In this article I thought I would take a look at the first of the lateral movements, shoulder-in. I hadn’t realised when I started the article, just how long it was going to become. However, I decided that in order to really understand the true importance of shoulder-in, we needed to have a glance at it’s history and then at it’s relevance to the horse’s physical training, before looking at the actual ‘hows’ of doing it, and so this article just kept on growing.
Although shoulder-in isn’t required under BD rules until Medium Level, its importance as an exercise for the horse cannot be emphasised enough. It is not only the backbone of training for all other lateral work; it has the utmost importance in making a horse straight and developing correct collection.
The shoulder-in is commonly thought to be the brain child of the old French master and writer Francois de la Gueriniere (1688 – 1751). Indeed whilst he certainly perfected it and left it for posterity, under its current name, with a precise and clear description of the movement in his book “The School of Horsemanship”, shoulder-in was actually initially developed by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1592 – 1676). However, although Newcastle’s movement (a form of shoulder-in on a circle) suppled the horse and encouraged engagement of the inside hind leg it failed to lighten the horse’s shoulders. Gueriniere, therefore, went on to develop shoulder-in on a straight line. In his treatise Gueriniere states ‘this lesson produces so many and such good effects, that I consider it as the first and last of all lessons to make a horse perfectly supple and straight in every part’.
The next time we see the shoulder-in written about in any true depth is in Gustav Steinbrect’s (1808 – 1885) book “The Gymnasium of the Horse”. His brilliantly detailed explanation of the exercise covers a whole chapter, which he finishes by encouraging every rider to ‘unflaggingly study the correct shoulder-in and to consider it as the main pillar of all dressage’.
So what are the benefits of the exercise? And why did so many of the Classical Masters rate the shoulder- in so highly? Firstly the movement teaches the horse to engage it’s inside hind leg through correct flexion of all 3 joints. Secondly it lightens the horse’s shoulders and finally by stretching the outside of the horse it increases suppleness. In fact the shoulder-in is the equivalent to a Pilates work out for the horse. As the FEI Rule Book states in article 412, the main aim of the exercise is to develop and increase the engagement of the hindquarters and thereby also the collection.
So having looked at why we should want to ask our horse to do shoulder-in, we now need to look at what the movement should look like and then how we can go about achieving it, simply and easily.
According to the writings of Gueriniere, the shoulder should be taken in to such a degree that both the inside foreleg and the inside hind leg step over and in front of the outside legs, thus creating a four track movement. This method was followed by the Spanish Riding School right up until the 1960s. These days shoulder-in tends to be performed on 3 tracks, as defined by the FEI: ‘The Horse is ridden with a slight but uniform bend around the inside leg of the Athlete maintaining engagement and cadence and a constant angle of approx. thirty (30) degrees. The Horse’s inside foreleg passes and crosses in front of the outside foreleg; the inside hind leg steps forward under the Horse’s body weight following the same track of the outside foreleg, with the lowering of the inside hip. The Horse is bent away from the direction in which it is moving’.
In practice riding the horse on 4-tracks has a greater supplying effect than the modern method but care needs to be taken not to bring the shoulders in too much, as this would result in a sort of leg yield and defeat the purposes of the exercise.
Although shoulder-in as a movement is normally fairly easy for most horses, it is the opposite for most riders – and because of the distortion and tension in the our body, the horse then finds the movement difficult – basically because what we do in our body is reflected by our horse.
I therefore like to teach shoulders-in to the horse and rider separately. With the horse I teach the movement both on-line (using a cavesson) or in-hand. There are a number of methods that cover teaching shoulders-in to the horse with simple ground work exercises, Straightness Training probably being the most popular and easily accessible. However Manolo Mandez has some great exercises that can be rented through Vimeo and Bent Branderup has some downloads for purchase in his on-line shop.
