A Way to Learn How to Ride Shoulder-In

Shoulder-in is fundamental in dressage because it’s the first movement in a horse’s training that requires actual collection. Megan Fischer-Graham rides Elian, owned by Amanda Stapleton, at the 2020 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference. (Jennifer Bryant photo)

By Maurine “Mo” Swanson

In my opinion, shoulder-in is one of the most difficult movements to teach to students of dressage. The movement may be clear in your mind when you read about it, and it looks so easy when someone performs it correctly, but when you try to ride it yourself, you run into multiple problems. Your body balks at what it should be doing, and your horse hollows, slows down, does more of a leg-yield or has too much angle, overbends his neck, or does any number of other things that are not correct.

Shoulder-in is a three-track movement (pictured: shoulder-in right). The rider’s inside leg is used at or just behind the girth, and the outside leg is farther behind the girth. Both hands shift slightly to the inside. The horse’s bending should fill out the outside rein, while the inside rein stays slightly off the neck. USDF illustration.

Let’s start with the USDF glossary 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 is a wonderful suppling exercise. It is the fundamental collecting exercise, and it first appears in the dressage tests in Second Level Test 1. Shoulder-in is also a straightening exercise because you place the horse’s shoulders in relation to his hindquarters: with the horse’s hind legs on the line of travel and with the shoulders displaced to the inside. The horse should travel on three “tracks” (lines of travel), and the approximately 30-degree angle should remain the same throughout the movement. The horse’s 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.

Horses are shaped like isosceles triangles, with their hindquarters the widest point and narrowing to their noses. Illustration by Mo Swanson.

You can ride shoulder-in along the wall or on another line off the track, such as on a quarter line or the center line. The horse is bent around the rider’s inside leg, and his poll is flexed slightly to the inside, away from the direction of travel. Sounds easy, right?

Let’s take a moment here to talk about the shape of the horse’s body. Horses are shaped a little bit like isosceles triangles, with their forehands narrower than their hindquarters, as shown in the illustration.

Because a horse is widest at his haunches, he will actually be crooked if he travels with his shoulders and haunches parallel to the wall. Illustration by Mo Swanson.

That’s why shoulder-in is a straightening exercise: If you ride with the outside of your horse parallel to the wall, he will actually be crooked, with his haunches carried to the inside. His inside hind leg will not be engaged, as shown in the illustration.

(This innate crookedness is why riding in what’s known as shoulder-fore position is riding your horse “straight,” with the inside hind leg engaged. Shoulder-fore has less angle than shoulder-in. In shoulder fore, the horse’s shoulders come in a little bit further than his hips. Your hips and your horse’s hips are positioned straight as you travel in a straight line. The illustration below shows the positioning for shoulder-fore right.)

Shoulder-fore positioning makes the horse straight by bringing his shoulders in line with his hindquarters. Illustration by Mo Swanson.

In dressage, the rider’s shoulders should be parallel to the horse’s shoulders, and the rider’s hips should be parallel to the horse’s hips. So for shoulder-in, because you are bringing your horse’s shoulders off the wall with his body bent around your inside leg, your shoulders need to turn, too, with your outside shoulder coming slightly forward and your inside shoulder coming slightly back. Don’t slump or drop one shoulder. Some of us older women will remember the Barbie doll that could twist her body side to side at the waist, with her shoulders remaining level. That is what you will need to do—pivot at the waist like Barbie without dropping a shoulder.

Try this: Stand on the ground with your weight balanced evenly over your two feet. Twist your torso to the left like a Barbie doll. Keep your shoulders level. What happened to your left hip? Unless you are a contortionist, your left hip came up slightly. Keep this in mind going forward.

On your horse, to begin shoulder-in left, start in the walk or trot and ride a 10- or 15-meter circle on the left rein. (A 10-meter circle has the correct degree of bend needed for shoulder-in, but if you are just learning how to ride this movement, you can start from a 15-meter circle and increase the bend later.) Shoulder-in is performed at the sitting trot in the dressage tests.

In shoulder-in, the rider’s shoulders are parallel to the horse’s shoulders, and the rider’s hips are parallel to the horse’s hips. Illustration by Mo Swanson.

