Shoulder-in is the first true lateral movement. In leg-yield, which lays the sturdy foundation for the lateral movements, the horse moves sideways as well as forward. But leg-yield itself isn’t technically a lateral movement. The distinction? In leg-yield, the horse stays straight from poll to tail. For a true lateral movement, his body bends evenly from poll to tail around your inside leg.
That even bending through the body is what you’re going to teach your horse with shoulder-in. In this pattern, his outside shoulder comes in off the track and aligns with his inside hind leg so he’s on what we call “three tracks.” If you watched him coming toward you, you’d see his outside hind, his outside fore directly in front of his inside hind, and his inside fore. (When you can see all four legs evenly spaced, by the way, he’s said to be traveling on “four tracks,” as he does in the “baby” shoulder-in called shoulder-fore, and in travers, renvers and half-pass.)
It’s Not Called “Dr. Shoulder-in” for Nothing
I usually introduce shoulder-in when my horses are stepping up from Training to First Level. Whether you do dressage or your horse is a hunter, equitation horse, jumper or eventer, you can and should introduce it, too, because it’s a useful—some say the most useful—gymnastic pattern that …
• Supples your horse and enhances his elasticity and freedom of movement all the way from shoulders to hindquarters.
• Strengthens him and increases his engagement by getting him to lift his shoulders in front and to step farther under himself and carry more weight behind.
• Straightens him and improves his obedience to your aids by getting him to move more from your inside driving leg to your outside half-halting rein.
• Prepares him not only for the rest of the lateral exercises, but for such upper-level movements as canter pirouettes and such on-course efforts as tight or rollback turns, balanced corners and jumps that are close to a corner.
• Saves your bacon! Shoulder-in is the most absolutely wonderful tool when your horse wants to spook. From the saddle, you cannot physically pull him past a scary object, but when you gain control over his shoulders, you can push him. Say he’s young or green, he’s at his first show and he absolutely doesn’t want to trot up centerline toward the scary-looking judge’s stand. Just put him in a shoulder-fore. The judge won’t care. In fact, she’ll probably say, “Hah! What a smart rider. A little shoulder-in is going to get her past this trouble spot without a fight.”
Shoulder-in is also a lifesaver if you’re on a young horse who wants to start bucking: If he’s in shoulder-in, he can’t buck. At that point, even if it’s not the world’s most correct shoulder-in, who cares? You’re keeping a dangerous situation from developing.
Here are the tools you need to succeed:
• Review asking your horse to go forward and back, turn on the forehand in leg-yield position, leg-yield itself, spiral-in and -out and counter-canter so you recall the feel of making a subtle but critical adjustment to your rider position.
• Sitting trot, because you’ll have complete control over your horse’s up- and down-beat. If, however, sitting the trot gives you so much difficulty that it upsets your position or makes his job harder, by all means post.
• A new rider position. In simpler exercises, such as forward and back, spiraling in and out, your hips and shoulders should always be perpendicular to the track. Now is one of the few times when you’re going to keep them parallel to the track by making them unparallel to each other. Let me explain: In shoulder-in, your horse’s haunches are going to travel straight down the long side, but his forehand is going to come in on about a 30-degree angle. Because your hips, thighs and the upper part of your calves control his hindquarters, that part of your body has to continue facing down the long side, perpendicular to the rail. But because your torso and shoulders influence and control his forehand, they have to turn slightly and face into the arena.
Try it right now as you’re sitting there reading. I’m going to talk you through a shoulder-in left, so we’ll go that way: Put your elbows by your sides and your fists closed in front of you as if holding the reins. Keep your seat straight and square in your chair (think “laser beams are shooting straight ahead out of my hips”) while you very subtly turn your upper body about 30 degrees, not with a big twisting or tipping, but by staying perfectly level as you bring your left shoulder and upper arm back a bit and your right shoulder and upper arm a bit forward. What to do with your head? It must match your shoulders, but with your eyes still looking down the long side where you’re going. Got it? Great!
• Leg-yield on the rail. When leg-yield on the rail feels dependable and comfortable in both directions, you’re ready to …
Ride a Shoulder-In
Tracking left, pick up an energetic sitting trot. When your horse is listening and light in your hand, which means he’s elevated in his shoulders and actively using his hind end, come around the short side of the arena. As soon as you’ve come through the second corner onto the long side, immediately ride a 10-meter circle. Sit deeper on your inside (left) seat bone, with your inside leg at the girth, your outside leg a hair behind it and your hips and shoulders perpendicular to the track. You never want this to feel as if you’re pulling him around with your inside (left) rein. Instead, it’s very much like a spiral-in. Every time his inside hind leg and outside fore start to leave the ground, bring his shoulder just a tiny bit in by pressing with your outside leg and giving a strong inward half-halt (as you squeeze your outside shoulder back and down, bring your outside rein against his neck to almost push against his shoulder). The feeling you’re after: Instead of reaching straight out in front, his outside fore comes up and around so he’s shaping the circular track.
