A correct shoulder-in benefits your horse in several ways:
But when problems occur the benefits are lost and, in some instances, it can be detrimental to your training. In two of my previous blogs I have addressed some of the problems that can occur with riding shoulder-in: Loss of Impulsion and Travelling and Correcting Bend.
When shoulder-in has gone wrong it is usually better to ride out of the movement, set things up again and then come back to the exercise, paying attention to the necessary corrections as you start the movement.
Rider blocking the horse or behind the movement
If the rider sits to the inside during the movement, they will be moving against the direction of travel. Closing your body towards the outside elbow helps to maintain correct balance during the movement and release the horse’s inside hind leg, allowing it to cross under the body more easily. Be careful that you don’t sit too far to the outside or you will create a similar problem!
Asking for too much angle
Only ask for the angle that your horse can manage at that time. The exercise will supple your horse and the angle will increase as they become more supple. Also, be aware of your horse’s conformation; a short coupled, stocky horse will have different angles to those of a narrower horse.
Circles and shoulder-in are exercises to supple your horse, and so you must ensure you ride each side the same. On the easier side, ride with less angle, and, as your horse’s stiffer side supples more, the angles will even up and can be gradually increased.
Asking too many steps
Asking for too many steps before your horse is able to maintain them independently will be physically challenging for him, and he will lose the rhythm and angle. Build the number of steps progressively.
Asking for too much stretch
It can be tempting to push your horse for bigger steps in shoulder-in, which results in them running on, losing balance and negates the purpose of the exercise. Initially keep the steps small with the hind feet moving close together so your horse builds strength and suppleness.
The shoulder-in is one of the most useful exercises for your horse; it supples both the shoulders and the quarters, and brings the inside hind leg under the belly of the horse which helps to engage his quarters and lighten the forehand. Of course, none of this happens if the movement is not ridden correctly.
To prepare your horse for shoulder-in
Firstly, your horse should be well balanced on a circle and able to move away from the rider’s inside leg. It is usual to begin this with leg yield, but this can make horses twisted. As an alternative either start this using in hand work or do quarters out of the circle.
In shoulder-in it is important that the horse is bent throughout his body. The degree of angle will depend on the horse’s level of training and conformation. The exercise should be ridden slowly, and in walk the steps should not be too wide or the horse’s back will become hollow. You should feel the horse’s weight remains on the inside hind, not the outside shoulder.
Shoulder-in is created in the corner so your horse should come out of the corner well balanced and in a good rhythm. You should feel as though he is offering the movement to you. If not, continue on a circle and set things up again. If the movement doesn’t go well, ride out of it and start again. It is more important to have a few very correct steps then many incorrect steps.
The rider should sit well-balanced in the centre of the saddle. It is very easy to allow your body to tip to the inside, which will unbalance the horse. Move the horse’s shoulders over by a slight movement of the hands to the inside; don’t pull the inside rein as this will block the horse.
Using light touches with the inside leg, step the inside hind leg across and use half halts to help the horse stay on the line. Once the horse understands the movement, the rider should stay quiet in the saddle, moving with the horse, and be attentive to the steps, ready to make a correction if needed.
Reasons for loss of impulsion or travelling
Too steep angle
The degree of the angle will depend on the conformation and suppleness of your horse. Have a smaller angle to start with and only ask for two or three steps. Build the number of steps and degree of angle as your horse becomes more supple.
Horse not round inside leg
In this instance the horse will brace against the rein and either drop to the outside shoulder and travel down the wall with a straight body and twisted neck, or they will step the inside hind leg forward, not across, and then they will travel forward away from the wall. Correct this by riding a very accurate circle to set the movement up again. Keep the inside rein soft and don’t use it to create either the circle or the shoulder-in.
Rider not sitting correctly, usually leaning to the inside, or tipping forward.
Not sitting correctly puts the horse out of balance; they will not be able to step sideways and the movement will travel forwards. If the rider tries to hold the shoulder-in through the reins, the horse may stay on the side but will be twisted in the neck, not bent through the body. The rider’s position should be slightly turned to the inside (hips and shoulders mirroring the horse’s hips and shoulders), closing the body towards the outside elbow to keep the balance and prevent leaning to the inside.
Horse does not bring the inside hind leg under sufficiently
This error is very dependent on the suppleness and conformation of the horse. Some horses find it easier to have a large angle in shoulder-in, others (such as a cob) may find the angle needs to be smaller and in this case the hind legs may not cross. What is important is that the shoulder-in is ridden correctly, then it will have a good suppling effect.
The horse will hollow if the steps are too big, or if the rider takes the inside rein as this blocks the inside hind. In shoulder-in the steps should be slow and unhurried; they should be small with the hind legs passing close together particularly in walk.
Left below - the horse is falling to the outside shoulder and the rider is twisted
Right below - horse is not round the inside leg, is hollow and resisting the rein.
