For me, shoulder-in is the go-to exercise because it has many amazing benefits as:
• a suppling exercise,
• a wonderful straightening exercise because it allows us to place the shoulders in front of the hind legs,
• the first collecting movement we have in dressage.
A correct shoulder-in is ridden in the walk or trot with the horse’s hind legs on the line of travel and with the shoulders displaced to the inside. The legs should be on three tracks and this angle should be stable. In other words, the outside hind leg tracks along the wall, the inside hind leg and the outside front leg are on the same track parallel to the wall, and the inside front leg is on the inner track parallel to the wall. The line of travel can be the wall, which is the easiest place to begin, or another line off the track, such as the centerline. The horse should be bending in his body around the rider’s inside leg with the poll flexed to the inside, away from the direction of travel.
USDF Definition of the Shoulder-In: A shoulder-in is performed in collected trot. The horse is ridden with a slight but uniform bend around the inside leg of the rider, maintaining cadence at a 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.
The shoulder-in shows the horse and rider how to displace the shoulders to the inside. By bending the horse around the inside leg, the rider helps the horse find more room for the inside hind leg to come under the body, which is necessary in collection because in that position the hind leg can carry more weight. Collection also requires that the shoulders are mobile and light, which the shoulder-in accomplishes as well.
One of the most common faults I see is the angle varying during the movement. Another fault I sometimes see on the horse’s stiff side is the shoulder-in without correct flexion, so the shoulders are displaced inside but the poll is flexed to the outside. Especially if the horse is away from the wall, you may also see the hindquarters step to the outside (toward the wall) and the horse then loses the bend. When this happens, the angle is often four-tracks and the movement becomes a leg yield.
How to Ride a Shoulder-In
Begin with a horse who is rhythmic, relaxed, connected and has some impulsion. Before riding shoulder-in, the horse must understand the aids for leg yielding. The horse must also be able to bend correctly on a 10-meter circle.
1. Make sure you can bend the horse before you begin. Start with a 10-meter circle or ride the bend of the 10-meter circle in the corner.
2. The inside rein leads the shoulders (and neck) off the wall while the inside leg pushes the rib cage and inside hind into the outside rein, which catches the shoulder and produces the half halt. The outside leg behind the girth keeps the haunches from falling out.
3. Have your weight equal on both sides of the horse. Remember, the horse follows your weight. If you sit to the inside too much, the horse might move in that direction and off the wall.
4. The rider’s shoulders and hips should be turned inside slightly to be parallel to the horse’s shoulders so the outside hip and shoulder move forward as if you were traveling on a diagonal line away from the wall.
5. The shoulders should be replaced on the wall at the end of the movement (e.g., before the corner) from the inside leg. Don’t stay in the shoulder-in for too long. There is no test that has the exercise ridden for more than half the long side (30 meters).
The first time I ask for shoulder-in on a horse I am training, I do not begin out of a corner or off a circle. The green horse will think we are turning on another circle or turning onto the diagonal. Instead, I like to start with a leg yield so the horse understands that I want him to go sideways. I always like to use the simpler exercise to teach the horse a harder exercise because the progression is logical.
You can begin this exercise in the medium walk and later try it in the working trot. Tracking left, begin by coming down the centerline at A and ride a leg yield from the left leg going right toward B. This gets the horse moving sideways off your inside leg. When you get to the quarterline, begin to bend the horse a bit to the left. As the horse nears the wall, start moving the shoulders more to the left. The wall stops the haunches so you can then travel for a few strides along the wall in shoulder-in. When you reach the wall, you have the correct bend, the horse is moving off your inside leg and you can lead the shoulders to the inside for a few strides.
Once the horse understands that you don’t want him to turn in the direction of the displaced shoulders, then you can start coming out of the 10-meter circle or the corner onto the wall to improve the bend. I don’t worry about how much bend I have at the beginning because the bend will come. If you lose the movement because the horse turns in and the haunches come away from the wall, straighten the horse and leg yield back to the wall to ride a few more steps of shoulder-in as described.
Keep in mind the basics when you are riding this exercise. If you lose the rhythm, bend, connection or impulsion, then leave the exercise, fix what has gone missing and try again. Always do short periods of a good shoulder-in so you can reward the horse rather than try to ride the whole long side and punish him when something goes wrong.
Janet Foy’s interest in dressage started when she lived in Oxford, England, and she passed several British Horse Society instructor exams. Currently in Colorado, she is an FEI 5* judge, USEF “S” dressage judge and a USEF sport-horse “R” breeding judge. She also serves as an FEI Technical Delegate. As a rider and trainer, Foy has earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals and gives clinics throughout the United States. Her students have also earned many USDF medals. She has written two best-selling books: Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse and Dressage Solutions, both published by Trafalgar Square Books.
This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Dressage Today.