Shoulder-in is the mother of all lateral movements. It was described in detail by the Grand Master François Robichon de la Guérinière along with its enormous gymnastic benefits for the horse. He is said to have described the exercise as the ‘cure of equitation’ and ‘the first and last movement to teach the horse in order to achieve suppleness in all his parts’.
Shoulder-fore vs shoulder-in vs ‘classical’ shoulder-in
In comparison to the shoulder-fore, in shoulder-in the shoulders are brought off the outside track through increased bend and flexion, so that the outside foreleg moves in line with the inside hind leg. For modern dressage, the horse should move on three tracks at an angle of approximately 30 degrees from the edge of the arena and is bent away from the direction of movement. Whilst the hind legs should still move virtually straight ahead, the fore legs cross over slightly due to the slight sideways positioning.
In what is known as the ‘Baroque’ or more classical version of the shoulder-in, as was described by de la Guérinière, the forehand is brought over so that the horse is working at an angle of 45 degrees, similar to that attained during a leg yield, so that each leg is moving on its own track. In this version both hind and forelegs will cross to allow the steeper angle to be maintained.
The modern opinion is that the shoulder in on three tracks, and this is certainly what is expected by the FEI in dressage tests. Pierre-Eric Jaquerod, former Swiss I-judge and former head of the Swiss Cavalry School in Berne sums up the reasons for this very succinctly here:
“the rule which is valid today: three tracks with bending isn’t completely what the shoulder-in had been like in its original form, but it has the advantage that it can be measured more easily. The bend is visible because the front legs cross, but the hindlegs not and the angle is easier to be recognised, because there are three tracks, no less and no more. Therefore shoulder-in can be taught and judged more objectively.”
In the end, precisely which form of shoulder-in is actually ridden in training is not much more than an ideological debate. It is instead much more important to focus on the benefits of the exercise for the horse, and which variant would be the most beneficial in a particular case. Both forms of the shoulder-in (modern and classical) can offer different ‘remedies’ to the horse so function should really be considered ahead of form.
The value of the exercise
In the shoulder-in, the inside hind is encouraged to step more under the horse’s centre of gravity. At the same time, the hock and knee joints have to bend as the hindquarters, but particularly the inside hind, are invited to take more weight. The hip and knee joints are also required to bend to encourage bend through the haunches. In this way, the balance, straightness and collection of the horse are all improved. Due to the sideways crossing of the fore legs, in connection with the increased bend through the haunches, the horse will become freer through the shoulder.
Responsiveness to the leg will also be developed with the exercise, as the horse needs to be sensitive to improve his lateral bend and keep moving forwards. The heightened attention that the horse develops can be increased even more through alternating with other lateral movements and varying the exercises ridden.
The Portuguese Riding Master Nuno Oliveira, described the shoulder-in appropriately as ‘the aspirin of the riding world, that cures everything’.
In the shoulder-in the reins direct the forehand, the legs are responsible for controlling the hindquarters and the seat acts in a more supportive role. Once horse and rider have prepared themselves for the exercise through a half-halt, the horse is led into the exercise through both of the reins.
Guidance is primarily through the outside rein for this exercise and the outside rein must allow the horse to bend sufficiently to the inside and allow the outside shoulder enough freedom to move forwards and round the inside shoulder. The outside rein then works together with the outside leg that lies a hand’s breadth behind the girth, and also serves to control the bend through the quarters.
The inside rein receives the softness created by the outside aids and together with the inside leg that lies on the girth, creates flexibility and allows the slight sideways movement, whilst at the same time maintaining the forwards momentum and encouraging the inside hind leg to support and carry more weight.
In essence, there is a lot to think about for both rider and horse!
To ride the exercise
Before starting the shoulder-in you need to check your horse’s suppleness and softness. This can best be done by riding a large circle and spiralling in and out on the circle to check the responsiveness to your aids. You take the bend from the circle into the shoulder-in, albeit with a bit more contact on the outside rein and if possible more forwards/sideways motion than forwards alone.
If the horse can hold the shoulder-in for a few steps initially, then you are well on your way and this is more than enough to start with. You should then straight away go back onto a circle or change the rein to give your horse a bit relief from the collecting elements of the exercise. Going onto a circle or asking for a change of rein also helps to ensure that you do not lose the forwards momentum during or after the shoulder-in, which is a common tendency. Ultimately, tempo and rhythm should be maintained throughout the lateral movements, in the same way as in the forwards movements, so asking a horse to stop immediately after performing a lateral movement is not always the best step for their education. Instead, you want them to learn to maintain the forwards throughout the exercise and riding out of the exercise positively into a forward movement can help to engrain this tendency.
The exercise should initially be ridden along sections of the long side. Once the horse has developed sufficient strength you should be able to move off the long-side and take the exercise onto the quarter-line. This is obviously more difficult for horse and rider as the seat will need to play a greater role in supporting the horse and providing directional guidance. Finally, once the exercise has been mastered on straight-lines it can be taken to the circle, where it acts to create great shoulder freedom and lightness.
NOTE: The exercise should only be ridden in walk initially, as it is very demanding for the horse. Over time the exercise can be taken into the trot and canter, but not until the carrying capacity of the inside hind-leg is well developed. Rushing to perform the exercise in the higher gaits can easily cause injury to the horse.
Shoulder-in is undeniably a valuable training exercise whether you are a dressage aficionado or a show-jumping pro. Developing carrying capacity in the hindlegs is vital in whichever discipline you choose. And, if, as Nuno Oliviera enticingly promises, shoulder-in really can cure all ills, then we need to be using it in our training sessions much, much more than we are at the moment! We don’t know about you – but we could certainly do with a few of our riding ills curing!!
In the words of François Robichon de la Guérinière:
“Instead of allowing the horse to go straight ahead when on the outside track with hips and shoulders aligned, place his head and neck a bit to the inside to point towards the middle of the school as if you were about to turn, and once it is angled and bent like this, let him move forward along the outside of the school supported by the inside rein and leg. This lesson has so many good effects at once, that I view it as the most important of all exercises with which to make the horse totally supple and loose throughout all parts of the body.” [end box]