic schooling can create an extremely one-sided horse.
I have also seen lesson barns where all of the horses were one-sided to the left because the instructors always sent them out that way and rarely turned right.
In the U.S., thoroughbreds may come off the track one-sided because all of the tracks are run counterclockwise. A good trainer will make sure to run their horses in the other direction, so they do not end up weak on one side and thus more prone to injury, but not all trainers are good. (In Europe, some tracks are run clockwise, so this problem is less common).
All horses need to be worked in both directions at least equally, with perhaps a little more emphasis on their naturally weak side.
Fixing the One-Sided Horse
Make Sure It Isn't You
The first step is to establish the reason for the one-sided behavior. Have a trainer watch you ride to make sure you are not the one causing it.
Call the Chiropractor
If your horse has become one-sided when it was not before, and it does not appear to be something you did, then there is probably a veterinary reason.
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My first thought is generally to call a good equine chiropractor. You may also want the vet to look at the weak hind leg. If the horse is fifteen or older, or was used in harsh competition very young (racehorses and many stock horses are worked hard at two), then he may have a bit of arthritis and need a joint supplement or even cortisone injections.
If your horse is 'out' in the back, then the chiropractor will fix this. The chiropractor may also prescribe muscle relaxants and/or pain killers and a regime of stretching to help loosen up the horse's back.
Re-training and Exercise
If you have acquired an extremely one-sided horse that appears to be that way because of training, then you have a long road ahead of you.
A horse that goes lame when turned to the weak side and does not have a back or other problem has muscle weakness in one hind leg and hip. The treatment is to use exercise to strengthen the weak leg.
Such horses benefit from hill work (all horses that need strengthening and conditioning do). When working in the arena, work on the weak side and keep pushing the horse very slightly past the point at which they start to go lame.
This may seem cruel, but think about how a personal trainer will push a client just past the point at which they think they can't continue any longer.
Needless to say, this should only be done after a vet has eliminated any other problems with that leg, and you are sure the lameness is caused simply by lack of muscle development.
Refresh the Horse on the Aids to Turn
Horses that have only ever been turned one way may also need a refresher course on the aids to turn. In some cases, some of these horses have never actually been turned correctly anyway, and they may not understand how to bend around the rider's inside leg.
Patient retraining is the answer here and repeating the signals, gently, until they get it. Bear in mind that a horse that has been trained in a one-sided manner is likely the victim of other shortcuts too.
In some cases, it may be better to turn the horse over to a trainer for thirty or sixty days, choosing one you trust and who is used to rehabilitating horses.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 jenniferrpovey
Madison on August 09, 2019:
I just bought a horse that was race trained but never made it to the track, she only lunges one way but the other way all hell breaks loose, im thinking its because she was race trained but she has been in a pasture for about 2 years, and only went one way in training (I think), she had a foal this year but it passed away so she is still full of milk, according to the owners she was sound but we cant afford to get a chiro out, any ideas on how to tell if she is lame or how to tell if she needs a adjustment?
jenniferrpovey (author) on May 07, 2017:
Honestly, Marley, my first thought is to get a vet or chiropractor to look at her - because that sounds like a symptom of a sore rib to me rather than anything training-related. Ulcers can also cause extreme reaction to pressure - you do mean leg pressure, right?
Marley on May 07, 2017:
hi, I have a 4 year old pony that is extremely one sided. I am currently training her and she has no visible injuries. She has never been beaten or had an extremely bad experience to my knowledge. Every time pressure is put on her off side she bolts. She is very friendly and I have had people come out to help me and they do not know what is going on either. Do you perhaps have any excerisies or methods that could help me fix this? thanks
jenniferrpovey (author) on February 27, 2012:
I did not even think to mention vision problems. Yes, a one eyed horse or one blind in one eye may be reluctant to turn, especially if being ridden by somebody they are unfamiliar with. However, many one eyed horses learn to trust their riders and live normal working lives. Some people have even had success working with horses that are completely blind.
Angela Blair from Central Texas on February 27, 2012:
Good Hub and well written. I've only dealt with two "one-sided" horses in the years I trained. We were working with quarter horses that would work cattle. One was fixable -- believe it or not we found the other horse had a vision problem on one side which was the reason for the one-sidedness -- which I found out quite by accident. Interesting and informed Hub - voted Up! Best/Sis