What is shoulder-in, and how can it help my horse?

  • Shoulder-in is a useful early form of lateral work for horses, which requires the horse to work on three — or sometimes four — tracks. When ridden correctly it is an excellent suppling exercise and is the first piece of lateral work that appears in British Dressage tests.

    What is shoulder-in?

    In a three-track shoulder-in, the outside hindleg is on one track, the inside hind and outside fore are on a second track (in line with each other, as per the picture above), and the inside fore is on the third track. When viewed from the front, you should be able to see three of the horses four legs when it is being ridden correctly.

    The horse should be bent around the riders inside leg with equal bend through the body and the neck. As a rider you should be able to see your horse’s inside eye if you glance down. It is easier to ride shoulder-in on the track as the fence/wall helps to guide the direction. More experienced partnerships should try riding it on a three-quarter or centre line to gauge their level of control.

    In dressage competitions, shoulder-in is ridden in trot, but for training purposes it can be ridden in all three gaits. A more subtle version of shoulder-in, called shoulder-fore, is useful for correcting the horses natural instinct to move slightly quarters-in while cantering.

    What are the benefits of shoulder-in?

    • Encourages suppleness
    • Helps with developing straightness
    • Aids with collection and balance
    • Improves response to the rider aids
    • Encourages hind leg engagement

    Correct aids for shoulder-in

    In a three-track shoulder-in, the outside hindleg is on one track, the inside hind and outside fore are on a second track, and the inside fore is on the third track

    The riders inside leg is on the girth to create the bend and send the horse along the required track. The outside leg is slightly behind the girth to prevent the hind legs swinging out and maintain bend through the body. The inside hand asks the horse to flex to the inside and keep the jaw soft. The outside hand asks the horse to wait and indicates that the horse is to continue down the track, rather than turning on to a circle. The riders body should remain central in the saddle with the inside hip slightly back to mirror the horses bend and the weight deeper into the inside seat bone.

    Common problems and how to correct them

    Problem: Your horse drifts back to the track

    Correction: If your horse drifts back to the track, you may be looking in the wrong direction. Check you are looking through the horses ears rather than in the direction of travel as your head is a heavy body part, and will affect his balance.

    Problem: Too much neck bend

    Correction: If your horse bends his neck more than his body, check you aren’t using too much inside rein. Support him with a firmer contact on your outside rein and by keeping both legs on.

    Problem: Hindquarters drift out

    Correction: If your horse’s haunches drift out to the outside, your knee and thigh and lower leg are not supporting him strongly enough, resulting in lack of bend through his body. Check your outside leg is correctly positioned behind the girth and against the horses side.

    Problem: Falling through the shoulder

    Correction: The rider crossing the outside hand over the neck is a common cause of the horse falling out through the outside shoulder. A correct contact on the outside rein supports the horses shoulders and helps to maintain the angle of the shoulder-in.

    Problem: Your horse doesnt step sideways, but continues going in the direction of the bend.

    Correction: This can stem from a lack of preparation from the rider or a lack of understanding from the horse. Use half-halts to maintain the self-carriage of the horse through the exercise and ensure he is listening. If the horse is green, return to leg yield exercises to re-establish the horses understanding of moving away the inside leg before trying shoulder-in again.

    Problem: Lacking bend through the body

    Correction: Sitting on the wrong seat bone, and collapsing through your waist to the inside may cause your horse to lack bend. Try to deepen the inside seat bone, while remaining tall through your upper body.

    British dressage rider Joanna Thurman-Baker’s helpful tips

    “The biggest problem I find is people looking down the track while riding a shoulder in,” explains Joanna. “Although this does keep you on a straight line, because your head is pointing forwards, your body want to do the same, which can block the horse. If you look through the horse’s ears, your body will follow which allows your pelvis to turn, releasing the horse’s shoulders encouraging a softer bend and easier flow.

    To keep your horse on the correct line, keep giving gentle half halts with the fingers on the outside rein and look where you want to end up out the corner of your eye if you need to. Your outside leg should be gently coming off and on as needed, to remind the horse not to fall onto its outside shoulder.”

    Is shoulder-in in any British Dressage tests?

    Shoulder-in in trot is found in elementary level and above under British Dressage, while in British Eventing, it first appears at intermediate level competitions.

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