As far as the rider goes, I believe the best way to learn what do with our body is to ‘play act’ shoulders-in without the horse. At my Rider Biomechanics clinics I use pool noodles with handles, which the students mount as though they are hobby horses. They work brilliantly as they are able to give the student an immediate visual reference as to whether they are getting the movement right or wrong. If you want to give this a try and haven’t got a pool noodle don’t worry, just try walking the movement anyway. Make sure your hips are pointing forward and that your head, shoulders and elbows are level, with your upper arms close to your torso and bent at the elbows as though you are holding an imaginary tray of drinks. Now start to walk in a straight line (preferably by a wall). Bring your inside hip forward fractionally and rotate your upper body to 10 ‘o’ clock, remembering to keep your hips pointing forward and your head over your sternum. Be very careful not to collapse to the inside as you turn your upper body. To see if you are collapsing check to see if your tray is still level or whether you have you spilt your imaginary drinks. You may find it easier to think of taking your outside shoulder forward to one ‘o’ clock rather than turning at the waist. Try walking a couple of steps in this position. Feel how your left leg starts to step further in front of your right leg. That’s the equivalent of your horse starting to engage his inside hind leg more. Repeat this exercise a couple of times and then try it on the other rein, so to speak, by turning your upper body to 2 ‘o’ clock (or your outside shoulder to 11 ‘o’ clock). Basically, what is important is that we learn how to isolate our upper body from our hips, so one part of our body can do one thing without affecting another part – as our hips need to stay on a straight line. We need to be able to do the movement easily and without tension and without collapsing to the inside, which is what most of us tend to do initially.
Once you feel that you have mastered the exercise yourself and ideally your horse knows how to do it without you sitting on him, it’s time to put the two of you together. To start with I normally ask the rider to ride a 15m circle at an energetic walk. The positioning aids for shoulder-in are then already in place – right bend or left bend depending on whether the circle is to the right or left, with the rider’s inside leg at the girth and a slight flexion of the horses’ head to the inside. The next step is easy. I ask the rider to maintain flexion with her inside rein, weight her outside stirrup and look over her outside shoulder. This normally causes the horse to step under a little more with it’s inside hind leg and increases the diameter of the circle. The rider then resumes their normal position and continues on the circle. Is that shoulder-in? No, not really, but it is a baby step that anyone at any level on any level of horse can do. It encourages the engagement of the horse’s inside hind leg and increases the stretch (supplying) of the outside of the horse which are part of the essence of shoulder-in.
Once that move can be carried out easily, the next step is to ask for shoulder-in in the same way but along the wall. Ride your horse in a 20m circle at a walk. Then as you start to leave the wall on the second half of the circle, look down the long side and weight your outside stirrup. After a couple of steps along the long side, reward your horse and resume the circle.
When both the above exercises can be done easily, we can begin to think about shoulder-in along the long side. Again, it is easier to begin the movement on a circle. Prepare for the shoulder-in by making a 10m circle in the corner at the beginning of the long side to encourage correct bend. Ensure that your inside leg is at the girth and you have the correct flexion with your inside rein. At the moment when the shoulders and forelegs of your horse leave the track, weight your outside stirrup as the outside hind comes off the ground. As your horse’s inside hind comes off the ground, your inside leg (which should be on the girth) comes inwards and encourages the sideways and forward movement.
It is important to sit centrally in the saddle and look between your horse’s ears, although initially you may find it easier to look over the outside ear. Make sure your shoulders are parallel to your horse’s shoulders by either taking your inside shoulder back or your outside shoulder forward (as you did in your un-mounted exercise). The horse’s shoulders are actually taken to the inside by the outside rein, so essentially you are pushing with your inside leg into your outside rein, with your outside foot stirrup stepping to assist the movement. To begin with only look for a couple of steps before ending the movement either by returning the horse’s shoulders to the long side or (and this is easier and more rewarding for your horse) riding forward on a curve across the school. It is important that you shape the shoulders of your horse by the position of your own shoulders and the support of the outside rein, Be careful not to ask for position with your inside hand and be as soft as you can with your inside rein. Stay supple and remember to breathe properly (see former article) and finally once you have the shoulder-in posture and it is working, don’t continue asking for more – just let your horse do what you have asked but be prepared to support with an outside weight aid or your inside leg if necessary.
There are three common problems that occur: the first is that your horse loses impulsion. Ignore this is the early stages and just reward the try. When the movement comes more easily to both of you this issue will probably disappear, if not give precedence to getting your horse forward before starting the lateral movement.
Secondly, be careful not to ask for the shoulders to come in too far as then the shoulder-in will become a leg yield along the long side and lose the benefits of the exercise. If you find your horse leg yielding down the track – with no neck bend, the most likely cause is your inside leg is too far back. This gives quarters out, not shoulders-in. Your inside leg must be on the girth,
And thirdly, and this is probably the most common. Avoid asking too much with your inside hand. All this does is cause too much flexion in your horse’s neck and over weights the horse’s outside shoulder.
Although shoulder-in should (according to the rule book) be executed at a collected trot, I always teach it at a walk. And only when the movement is a 100 per cent rock solid start to ride it at a trot.