Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Straightening your Horse

Shoulder In is one of the first lateral movements we learn as riders and one of the first that we teach our horses. It has been called the aspirin of dressage and is one of the two movements that I consider indispensable. In case you were wondering, the other movement I could not do without is the Pirouette. The reason for this is that I am firmly in the camp of preferring to straighten a horse by gaining control of it’s shoulder mass and these two movements focus primarily on shoulder control.

First of all, what do I mean by straightening the horse? In brief, what I am trying to achieve is to create as straight a line as possible from the poll, through the middle of the shoulders, the middle of the horse’s hips to the croup and tail. If you were long reining from the croup you would be able to see the poll and then the withers sitting in the middle of the croup, lined up like sights on a gun. To achieve this from the saddle we need to be careful of two things

The poll must not be taken too far to either side – it can flex fully in either direction but it should not be displaced.
The shoulder mass of the horse must not fall to the inside or the outside – it must sit aligned centrally in front of the horse’s hips.
Energy can then flow straight along the line of the spine. Setting this up and keeping it whilst the horse is in motion is most easily achieved by riding in what it often referred to as ‘position left’ or ‘position right’. So what is this?

Positioning your Horse Correctly.

Position left or right is like a very diluted form of Shoulder In. I think of tucking the shoulders in a little. I was taught to think of the space between the wall and my horse in Shoulder In as a wedge of cake – well this is a very skinny wedge of cake. Riding a horse with a perfectly aligned spine takes awareness, understanding and lots of practice. It also takes time for the horse to develop the strength to do it consistently. Younger and weaker horses will readily offer you glimpses of true straightness and then they will suddenly begin to struggle. As riders we have to be aware and remember that like every ideal state of being we cannot trap the horse there, ready or not, and insist on it. If I rode a weaker horse in perfect spinal alignment and with the poll as the highest point and I would not allow it to deviate from these ideals at all then I would have a tired and miserable horse on my hands very soon. Alternating this kind of work with free rein rest periods is my preferred way of building strength progressively. Do not be disappointed and least of all angry when your horse decides that his back end would rather be curled off to one side or the other. Crookedness is often simply a way of saying ‘take the pressure off for a while, I’m tired now’!

Teaching the Shoulder In

By teaching the horse Shoulder In we become better able to create straightness through position left or right. I’m going to focus, as usual, on a series of progressively more difficult training patterns. I’m going to start with a breakdown of how I train this work with the young horses and the floor patterns I would use to help them learn.

Exercise 1

Starting to teach a young horse the Shoulder In is quite a different process to that of teaching the movement to a rider on a trained horse. This exercise is underpinned by the ability to choose your poll flexion and change it smoothly, regardless of your position in the school. Step one is therefore to ride along the wall keeping the poll flexion to the inside for several steps after the corner. Then allow the poll to straighten and reward the horse. Step two is to confirm the horse’s response to the outside leg and outside rein.

“Creating high quality Shoulder in is principally about your exterior aids.”

Ride the few steps with inside poll flexion after the corner and then ask the horse to move off onto a diagonal line using your outside leg at the girth, a little weight into the inside seat bone and an outside rein that closes towards the wither. Turn along the diagonal line, straighten the poll and reward the horse. Repeat these steps a few times until the horse turns easily. Be careful not to allow the neck to bend at the base near the shoulder. If you do, the horse will find it more difficult to bring the shoulders over. Step three completes the process. After you pass through the corner, keep the flexion to the inside, apply the outside leg aid at the girth, close the outside rein towards the wither and briefly emphasise the weight on the inside seat bone. As you feel the horse begin to turn, as for the diagonal line taken in step two, simply change your weight onto the outside set bone, look straight down the wall out of the corner of your eye and it sometimes helps to slightly open (but not throw away) the outside rein. This helps to indicate the change of directional emphasis. The main indicator of direction is the change of weight and if you have been working on teaching the horse to follow your weight this will be easy enough for the horse to understand. At this preliminary stage you may need to suggest movement down the wall with your inside leg as well. After a few steps, however wobbly or uncertain, down the wall at an angle (however inconsistent) ride away on a diagonal line or a shallow half circle with no lateral displacement, reward your horse and let it rest.

Some horses genuinely find this easier to learn from the centre line or an inside track. The same progression can be adapted to work away from the wall too. These are a few things which I have deliberately avoided in order to suit the very young or green horse:

  • Any particular emphasis upon bend within the movement – there is no preparatory circle at this very early stage of learning and no expectation of performing Shoulder In with bend for a little while.
  • Riding the shoulders back to the wall when the required number of steps have been performed. The best exit for the young or green horse is directly along the line it happens to be facing, which will be out into the school rather than down the track.
  • If and when you try this away from the wall don’t be alarmed if you lose the back end slightly. Control over the hind quarters will come soon enough, along with the bend.