This quote from Nuno Oliveira is worth repeating, “the hands receive the work of the legs”. If the rider is using the legs well with tact and timing, the horse becomes light in the hands. If the leg is not well times the hands become strong and there is no lightness.
The horse must be able to respond to the lightest of aids and then the rider must cease the aid, and allow the horse to continue in the same frame, only giving an aid when a change is required. The timing and co-ordination of aids is important, if the legs say go, the hands and seat must not block that aid
With a hot horse, your legs must remain softly against horse’s side and touch lightly or the horse will be surprised by the leg. Don’t clamp your legs on or your horse can’t breathe
The leg positions for different riders may not look exactly alike, dependent on their leg length and the shape of the horse. The pictures below riders with correct leg positions, but each looks slightly different.
“The hands receive the work of the legs”
This quote from Nuno Oliveira sums up the crucial relationship between the rider’s hands and legs, if a rider’s legs and seat act correctly, the hands can be light and tactful. If the rider’s legs and seat don’t act with precision, the horse becomes heavy in the hands.
Remember that a rider’s hands start in the shoulders, as any movement in the arms or shoulders is magnified in the hands and can interfere with the rein aids. The upper arm should hang close to your side, not clamped in, with the elbow near the hip. Your hand is carried by your forearm allowing the wrist to be supple and the fingers free from gripping. Your hands should be close together, as a pair, just above the withers, not dropping down to your thigh or carried wide. Keeping your elbows close to your hip, your back and seat moving with the horse’s back, your hand will follow the movement of the horse’s head.
It’s difficult to control your hand movements. In everyday life we tend to use our hands first, but in riding we should use them last and with great tact. You must be able to have a still, soft hand before you can do anything with them, then you can give delicate tactful aids and place your hand in the best position to help your horse.
And a thought from William Cavendish about the hands:-
“The main secret for a horse that is heavy upon the hand, is for the rider to have a very light one; for when he finds nothing to bear upon with his mouth, he infallibly throws himself upon the haunches for his own security.“
These pictures demonstrate the effect of the hands. The first two show correct hand position and contact the other four pictures show the negative effects of incorrect hand aids.
The correct position in the saddle directly affects your ability to communicate with your horse. Good posture allows the rider to move as one with their horse and give the lightest aids with precision. Poor posture inhibits the horse’s movement and means that the rider’s aids are ill timed and unclear to the horse.
Sit on your seat bones with the pubic bone resting towards the twist of the saddle. The thighs should hang from the hip sockets, slightly forward, and the upper body balanced over the seat bones. Our spine has a natural “S” curve and this should be retained so that the lower back can move exactly with the horses back, otherwise the horse will be blocked.
The seat extends up through the lower back and if this does not move the seat is blocked. A supple lower back moves with the horse’s back, or you will block the horse’s back and the movement from the quarters.
Never support your position by hanging on the reins or gripping with the legs. When the position is right it should feel easy and connected. This position allows the rider to feel and direct the horse’s movement and not disrupt it.
The first picture below show a correct seat.
In the centre picture the rider has lost contact with the saddle and is gripping with the knees which is pushing the seat up towards the back of the saddle
The last picture shows how the rider has lost the seat forward, the seat is being held in the saddle by the thighs braced against the knee rolls and the hands are pulling back on the reins.
Last time I blogged about riding circles and the importance of correct bend. I use circles to warm my horse up, and during training sessions to maintain and correct imbalance.
Each corner is ¼ of a circle, if you ride it as a circle with correct bend, your horse will come to the straight side balanced. If your horse is unbalanced through the corners, he will be unbalanced on the straight side and any movement you chose to do will be compromised.
Once you are confident with staying balanced round a circle, start to introduce more changes of bend through various exercises. I usually start these by working a horse through smaller circles down the long side of the school. Feel how your horse manages with the smaller circle and adjust the size of the circle so it is small enough to flex him a little more, but not so small that he loses balance. If he is having difficulty, make the circle slightly larger circle so he can keep his balance and then work towards smaller circles.
From there move on to riding a serpentine down the length of the school. Each loop is part of a circle, so ride it with correct bend, and make the changes of bend as you cross the school. The changes of bend are most important, prepare them well. If your horse loses balance and you can’t correct it, ride out of the serpentine go back to circles to correct the bend and then try again.
A very useful exercise used by the classical masters is to do circles of varying sizes and with frequent changes of bend in the centre of the school. Come into the middle of the school and make changes of bend away from the walls. Circle in one direction, find the balance and then make a change of circle, keeping the balance throughout. This simple exercise is quite hard to do, focus on your back and seat and feel the movement your horse gives you through his back.
Another good exercise is a spiral. Start your horse on a correct large circle, use your outside aids to decrease the size of the circle around the same centre point, then increase the size of the circle from your inside leg back to the original one.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer