John Richard Young: Shoulder-in technique requires time, attention

John Richard Young: Shoulder-in technique requires time, attention

(© John Richard Young. First published in Arabian Horse Express September 1990. Thanks to Yvonne Welz and her archives at Image of François Robichon de La Guérinière and student, “L’Epaule en Dedans” (Shoulder-in) by Charles Parrocel.)

Last month I expressed my negative opinion of the shoulder-in as an efficient schooling exercise, particularly when attempted by the average, semi-skilled rider. I gave reasons for my opinion and quoted other horsemen who agree with me.

However, I do not expect everybody else to agree with me, nor would I presume to force my views on those who prefer to think differently. I would rather help them, if I can, in pursuing the way they wish to go with their horses. Therefore, the following remarks about the shoulder-in are addressed to fledgling trainers who, for whatever reasons, elect to follow in the footsteps of tradition regardless of what I think.

Components of the Shoulder-in

  • Horse moves straight ahead
  • Spine is uniformly bent from poll to dock
  • Advances on three or four tracks
  • Horse flexes hind leg joints
  • Improves suppleness

Exactly what is the movement known as shoulder-in? It is not–as some novice riders are led to believe–an exercise in leg-yield or side-passing. In a correct shoulder-in the horse moves straight ahead with his spine uniformly bent to one side from poll to dock. If bent to the right side, he is doing a right shoulder-in; if he is bent to the other side, the movement is a left shoulder-in.

In attempting this exercise it is of paramount importance for the rider to understand that the horse must maintain a uniform bend of the spine from head to tail. Merely bending the horse at the shoulders by pulling the animal’s head and neck to one side is worse than useless. The great school rider Nuno Oliveira frequently exhorted pupils, “Don’t break your horse’s neck!”

A rider who attempts this exercise by pulling on the inside rein while leaning to that side, and pushing with his inside leg to make the horse move laterally, loses all impulsion and completely defeats the purpose of the exercise.

Precisely what is the alleged purpose of this awkward gymnastic? It is, at least in theory, to make the horse more supple by forcing him to flex his hindleg joints and to stretch his inside hind to step well under himself. That is why the uniformity of the bend is of critical importance; with the incorrect spinal curvature, you are just spoiling the gait and confusing the horse.

Since the horse, bent to one side, should move directly to the front, obviously his legs follow different tracks. Here the trainer must face a question: Does he want his mount to advance on three or four tracks? Today, there is a difference of opinion about this. You can choose one way or the other, depending on your ambition or your ultimate goal; but then you’d better stick to that way to avoid upsetting your horse.

De La Gueriniere, who is commonly credited with being the inventor of the shoulder-in (though the Duke of Newcastle used it almost a century earlier), diagrammed the hoof prints of the horse in his famous book Ecole de Cavalerie. He showed the movement to be of four tracks. That is, the horse was so bent that each hoof, moving parallel to the other three feet, made its own track. This is the “classic” shoulder-in. It was used by such purists as Oliveira; it is still scrupulously followed in the Spanish Riding School, which adheres strictly to La Gueriniere’s teachings. [Note from KM: Sadly, in 2018 this last statement, written in 1990, may no longer be true.]

Today, however, most dressage riders believe that a correct shoulder-in should be a three-track movement, with the inside hind foot stepping directly in the track of the outside forefoot. A horse advancing on four tracks, they believe, is bent too much.

Who is right–the purists of the classical high school or today’s dressage sages? This is one of the minor questions that turned me away from the shoulder-in as a suppling exercise. I followed the classical school in practice, but the more I thought about it, the more clearly I realized that both schools of thinking can’t be right. One must be in error. How can two contradictory ideologies, aimed toward the same goal, achieve the same results? Are the results really the same? Could it be that a good many dressage enthusiasts today are deluded in thinking they are getting the results they hope for?

It would seem so, if we accept the testimony of Col. Podhajsky, late director of the Spanish Riding School, who had an answer for everything. Podhajsky says that the three-track shoulder-in leads to a sort of outline of a shoulder-in, and the inside foreleg does not cross sufficiently over the outside one.” As a result, “the purpose of the exercise…will not be achieved.”

Before deciding which form of this exercise you are going to use in your schooling, consider this; a four-track shoulder-in necessitates that the horse must bend and exert himself more than a three-track movement requires. Thus, obviously, a horse trained in the classical method can easily perform the movement on three tracks; the rider need only ease his aids slightly to let the horse straighten out a big more. but a horse trained to shoulder-in on three tracks will have to stretch and bend considerably more to advance on four tracks, and possibly may never get it right without additional schooling.