Angle Versus Bend

The exercise outlined above is about making the raw beginning of shoulder in with your horse. From the day you first begin to teach the exercise to the day you retire your horse many years later, hopefully fully trained, the Shoulder In will grow in correctness, collection and bending as your horse’s physique develops. At the start it may feel, and look, a little too like leg yielding for comfort.

There is always a trade off between angle and bend – with any horse at any level of training. I think that Shoulder In is a movement which can be ridden with subtle differences of emphasis in this regard and each rider will have his or her priority. Although I begin teaching this to horses with little or no bend I am keen to develop the bending as soon as it is appropriate for the horse. The bend must however be genuine! Beware the shoulder in with ‘broken neck’ bend at the base of the neck and much crossing of the inside hind leg. The weight of the horse will be pushing out over the outside shoulder and although the horse will move at an angle to the wall in something that looks a lot like Shoulder In, strictly speaking it is not.

“In Shoulder In, more than in any other movement, beware of your interior aids.”

Bear in mind that your horse, when fully trained, cannot bend it’s spine more than the line of a six metre volte would require. So in the first years of training it will bend much less than that. Your bend in Shoulder In will reflect the ability to bend on curved lines in general. There is an old and very wise saying that you do not improve lateral work by riding lateral work. This is where exercises which combine Shoulder In with circles become useful.

Exercise 2

I mentioned that initially I don’t return the horse’s shoulders to the wall when the steps of Shoulder In are complete. In the beginning it is less likely to unbalance the horse if you ride out of the exercise on the line you are pointing along. As time passes and your horse’s forehand becomes lighter it is easy enough to return the shoulders to the original line and continue along the wall. Once this is the case you can begin to benefit from careful and frequent repositioning of the horse’s shoulder mass. The focus of this exercise is exactly that. It is a simple, classic exercise called the ‘Change of rein through Shoulder In’ and can be ridden with and without circles.

To start with we ride it with the circles because they make the change of bending very easy for the horse. One golden rule is to take the Shoulder In position that is the same as your turn and the first circle goes that way too. So turn left down the centre line, take Shoulder In left as far as X and then make a 10m circle left. Then take a 10m circle to the right (which completes a small figure of eight) and off of that continue down the centre line in Shoulder In to the right and then turn right. What matters most in this exercise is what happens over X. The change of positioning was easy in this instance because of the circles.

The first progression is to eliminate the second circle. Again I will use the example of turn left, into Shoulder In left and then circle left. Keep the first circle because that takes the horse back onto a single track position. After the circle ride straight for one horse’s body length and take shoulder in to the right. Secondly eliminate the first circle also, but extend the straight section for as many steps as your horse needs to find balance.

When you feel ready to transition from Shoulder In left to Shoulder In right directly over X be careful you don’t fling the shoulders all of the way across in one action. I think of it as four phases

  1. Shoulder In left position
  2. Straight body with left flexion
  3. Straight body with right flexion
  4. Shoulder In right position

This may only take a few seconds but keep it logical and broken down into clear micro steps. That way you will know what your body has to say to the horse. The very crux of the exercise is the change of flexion and position between step 2 and step 3. The value of the outcome depends totally on how well you handle that. This moment, where the flexion changes, is very brief. The movement of the poll and withers onto the centre line and back off of it takes a little more time, so the 1,2,3,4 steps are not evenly spaced in time. It is more like 1..2,3..4. Carry the shoulder mass over with the support of both calves. One calf is sending the shoulders across but the supportive role of the other calf is vital to the balance and your horse’s confidence through this exercise. It might seem a little thing to move from Shoulder In one way to Shoulder In the other way but it is quite a difficult thing for the horse to do. It is so valuable though, because every time you succeed in moving the shoulder mass across in balance it becomes a little lighter. That lightness is one of the fundamental benefits of dressage training for the horse.

Exercise 3

Perhaps the ultimate test of our controlled bending (what I like to call the straightness within the bending) is to be able to ride lengthened strides straight out of it. The simplest exercise to test this is to ride a small circle at the start of the long side and take Shoulder In down the wall for a few steps. The number of steps is not important but when you feel that the outside shoulder is definitely under control take a straight diagonal line out across the school and open the gait up, progressively at first. Think of your Shoulder In as coiling the spring and release that energy into the longer strides.

If your horse has any ‘break’ in the bending, most often this happens at the wither, the transition onto the straight line will feel awkward and the impulsion to open the stride will not be there fully. This will also be the case if you are pushing the horse too strongly into the outside rein during the Shoulder In – again, beware your inside aids getting too dominant. As your horse develops strength to transition directly from collected to medium or extended gaits you would expect the opening of the stride to be pretty immediate in this exercise too. It is all about keeping the bending and controlling the bending, so that energy can flow through the body easily and immediately.

In all exercises involving the Shoulder In it is important to remember that lateral work, when ridden well, builds energy. The horse grows in power rather than losing power. If you find yourself having to ride forward out of it because power levels have dropped it means something has gone wrong somewhere. Good lateral work, like good collection, is about building up the power of the horse underneath you, lifting the forehand and giving you direct-able energy.

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