As described previously in this series, shoulder-in is a very important exercise which, since its inception in 1700’s has revolutionised the way in which we train our horses to become more supple, strong in the hindquarters and especially to become more flexible in all the joints in the hind limbs. It teaches the horse to take weight back onto the haunches, frees up the shoulders and is the gateway to true collection. Collection can be obtained in other ways, which can be used alongside this exercise, but why ignore such a hugely helpful movement?
Shoulder-in can be practiced gently, for short periods in walk only, to begin with, and this will gradually strengthen and supple the horse without any stress.
PRACTICE WHEN DISMOUNTED
If you have never ridden shoulder-in before, then I suggest you walk it on foot first.
This may sound silly but it is actually very important, since horse and rider should mirror each other. For instance the position of your shoulders should be at the same angle as the horse’s shoulders and when the horse needs to advance his inside hip, then the rider should do the same. Try walking down the track on the long side of the school with your shoulders turned inwards at about a 30 degree angle (the same as required from the horse in a conventional three track shoulder-in). Put your hands on your hips, so you can feel what your hips are doing. You will need to turn inwards from the waist and if you’re on, say the left rein (anti-clockwise) then your left foot will step over and in front of your right. It is important that you look in the direction to which your shoulders are pointing. If you turn your head and look down the track, you will quickly feel how it is virtually impossible to keep the shoulder-in position. This is demonstrated clearly in Sylvia Loch’s video, The Classical Seat I (available from the Classical Seat Video Co. – www.classicalseat.co.uk). You will also feel the position of your hips and it will be apparent how important it is when mounted to advance your inside hip as this is what the horse must do to perform this movement.
Whilst you’re practicing this dismounted exercise, just walk a small circle, with your hands still on your hips. You will clearly feel the necessity to advance your inside hip, whilst being aware of the extra weight put upon your inside foot. You will also need to bring your outside shoulder round in the direction of the circle. If your outside shoulder is too far back, or if you turn your shoulders too far inwards, you will become unbalanced. All this is important because it is what we need to do when mounted. It is best to prepare for the shoulder-in from a small circle and you both need to be well balanced during this preparation.
During shoulder-in the horse is bent around the rider’s inside leg, moving laterally away from the bend. In this way it is similar to leg-yield. All other classical lateral movements require the horse to move sideways towards the bend.
The track of an enclosed arena is by far the best place to begin teaching this exercise. If you don’t have the use of one, then it is possible to either fence off or enclose with stakes, an area of your field, ideally 20m x 40m.
It is important to use the track because the fence or wall of the arena is such a help in containing the horse’s quarters.
WHAT THE HORSE SHOULD BE DOING
The aim is for the horse to move sideways down the track with the hind legs on the track and forehand taken inwards, away from the track at an angle of roughly 30 degrees. When first starting the exercises a more shallow angle is advisable and this is known as shoulder-fore. The aids are the same so I will make no distinction when describing them. He should be bent equally from poll to tail, without excessive bend in the head and neck. This position necessitates the crossing of the front and hind legs. The inside hind leg does most of the extra work in that it comes forward and across the outside hind and pushes the horse sideways. When the horse can do all this correctly then he will be well on the way to true collection, with the forehand being rendered lighter and weight taken back onto the haunches.
However, at the beginning we must not expect perfection. Good collection creates a good shoulder-in, and shoulder-in creates good collection – one complements the other. We must be patient and accept the first couple of faltering shoulder-in steps with elation and gratitude; building up on this week by week until the horse is able to give more steps with more confidence and correctness.
It is a good idea to begin teaching shoulder-in from the ground, or perhaps to have an understanding helper to walk alongside the horse when the first mounted steps are attempted.
A THREE-TRACK SHOULDER-IN
A three-track shoulder-in which requires a displacement from the track of about 30 degrees is what is normally required initially in competition, and is the basis of good training for most purposes.
A FOUR-TRACK SHOULDER-IN
This is a more advanced movement and requires a larger displacement from the track, of about 40 degrees. If the horse does not bend correctly, he will take less weight back onto his haunches, and this is more likely at this angle, in which case the exercise is rendered far less beneficial.
I would certainly not worry about how many tracks my horse is making with his feet; just concentrate on good bending and sideways progression.
AIDS FROM THE RIDER FOR SHOULDER-IN (and Shoulder-Fore)
It is best to prepare for shoulder-in by riding a fairly small circle, say on the right rein. Ride your circle in the corner of the school just before the long side.
You should already have your outside leg back and inside leg on the girth with your right hip in advance of the left.
Keeping the right bend, when you have ridden one circle, just as the horse steps off the track with his forelegs and is about to begin another circle, you ask him to step sideways away from your right leg, into your left rein.