As you come around on the last strides of the circle and start to feel his shoulders approaching the track on the long side, continue asking him to circle. In the next stride, when he’s almost straight on the track, continue to say “Circle.” But in the next stride, when you feel as if he’d make another circle if you kept going, ask him for a shoulder-in down the long side instead: At the very moment he’s bringing his outside shoulder up and in for another stride of circle, take a little bit of an indirect inside rein—not by pulling, but by turning the knuckles of your left hand toward your right hip. One of the first and biggest mistakes a horse will attempt to make in shoulder-in is to lean on his inside shoulder. That extra little bit of indirect left rein throws just a penny’s worth more weight onto his right shoulder—his outside shoulder—which will really make him engage, sit down and get more expressive with his inside hind.
Encourage your horse’s shoulder to come off the track and stay off by turning your chest and shoulders toward the arena on about a 30-degree angle. And tell his haunches to continue straight down the long side by directing laser beams out of your hips and straight down the track. On each up-beat, when his inside hind and outside fore are in flight, strongly squeeze your inside leg at the girth, almost with the feeling that you’re pushing your inside hip toward his outside shoulder and down the track.
After three to five strides—your horse won’t be able to hold the bend longer than that at first—ride another 10-meter circle. He already has his forehand off the rail, even if he’s lost a little bend, so just relax your inside leg, soften your inside indirect rein, smoothly bring your hips around so they’re once again parallel to your shoulders and perpendicular to the circular track and—boom! You’re circling.
As you return to the rail, repeat the aids for shoulder-in: Think, “We’re going to circle again”—but the moment your horse’s shoulders come away from the track and both your chest and his are facing into the arena, turn your hips so they’re facing down the long side, take an indirect inside rein, add a very strong inside leg and continue in shoulder-in to the end of the arena.
Now, this is important: On a young horse or on one who’s just learning shoulder-in, I never get to the end of the long side and simply straighten him by bringing his shoulders back onto the track in front of his haunches. Instead, I ride one more 10-meter circle in the corner because it re-establishes any balance or bend he may have lost and reinforces the idea of bringing his shoulder up and in. (I begin or finish shoulder-in without circling only when he can stay balanced, expressive and almost perfect in shoulder-in all the way down the long side.)
Make It Even MORE Gymnastic
When you’re comfortably going the full length of the arena in shoulder-in, increase the difficulty by asking your horse for some forward and back in shoulder-in. The first few times you ask, be ready—with a clear indirect rein and strong leg on the inside and with a good half-halting rein on the outside—for him to say “OK” but then try to straighten his body.
Ride shoulder-in on a circle. Try a shoulder-in spiral-in and spiral-out. Or here’s a challenging exercise that my mentor, Erich Bubbel, taught me: Stay in shoulder-in left the entire time you ride from F to B, turn left at B, turn left at E and ride from E to K.
What if …
• You feel your horse trying to throw his haunches out, rather than bring his shoulders in? Hold his haunches with a stronger outside leg.
• His shoulders stay on the track and only his head and neck come in? Make sure you’re not just pulling his head and neck around (as I’m doing in the “Wrong” photo above). Then take a step back and review the easier movement of leg-yield on the rail (see the photo on page 23) to remind him that his shoulders can come in while his haunches stay out.
• Your horse loses his even bend from poll to tail and so develops too much angle? Check to make sure your inside hand is looking toward your outside hip. Then immediately circle 10 meters to restore the correct bend from poll to tail and to remind him about bringing his outside fore up and in.
• Your horse gets slower and slower? This is such a common problem that I’ve never known a horse to become more forward while learning shoulder-in. (In fact, if you know one, I’d like to meet him!) That said, I am OK with your horse’s slowing down a little bit to figure out the movement, but not so much that he falls behind your leg and the movement becomes more difficult. If that happens, just circle and refresh him with some “forward,” even if you have to post the trot or ride a bigger 12- or even 15-meter circle. Remember he must always respond by going forward.
A Colorado native who spent time riding hunters and jumpers as a teenager, Leslie Webb switched to dressage in 1978. During this time, she started working with U.S. Olympic Three-Day Eventing Coach Erich Bubbel and moved to California to train with him. “I was riding a lot of hotheaded and extremely athletic horses, and Erich and I had to come up with patterns that could communicate training precepts to them in a doable, non-confrontational way. Over the years, I came to realize that these patterns worked with all horses, not just hotheaded ones, so I refined and streamlined them until they developed into the training system I use today.”
When Leslie began teaching, “I had to give my students clear, doable homework assignments with clear, concrete, step-by-step tools to guide them,” she says. So she went back to the meticulous notebooks she kept during her time with Erich. That was the foundation for a series of articles that first ran in the pages of Practical Horseman and was later turned into the book, Build a Better Athlete, now in its 10th year of publication.
A 1995 Pan American Games team and individual silver medalist and multiple USEF, USDF and CDS award winner, Leslie continues to compete and train horses and students in Bakersfield, California.
Adapted from Build a Better Athlete! by Leslie Webb with permission from The Equine Network. Softcover, 120 pages, $19.95. Available at www.EquineNetworkStore.com.
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.