So, make up your mind which way you want to go; then stick to it.

I hope the foregoing remarks do not leave you with the impression that shoulder-in is a difficult, complicated exercise to teach. For any fairly good rider–competent to undertake the schooling of a horse–it should be easy. All he or she needs are an active brain and a sensitive seat.

Whatever difficulties that may crop up will be chiefly the horse’s burden. He is the one that has to perform the movements, which–again I emphasize this–are contrary to his natural way of moving. If the rider demands too much immediately, the average horse is apt to become confused and emotionally upset. Even if the rider’s demands are reasonable, the horse’s schooling should be sufficiently advanced to have prepared him for this exercise. The horse should be almost perfect in the following basics:

  • Going forward freely on the bit
  • Doing a full turn (360 degrees) on the forehand
  • Doing a full turn on the haunches
  • Lateral flexion in response to each rein
  • Leg yielding equally to both sides

We have covered these basics in previous lessons. So, if you have been conscientiously schooling instead of just reading, your horse is now ready for shoulder-in.

In my experience, the easiest way to begin is to put the horse on the bit and ride him at a semi-collected walk parallel to the wall of the school into a corner. As you have done so many times before, bend the horse slightly to the inside as he turns into the corner and moves through it; but this time do not immediately let him straighten his body when it is parallel to the second wall. Instead, move his forehand slightly away from the wall by keeping him bent for a couple of strides. Then, and only then, relax the reins, letting him walk straight forward normally as he heads toward the next corner–and don’t forget to give him a pat on the neck and some vocal praise.

As you approach the second corner, put the horse back on the bit, collect him slightly and do the same thing again. Remember to ask for only two or three steps before easing off and letting the horse straighten out. Easy does it. Keep the horse calm.

If after riding through several corners in the way you find that your horse feels heavier and less responsive than usual, try a semi-collected trot. This gait encourages more impulsion and some horses respond better.

If you do not have a school with square corners, you can start this shoulder-in exercise by riding in a large circle. With the horse correctly bent on the circle, change course by riding off in a straight line, but still maintain the bend of the circle for a few strides.

Many riders have difficulty getting a correct shoulder-in not because their horses are incapable of it, but because the riders make the exercise more difficult than it need be by failing to give the correct aids. The inside direct rein  bends the horse with tension applied toward the rider’s opposite hip, or toward the horse’s outside hip, depending on the degree of bend, which is limited by the indirect outside rein. At the same time the rider sits a little more heavily on his outside seat bone to make it easier for the horse to step under with its inside hind leg. The rider’s inside leg at the girth maintains impulsion while the outside leg, slightly behind the girth, prevents the haunches from swinging out.

In contrast to this simple, logical method of making everything as easy as possible for the horse, too often we see riders–and I don’t mean only novice riders–pulling straight back on the inside rein while leaning to the inside and jabbing with the inside spur ostensibly to “make the horse bend his ribs.” The only result such misguided riders get is an awkward, nervous form of leg-yielding by a thoroughly upset horse. They never achieve a correct shoulder-in.

Even for experienced riders, a knowledgeable observer on the ground is invaluable in this phase of schooling. The observer need not be an expert rider himself, but he must have a clear understanding of how the exercise should be done correctly. Then he can point out faults in execution of which the rider would otherwise remain unaware. The observer is in a position to see errors that the rider may lack the experience to feel.

A student trainer lacking any assistance might find it helpful to be his own ground observer when he introduces his horse to shoulder-in. A method many European trainers use with inexperienced horses is as follows:

Standing beside the horse’s shoulder–let’s say the left shoulder–hook the first two fingers of your left hand through the ring of the snaffle. Hold a whip in your right hand about the same level as the point of the horse’s shoulder, with the shaft pointing toward the horse’s tail. Grasp the right rein in your right hand with the length of rein–crossed over in front of the withers–adjusted so that you can control the degree of bend. With your left hand holding the snaffle ring draw the horse’s head and neck toward yourself and start him moving forward with a tap or two of the whip. You, of course, walk along beside the horse. In this way you can see for yourself how he moves his feet.

After a few trials, mount and try it from the saddle.

It is self-evident, of course, that you should practice the shoulder-in from both sides. Don’t forget about our old bugaboo, the one-sided mouth. A horse will do shoulder-in better on the same side on which he prefers to accept the bit. On the opposite side, the “hollow” side of his neck, he will most likely try to evade by overbending. Watch for this. And proceed slowly, increasing the degree of bend and the number of successive steps gradually.

Now you know what to do and how it should be done.

Viva tradition!


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