Your shoulders should be turned inwards at the angle to which you want your horse’s shoulders (don’t forget to turn your head with your shoulders).
Keeping your hands together, take both hands to the right with your shoulders as they turn. The outside (left rein should be on the neck but don’t take your left hand across the withers to the right, just keep it at the withers).
Your left leg should be back, not just from the knee, but from the thigh. This leg should normally be quietly laid on the horse; to be brought into play if necessary should the quarters begin to swing outwards.
The horse is bent around your right leg which gently but decisively asks the horse to move away and sideways up the track, either by a gentle pushing or tapping movement, whichever the horse responds to best, and whichever you have used previously when asking for leg-yield.
The importance of the outside rein
The main thing which tells the horse not to walk forward onto a circle or diagonally across the school is the supportive and firm outside rein on the neck. If you have taken both hands to the right and the horse is bent to the right, then this should be enough to give the left rein the extra tension required, as the neck will ‘fill out’ the rein. The tension should not be so great as to become restrictive and on no account should you pull back with either rein.
The inside rein is often over-used
The job of the inside rein is to invite the horse’s forehand off the track and maintain the inside bend. Many riders over-use this rein when first practicing shoulder-in, sometimes opening the rein to the inside, thus creating far too much bend in the neck and virtually pulling the horse onto the forehand, making it impossible for him to walk a correct shoulder-in.
The best thing to do is to use a sponging effect of opening and closing of the fingers to create or maintain the inside flexion, if necessary. Keep both hands together as a pair with elbows rested on your torso, with the whole of your upper body in the shoulder-in position. In this way, combined with the encouragement of the inside leg, the horse will quickly understand what is required.
If this doesn’t work, and he still seems confused, then the assistance of a trusted friend on the ground is invaluable.
The Classical Seat
It almost goes without saying that a good classical seat, upright body position with expanded chest, shoulders relaxed back and down, hips underneath shoulders, relaxed buttocks and thigh muscles, but toned and supportive abdominal and lower back muscles, are all essentials for correct riding of any exercise, especially shoulder-in.
Sometimes the rider collapses the inside hip when trying too hard to push the horse sideways. This should be avoided by thinking ‘up from the waist’.
It is common for a young or untrained horse to find it difficult to understand the concept of keeping his forehand off the track whilst his quarters are on the track. He then performs merely a head and neck in. This should be rectified by patiently and carefully following the aids as above and showing him how it’s done from the ground.
Sometimes the horse will offer a greater angle than necessary; taking his shoulders in from the track at an angle of around 40 degrees. This can fool the rider into thinking that he has achieved a superbly advanced, four track shoulder in, when in fact it may be that the horse has cleverly chosen this advanced angle in order to straighten his body and avoid the extra work of bending from poll to tail.
This is why I am against the practice of teaching leg-yield up the track, because it gives the horse the idea that this position can be maintained without the requisite poll to tail bend of shoulder-in.
The Weight Aid
In my previous article on leg-yield I described how the use of a discreet weight aid (the lengthening of the leg, thus weighting that particular seatbone) in the direction of travel will encourage the horse to move that way. It is a natural aid which the horse will do automatically in order to stay in balance with his rider.
When it comes to shoulder-in, things become a bit more complicated. Some untrained horses will benefit from the rider giving a slight weight aid with the inside leg/seatbone initially to encourage them to bring the forehand away from the track. But the weight will then need to be centralised when the horse has responded. Sometimes a slight weight aid to the outside will reinforce the pushing aid of the inside leg to encourage the horse up the track. Obviously the rider needs to be able to feel the reaction of the horse and respond instantaneously otherwise the horse will be confused. If you are new to these weight aids or do not feel confident enough, then I would suggest that you keep your weight as central as possible when teaching this movement.
START SLOWLY AND DECISIVELY WITH TACT AND PATIENCE
It is important that the rider/trainer should approach any new exercise with a clear understanding of what is required, but with modest expectations. Always begin in walk and only practice in walk until the movement is well established. Just a stride or two of shoulder-in will be an excellent start. Practice on both reins but don’t expect equal success. Remember that one rein will be much more difficult than the other for reasons discussed in previous articles. Never over-do any one exercise in a training session; don’t spend all the time practicing one thing. Ride away and do something else, especially if difficulties occur. You can always come back to the shoulder-in again once the horse’s confidence (and yours) have been restored by riding a movement you are good at. Give the horse (and yourself) plenty of rest periods on a long rein, to enable you both to stretch, relax and think about what you have done and what you may be about to attempt.
If things go wrong and you cannot achieve the shoulder-in, don’t despair; Rome was not built in a day; it may be that you just need more time on the preparatory exercises.
Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:- firstname.lastname@example.org
See Anne’s book ‘Riding Revelations – Classical Training from the Beginning’ available from www.blacktent.co.uk