As you finish the circle and return to the wall, make one stride away from the wall, as if you were beginning a second circle. Turn your shoulders and torso to the left like the Barbie doll: left shoulder back, right shoulder forward. Your hands shift to the left, toward the inside: left hand in front of your left hip bone, right hand in front of your belly button. Don’t pull back on the inside rein or cross your inside rein over your horse’s withers, both of which are very tempting to do!

The real trick to riding a correct shoulder-in is to bring the horse’s shoulders in without accomplishing this by pushing the haunches out. So for now, don’t worry about your horse’s neck. Think only of bringing the shoulders in. Come out of your circle (or the corner) and ride one stride of a second circle; then continue down the wall in that positioning. Flex your horse slightly to the inside, just enough that you can see his inside eye. Send his haunches straight down the long side. If you feel the urge to pull on the inside rein, use your inside leg at the girth instead. Think sideways with your hands instead of back, and keep both hands down near the withers.

To avoid engaging the inside hind leg, many horses will try to make the movement easier by swinging their haunches to the outside. How do we prevent that? Remember what happened in the standing exercise when you rotated your torso to the left? Your left hip came up. So, for your horse’s hips to travel straight down the long side in shoulder-in, you need to put weight down into the saddle with your inside hip and your inside seat bone. Here’s how to learn to do this: Find two focal points at the far end of the arena that are as wide apart as your hips. Riding in shoulder-fore or shoulder-in position toward those focal points, drive both of your hips (especially your lowered inside hip) toward those two points.

Another tip for preventing the haunches from swinging out is to keep your inside leg at or near the girth. Drawing the inside leg too far back encourages the horse to put his haunches out. It may feel as if your inside leg is more forward than you think it should be. At the same time, position your outside leg slightly behind the girth to “guard” the haunches and to keep the outside hind leg stepping correctly forward.

There are two schools of thought on how to position your head and where to aim your gaze as you ride shoulder-in. One is to turn your head slightly to the inside, keeping it in line with your shoulders, and gazing in that direction (toward 10:00 or 11:00 on a clock face for shoulder-in left, or toward 1:00 or 2:00 for shoulder-in right). The other is to turn your head slightly to the outside line of your rotated shoulders while gazing straight down the long side. Experiment to see which one works best for you.

As you ride shoulder-in, strive to keep your horse moving with energy and a steady tempo. Judges look for correct and consistent bend, a regular tempo, an appropriate degree of collection for the level, and good balance. As you get more proficient in moving the horse’s shoulders correctly, you can add the slight bend in the neck.

Show a clear difference between shoulder-in positioning and straightness. For instance, Second Level Test 1 calls for shoulder-in from B to M. For a higher score, straighten your horse at M before you bend him for the corner, rather than continuing through the corner still in shoulder-in position.

Is your brain overloaded trying to remember all of this? Be patient. Your goal is to train your body correctly to facilitate the correct training of your horse. Don’t give up! Learning shoulder-in is a mental exercise as well as a physical one. Don’t drill your horse over and over, especially if you find you are having difficulty. Give him breaks at the walk on a long rein. When he attempts to do something right, even if it isn’t perfect, reward him with your voice or a wither scratch with your inside hand. If you feel as if everything is falling apart, try riding the movement at the walk, or just make a circle. During a walk break, analyze what went wrong. I guarantee that not doing one of the things I have discussed here in this article will be the reason for the difficulty. Many small steps make steady forward progress. Have someone take video, standing directly in front of you and directly behind you. You will see your mistakes. Have fun, and reward yourself and your horse when it all falls into place. A correct shoulder-in is an amazing feeling!

Maurine “Mo” Swanson has been breeding horses for 40 years. With her husband, Jim, she owns Rolling Stone Farm in eastern Pennsylvania. Swanson got her equestrian start in hunters and jumpers, then rode dressage up to the Prix St. Georges level, earning her USDF bronze and silver medals in 2018. Her homebred Hanoverians and Oldenburgs have earned top-10 national dressage rankings and have won many titles both under saddle and in hand. She has consistently been highly ranked in the Adequan®/USDF Dressage Breeder of the Year, the Adequan®/USDF Dressage Sport Horse Breeding Breeder of the Year, and the US Equestrian Dressage Breeder of the Year standings. She won the Adequan®/USDF DSHB Breeder of the Year title in 2016 and 2018, and in 2020 she was named the Adequan®/USDF Dressage Breeder of the Year. She has also been the USEF Dressage Breeder of the Year every year since 2014.

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