Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Ah, the shoulder in... It's nearly impossible to do any reading or You Tube-ing, etc. about any sort of dressage training without hearing about the shoulder in. The shoulder in appears all over the place! It's one of the most fundamental dressage exercises out there and it's used to develop and improve horses of all levels. So what exactly is it and how do we teach the shoulder in to our horse?
What is the shoulder in?
Like the leg yield, the shoulder in is a lateral movement - meaning the horse moves forward and sideways at the same time. The shoulder in, however, is the first lateral movement we teach the horse that requires a degree of collection - meaning the horse has to engage and accept more weight on the hind leg. This makes the shoulder in more difficult.
The horse travels on a straight line with the forehand bending around the riders inside leg. The shoulder in is a "three track" movement - if you were to look at your horse in the mirror as you're riding, you should see your horse's outside front leg in line with his inside hindleg. The rider's upper body is positioned at slight angle toward the inside. The rider's inside leg stays on at the girth to encourage bend and the outside leg is on slightly behind the girth to prevent the haunches from swinging out.
We first see the shoulder in appear in Second Level Test 1 and it continues to be asked for in tests all the way to the FEI levels. To say the shoulder in is important is a huge understatement!
How do I know when my horse is ready to learn shoulder in?
Before I teach the shoulder in, I want make sure my horse understands how to leg yield. The horse needs to understand how to move forward and sideways without losing rhythm and while maintaining steady contact. I want the horse to know how to leg yield both toward the rail and away from the rail.
In addition to understanding how to move forward and sideways in balance, the horse needs to understand how to accept some weight on the hind end. We can check this with transitions - transitions between gaits and within gaits. The horse needs to be able to go from trot to halt and from halt back to trot in balance (without coming above the bit, pulling, leaning or drifting). The horse also needs to be able to lengthen and shorten his stride in the trot and canter and maintain balance. I'm not looking for the horse to be able to do a full on extended trot and then collect, but he should understand how to surge forward and come back without coming above the bit, pulling, or leaning.
Awesome! My horse can do those things! How do I introduce the shoulder in?
I like to start using the leg yield - a movement your horse already knows.
On the rail, establish a forward thinking, steady working trot. From the short side, turn early onto the quarter line. Aim for a "thicker" quarter line - aim for closer to center line, rather than the rail as you'll want the extra space so you have room to position the horse.
Once you turn onto the quarter line, as your horse for two to three steps of leg yield, so he begins to move off your inside leg toward your outside rein. As he begins to leg yield, turn your body, from the waist, toward the center line. Keep your inside leg on, so your horse doesn't turn. This will put your horse into a shoulder in position.
Ride straight in shoulder in for three or four strides, then straighten your body and resume your leg yield toward the rail line to keep the horse moving from your inside leg to your outside rein. If you still have room, repeat the exercise.
Once your horse begins to understand the aids and positioning for shoulder in, try riding the shoulder in without leg yielding first. Let the bend from your turn from the short side to the quarter line set your horse up for the shoulder in. Keep riding shoulder in on the quarter line until your horse really understands the aids and the movement. Riding the shoulder in on the quarter line makes the movement a little "easier". Once your horse is really steady in the shoulder in on the quarter in, you can try it on the rail line.
Common problems you may run into...
The horse falls in when I turn my body to position him in shoulder in.
Solution - Put your inside leg on and leg yield the horse off the inside leg. Once he begins to move off the inside leg, position him in shoulder in. Repeat until he understands, he needs to respect your inside leg.
The horse bends his neck, but doesn't bring his shoulders in.
Solution - Straighten the horse on the outside rein with a big half halt and give him a good kick with your inside leg. If you're riding on the quarter line (and you should be while your horse is learning!), the combination of these aides should cause the horse to step away from your inside leg and put his haunches out. With his haunches out, he will be in more of a "shoulder in" position. It may not be 100% correct shoulder in, but the horse will begin to get the idea that he needs to position body differently between your outside rein and inside leg rather than just bending his neck.
The horse swings his haunches out too much.
Solution - Be sure you have your outside leg on just a little behind the girth. If your leg is on but the horse is leaning through it, straighten your horse on the outside rein and ask the horse to leg yield off the outside leg two or three steps. Then straighten and ask for shoulder in again.
Give these exercises a try and let me know how it goes! If you have any questions, send me a message. Happy riding!