The French dressage master François Robichon de la Guérinière (1688– 1751) is credited with developing the shoulder-in. He was the first person to describe it in his book, L’Ecole de Cavalerie. Because of the shoulder-in’s importance in a horse’s training, La Guérnière referred to it as the “alpha and omega” of all exercises. Today, in my travels around the country as I judge and give clinics, I have noticed a weakness in the execution of the shoulder-in. This is true not just at Second Level but also at the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) levels, where talented horses and riders perform well balanced and engaged shoulder-ins, but they often lack a key ingredient—bend.
The value of riding the shoulder-in is that it is a very good suppling and collecting exercise. It improves the horse’s obedience to the aids. It is the first lateral exercise that we teach to horses, and it is considered the most important. When the shoulder-in is ridden without bend or a lowering of the horse’s inner hip, the real benefit of the exercise is missing.
The FEI (the international governing body of equestrian sport) gives us this definition: “The shoulder-in is performed in collected trot. The horse is ridden with a slight but uniform bend around the inside leg of the athlete, maintaining engagement and constant angle of approximately 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 training the shoulder-in, we encourage the inside hind leg to step farther under the horse’s center of gravity. We want the hind-leg joints to bend more. We want the horse’s lateral suppleness to improve and we want his body to become straighter. In addition, the horse’s impulsion is enhanced because when the rider uses his driving aids more, they are balanced by the outside guarding aids. As the straightness is improved, the horse becomes more obedient to the leg and better connected back to front. More of the horse’s weight goes onto the haunches, which turn allows more freedom to the shoulders.
There are clear steps riders can take to improve the quality of their horses’ shoulder-ins. First, the horse must be reliably in front of the leg. This term means that the horse responds to a sensitive, light leg aid and moves forward with energy. There should be no stiffening or increasing of the tempo. It feels like a surge underneath the rider’s seat, as if you are stepping on the gas in a car, increasing the revolutions per minute rather than the miles per hour.
Next, the horse should understand flexion left and right. Teaching flexion fits in with the bending aids and is usually taught first. From a connected, engaged seat, the rider uses a soft rein aid to encourage the horse to yield in his poll and jaw, but without overbending the neck. When the horse accepts this, the rider feels a soft, supple yielding action in the mouth of the horse and a softening in the underneck.
Then the horse must understand the basic bending aids used on any curved line. This needs to be clarified because many riders give incorrect aids when bending the horse. To correctly bend the horse to the right, for example, use the following aids:
• The rider places his inner (right) leg near the girth and weights his inner seat bone (without leaning).
• The inner (right) rein asks the horse for flexion right with the support of the rider’s seat and upper body.
• The outside (left) leg is behind the girth in a guarding position to prevent the haunches from falling out.
• The outside rein prevents the neck from overbending.
• The horse should have a uniform bend from poll to tail.
When the horse bends correctly, the rider feels that the neck of the horse is anchored to the rest of his body at the withers as if the base of the horse’s neck “bubbles up” in front of the saddle. When this is mastered, move on to these two preparation exercises:
1. Shoulder-fore. In this exercise, the horse is asked to place his inner hind leg between the tracks of the forelegs (see p. 64). The outside legs stay straight on the same path. This creates a slight bend in the rib cage. Riding in the shoulder-fore position strengthens the hindquarters because the hind legs are asked to step closer together.
2. “In position” or “second position.” In this exercise, the rider asks the horse to place his outside hind leg forward between his forelegs, which brings the hind legs closer together (see p. 66). The inside hind and fore travel straight on the same path. When the horse correctly engages his outside hind leg, he can bring the inner hind leg forward and under the belly, lowering his inner hip.
When the horse has mastered these exercises, the transition to schooling shoulder-in is usually fairly smooth.
Riding the Shoulder-in
In a correct shoulder-in, the horse is uniformly bent around the rider’s inside leg, traveling on three tracks (see p. 63). Most often, shoulder-in is ridden on a straight line so the horse is really bent away from the direction of travel. The rider will prepare the horse with soft half halts and then use the bending aids to develop the movement.
It is especially important that the horse feels responsive to the rider’s inner leg so that when it is applied, the rider receives an immediate response. When the horse is engaged in this way, it becomes possible to make soft half halts to then initiate the movement and bring the outside shoulder off the track.
The timing for the half halt should be as the outside shoulder and inner hind leg come forward. The feel the rider wants to create is that of connecting the horse’s inside hind leg to the rider’s inner seat bone, as if a suction cup were attached to the seat and the hind leg has no choice but to be drawn forward and under, stepping into the outside rein. In these moments of the initial half halts, it also feels as if the rider is slightly shortening and bringing the horse’s outside shoulder inward.
Once the shoulder-in is established, the timing of the aids is addressed to the inner hind leg, but the rider has the feeling of framing the horse between all of the aids.
