The Insider’s Guide to Shoulder-In at All Levels - Expert how-to for English Riders

In dressage, Second Level is the place where collected work begins, and the shoulder-in is the first movement that requires collection. For the shoulder-in, you take the bend that you learned on a 10-meter trot circle in First Level and then retain that bend on a straight line. As a result, your horse travels in bend down the long side of the arena at about a 30-degree angle from the wall.

This bend creates a three-track position, as seen when viewing your horse from the front: His inside foreleg travels on its own track, his outside front and inside hind legs are on the same track, and his outside hind is on the outside track. When correctly ridden, the shoulder-in feels balanced and has a degree of self-carriage, which means your horse is not relying on the bit or your hands to balance himself.

There are a few skills your horse needs before you can even start thinking about doing a shoulder-in. He must:

  •  be able to accept the outside rein.
  • know how to leg-yield—to move away from your leg pressure and onto the outside rein.
  • be able to hold a constant rhythm, which allows you to maintain a steady bend in a shoulder-in, creating the three tracks. Slowing down or speeding up will cause irregular angles.
  • be able to maintain a bend on a circle without inside rein pressure. When making a circle, if you’re hanging on the inside rein and unable to soften it with your horse maintaining the bend, you’ll find that when you take the inside rein and go down the long side asking for the shoulder-in, he will just bend his neck. 

Get Started

To ask your horse for shoulder-in, ride a 10-meter trot circle in one corner. As you leave the corner and ride onto the long side, carry the bend through into shoulder-in:

  • Use your inside rein to lead your horse’s forehand in from the track at the beginning of the exercise and to maintain the bend down the long side.
  • Use even more inside leg to push him forward and sideways and to maintain the bend.
  • Place your outside leg a little farther back to keep him from allowing his outside hind leg to escape to the outside.
  • Use your outside rein to maintain his balance and to prevent overflexion. A common problem when starting to ride shoulder-in occurs with the angle—having too much or too little.
  • If the angle from the wall is not steep enough, bring your outside leg slightly forward and increase your outside leg pressure to gently push your horse’s outside shoulder away from the wall, while maintaining a balancing outside-rein contact.
  • If the angle is too steep, half-halt and bring his shoulder back to the track. It is helpful to make the adjustment with your trainer to ensure your horse is on three tracks and bent in his body.

How do you know if you’re riding the shoulder-in correctly? I tell my riders to visualize where the horse’s outside shoulder is in relation to the track they are on. If one of my students is trotting down the long wall, and I say, “Ride a shoulder-in,” and she brings in the neck only, I say, “Look at the distance between the wall and the outside shoulder. Is it a greater distance or is it the same distance it was before you started the shoulder-in?” Your horse’s outside shoulder should line up on the inside of the track that you’re on, where his inside hind leg is not close to the wall.

For a Second Level shoulder-in, this is a good bend with great reach as Bling comes under with his inside hind leg while Lindsay Kellock looks straight ahead.

For a Second Level shoulder-in, this is a good bend with great reach as Bling comes under with his inside hind leg while Lindsay Kellock looks straight ahead.

At the same time, it’s important not to overdo the shoulder-in. I see people riding the shoulder-in all the way down the long wall, yet no test requires it to be performed for more than 24 meters. I like to use this training exercise for my shoulder-in: I ride 15–20 meters of shoulder-in, then I either straighten and control the horse’s shoulder or I ride a 10-meter circle to solidify my bend and ask for shoulder-in again.

Through the Levels

The story of shoulder-in only begins at Second Level because the movement reappears in tests all the way up to Intermediaire I. Every shoulder-in is not created equal, however. Collection evolves as strength in your horse’s hindquarters increases. The greater the impulsion (or thrust) and the greater the engagement (or weight your horse can carry on his hindquarters), the more uphill your horse will carry himself (see “Ashley Explains Relative Elevation,” below).

Once you’re able to do a shoulder-in at Second Level, that doesn’t mean you’re ready to do it at Third. The Third Level shoulder-in must demonstrate more impulsion and a slightly greater degree of engagement than at Second Level, so your horse’s frame will be shorter and slightly higher and he will show more expression while retaining the self-carriage and balance. The judge will want to see that your horse is still accepting the contact and has greater cadence and swing. That means he should not be stiffening with the added degree of difficulty but happily performing fluidly and gracefully. Third Level is a marker level that signals your direction for the future, which means that judges are looking at those qualities that will position your horse to move up to the higher levels.

Once you have mastered the shoulder-in at Third Level, you should be able to move onto an 8-meter circle and not feel as though your horse is falling on his shoulders. To see if the shoulder-in is really engaging his inside leg, ride one-third of the way down the ring in shoulder-in and then ask for a medium trot. As that happens, you should feel more thrust from behind if your horse was truly doing a good shoulder-in. Another exercise is to ride a transition from shoulder-in into canter. Again, you should feel more thrust in the canter.

Fourth Level starts to separate the real prospects, preparing your horse for the first international level, the Prix St. Georges. Your horse must be able to show a lot of cadence and energy yet hold his balance in self-carriage while demonstrating more lift off the ground and more spring. The more your horse lifts, the more impulsion he needs and the harder the movement is to perform. 

At Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire, your horse must be even more uphill because his inside hind leg comes more underneath and bears more weight, giving his front legs almost a suspended look. This greater suspension in the trot will, in turn, improve everything else. The stronger his hind legs are, the better the shoulder-in is, the better the half-pass becomes and the better the extension becomes because your horse will be able to hold more weight on his inside hind leg for longer.