Ride the shoulder-in with the bending aids. With horses that are developing collection and strength and just learning shoulder-in, the rider needs to troubleshoot with the aids, sometimes adding more engagement with the inner leg, sometimes rebalancing the horse with soft half halts. At this stage, it requires a great deal of mental focus on the horse to feel what is going on under you and respond with proactive aids to maintain and preserve the movement. The most important priority is the quality of the gait—the rhythm, engagement and balance. Be happy with a few quality steps at first. You want to determine when the shoulder-in light bulb goes on in your horse’s mind. As he begins to understand, you can then start to ask for more and more steps.
When a horse performs a correct shoulder-in with bend, what does it feel like? First, the rider has the feeling that she can control the movement with her seat and legs much more than with the hands. The rider should detect a push through with the inner hind, causing the horse’s back to pulse up under the rider’s seat. The rib cage of the horse will softly fall away from the rider’s inner calf as the horse steps toward the outside hind leg, making contact with the outside rein. The rider should feel that the inner poll and jaw of the horse are soft and yielding, without the neck collapsing at the withers or without dropping the contact.
Lastly, control of the balance of the shoulder-in comes when the horse feels supple and into the outside leg and rein.
Here are typical problems that can occur:
• Instead of correctly collecting the horse, the rider just slows him down and loses engagement, which creates all kinds of balance issues.
• The rider overbends the horse’s neck. This restricts the inner hind leg and causes the horse to fall even more over his outside shoulder.
• If the rider’s inner leg is too far back, it puts her weight on the outside and creates a kind of leg yield with the horse’s hind leg no longer stepping forward and under the body.
• The horse has the correct angle and balance but has no bend. This causes the hind legs to step out behind the horse’s body.
Develop the Shoulder-in
Let’s look at three exercises that develop and improve the shoulder-in.
1. Ride a volte into a shoulder-in. The volte (8-meter circle) is a nice way to develop the shoulder-in. Start in the walk so both the horse and rider will have time to organize. Prepare and think the exercise through. As you ride the last quarter of the volte, returning to the track, half halt the horse and ride as if you are going to ride a second volte. Instead, on the first step of the second volte, bring the horse’s shoulders to the inside, but look with his eyes and body down the long side, continuing to bend him. Keep your shoulders parallel to the horse’s shoulders. Focus on the quality of the walk (and later the trot). Before the horse starts to lose the balance, either straighten him and ride forward to refresh the engagement and balance or finish by riding another volte, which renews the suppleness and bend. As soon as the horse understands what the shoulder-in is, it should then be practiced primarily in the trot.
2. Shoulder-in on a 20-meter circle. Taking care to be accurate with your geometry, initiate a few shoulder-in steps on the open side of the circle. The aids are the same. Keep the hind legs clearly on the circle line. Be happy with a few good steps in the beginning. You can add more steps as the horse gets the idea. This is actually an easier way for many horses to be introduced to shoulder-in. Make sure there is a clear beginning and ending point, though. Otherwise, the exercise becomes muddled.
3. Shoulder-in on the quarterline. Go straight on the quarterline for a few strides, then leg yield back to the track. Just before reaching the rail, half halt the outside shoulder of the horse while allowing the haunches to reach the rail first. You will then be in a shoulder-in position and can continue down the track. This exercise is useful for laterally stiff horses.
Variations: When the horse understands and knows shoulder-in, the rider can then work gymnastically with the exercise to further develop suppleness and strength in the horse. For example, initiate shoulder-in down the long side of the arena. Once it is established, ride some transitions within the shoulder-in, such as walk–trot, collected–medium and collected trot to small trot steps. Other variations include riding on the quarter- or centerline and riding from shoulder-in left to shoulder-in right. Still more variations are to initiate shoulderin and then vary the angle and bend of the exercise, going from riding on three tracks to four and then back again.
At this stage in the horse’s training, the idea is to have control of the angle, tempo, balance and degree of bend. By mixing it up, you create a more supple, elastic horse. If you are a new Second Level rider, mirrors, videos or a ground person will be helpful for you. Quite often, riders think that shoulder-in is so much more in terms of angle and bend than what is actually is, so visual feedback will be helpful.
As with any exercise we school with our horses, do not overdo it. The shoulder- in is just one part of the working phase of your ride. You want to develop a complementary blend of figures and exercises along with the shoulder-in. A successful schooling session works the whole horse in a gymnastic way. So change gaits often, combining transitions from one gait to another as well as within the gait. Include a blend of bending lines in addition to the shoulder-in work.
Because of its many suppling and collecting benefits, the shoulder-in becomes second nature and an invaluable tool to you and your horse while schooling at home or at shows. It is truly the alpha and the omega of training.
Sarah Geikie is a USEF “S” and an FEI “C” dressage judge. A lifelong equestrian, she earned her USDF bronze and silver medals and is a recipient of The Dressage Foundation’s Lindgren Scholarship. She is a USDF instructor certified to Fourth Level, a faculty member of the USDF Instructor Education Program and an examiner for the Instructor/Trainer program. In addition, she is a British Horse Society Assistant Instructor and earned a B.S. in animal science from the University of Massachusetts. She teaches and trains in Lebanon, Connecticut (sarahgeikiedressage.com).