At Grand Prix, the shoulder-in is used to help riders perform the transition from passage into canter.

Fitness for Showing

All of this means that fitness, both cardiovascular and strength training, is a key building block for success at Second Level and beyond. Your horse should be able to work 45 minutes to an hour, and within that time, he should be able to do 5 to 10 minutes of trot without stopping, and 5 to 10 minutes of canter. He also needs to achieve a level of strength so he can carry more weight on his hindquarters. As you can see, the shoulder-in is a great barometer of your horse’s strength. If you ask for more impulsion and engagement, and your horse grinds his teeth or swishes his tail, the message is: “I’m really not happy doing this.”

One horse might become irregular in the rhythm, and another might escape by swinging his hindquarters out, tilting his head and neck and twisting his spinal column. Judges are critical of all those issues because they indicate a lack of acceptance of the weight carriage required on the hind legs. These cues can be the signal to drop back a level. Many horses can execute a Fourth Level test, but they aren’t able to show the impulsion and engagement that is necessary. Judges won’t say that you don’t belong at a level. They let the marks tell the story. You need to interpret them for yourself.

If you’re at Fourth Level, executing the shoulder-in and other movements, but not showing the ease, balance, strength and impulsion you should, you may find you’re getting low marks. If your horse is overtaxed, he’s going to make mistakes. If you and your horse seem to be struggling, you may need to move down to a lower level. However, a score that is lower than 55 percent doesn’t necessarily mean you should move down a level. It may just mean you had lots of mistakes. Perhaps you need to look where you’re going, or maybe there was an unusual circumstance.

Look at a video of your ride, discuss it with your trainer and be honest with yourself in evaluating where you stand. Ask yourself: “Can I sit the big trot with more impulsion?” If you can’t, it’s not necessarily your horse’s fault. Perhaps you get frightened and cling with spurs and hands, detracting from his performance, instead of letting him go.

Greater Fitness for Extra Flair

For serious competitors, fitness must move up another notch. I tell my riders to work in their show gait, a gait with extra impulsion. Riders don’t think enough about riding with impulsion, but when you get to Third Level, you can’t just trot around. You’ve got to be able to fire off movements in succession, showing clear differences in gait. You need to tap into your horse’s strong gaits for the extensions, then rock back and do a collected move.

At the highest levels, your horse must easily be able to move from an extended trot or canter to a collected gait, and do movements within those gaits comfortably without feeling exhausted. Even though the test is only five or six minutes long, it requires concentration and fitness from both horse and rider to show this higher degree of impulsion.

When I watch riders train, they do a lot of work on the long wall, but as you go up the levels, there is more and more work on the diagonals and the centerline. Doing a shoulder-in on the centerline shows you many things: There is no wall for your horse to lean on, so you must sit up, look where you’re going and guide your horse properly along the line. So many riders don’t look where they are going. They get in the ring and wonder why their horse is going so badly. It’s because they don’t train at home the way they need to show.

It’s not just your horse who needs to be prepared to move up. As a rider, you have to ask whether you are able to hold your focus for the amount of time you’ll have to spend in the ring. Few can, but if you are showing strength, suppleness, balance, grace and are marked at 65 percent or above, you’re showing great potential and likely are ready to move on. 

Sidebar: Ashley Explains Relative Elevation

Trying to move up through the levels and do too much before your horse is both physically and mentally ready can be counterproductive. We don’t want to see a rider trying to force her horse onto his hind legs by pulling because that doesn’t work. But when a rider hears, “the horse should be going more uphill,” she might be inclined to pull her horse’s head up higher. That lifts his neck, but his back becomes hollow and his hindquarters disengage. The height of the neck needs to be relative to the engagement of the hindquarters. In fact, horses become uphill because their hindquarters lower when the joints in their hind legs bend. Then their backs stay round and hindquarters engage.

To understand what your horse is feeling when he brings his hind end underneath himself, which results in an elevated forehand, try this test: Bend over and put your hands on the ground so your hands and legs are straight and your rear end is sticking up in the air. Walk your hands out a few steps so your hands and feet are about 2–3 feet apart. Then start to walk your feet underneath yourself. As you do this, you’ll feel your hips drop down and you’ll want to raise your hands off the ground to keep your balance.

Similarly, in the walk, if you try to package or frame your horse before he is ready to do it, he may lose his clear four-beat walk, which could be permanent. Only an incredibly skilled rider can get that back. This is why collected walk is not introduced until Third Level, at which point the horse has developed strength in collected trot for a while.

About Ashley Holzer

ashley holzer no. 1107 brittany fraser ashley holzer lindsay kellock 300pi

Ashley Holzer evented to Preliminary level before focusing exclusively on dressage and becoming a pillar of the Canadian team. A four-time Olympian and 1988 team bronze medalist, Ashley has trained with Canada’s Christilot Boylen and Evi Pracht, U.S. coach Robert Dover and the Netherlands’ Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven and her husband, Sjef Janssen, the former Dutch dressage team coach.

Ashley’s students include teammate Jacquie Brooks and U.S. Pan American Games medalist Lauren Sammis. Her young rider students, Lindsay Kellock and Brittany Fraser, are the demonstration riders for this article.

Ashley divides her year between Florida and New York. She is married to Rusty Holzer, a grand-prix show jumper she met when both were riding in the 1991 Pan American Games. They have two children. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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