Dressage is training for suppleness, balance and obedience. So, dressage training helps prepare any horse for a good and useful life. As Tom Roberts said, a well-trained horse has a good life.
One of the most useful exercises to improve balance and suppleness is the shoulder-in. Invented by François Robichon de La Guérinière, the importance of the shoulder-in has been highlighted by recent scientific studies that show that horses will become more relaxed when you bend their bodies by putting them into the shoulder-in. You can read a previous article about this here (‘A Relaxed Horse is a Happy Horse’, Equestrian Life July 2020). But now I would like to give you some examples of how you can use the shoulder-in in a range of different exercises to help the gymnastics of your horse, whatever your discipline.
When the horse is in shoulder-in, the inside hind leg of the horse is placed well under its body, bending all three joints and therefore carrying more weight, and building the horse’s capacity for balance and collection. This is one of the key advantages of the shoulder-in. We use the shoulder-in to train suppleness and bend, and we use it to help the horse understand the inside leg to outside rein aids.
It is also a fundamental exercise to help make a horse straight. This may seem counter-intuitive that we use bending to make the horse straight, but you should always move the shoulder in front of the hind leg to make a horse straight. Of course, horses are just like us in that they will tend to have a stiff side and a softer side. The stiff side is likely to feel hollow whereas the more supple side will stretch more easily. The shoulder-in is a wonderful tool to make the horse stretch the hollow side so he becomes more symmetrical and accepts the outside rein. This is important whatever the discipline you are practising.
There are an infinite number of ways to use the shoulder-in to better train your horse. It does not need to be limited to the lines we use in the dressage tests, namely shoulder-in along the long side, and later in Inter I, shoulder-in along the centreline. I will give you some suggestions on how you can use the shoulder-in as an exercise.
FIRSTLY, YOU MUST TEACH THE SHOULDER-IN
Start by teaching him to yield sideways to the leg aids. Often the horse will have been taught the turn on the forehand in-hand when being broken in, so you can start with this exercise. Then progress to the leg-yield under saddle. Make the right thing easy by riding a very small circle and then allowing the horse to do something easier by leg-yielding out of the small circle onto a bigger circle. The outside rein leads the horse out, in an early experience of inside leg to outside rein. The horse is bent around the inside leg. Progress this by doing the leg-yield from the centreline out to the wall.
When your horse understands this and can find his balance easily in it, you can start the shoulder-in. Start with a small circle, which may be in the corner. Continue one step past the line of the long side so the shoulder is on an inside track. The outside rein then leads the horse along the wall while the inside leg keeps the impulsion and bends the horse around the inside leg. The outside leg guards the hindquarter from going out. The inside rein initially holds the position of the neck, but later when the horse can balance in self-carriage, the inside rein may be given softly.
The shoulder-in can be ridden along the long side (1), or on a circle (2), or in the corners (3). You do not need to stay in it a whole long side. In fact, if you lose rhythm or impulsion or bending, it’s better to ride into a circle and get the bending and the impulsion and rhythm into the trot and do the shoulder-in again. A shorter number of good steps is better than trying to do a lot of steps.
Quite often a rider will notice that they feel as if they need to pull the left rein when riding to the left, because the horse seems to want to bend to the outside. Sometimes the rider will say that the horse pulls the left rein. Of course, it takes two to pull, so the rider is pulling too. I understand this is often due to the horse being reluctant to take a contact on the right rein. The right side is stiff and hollow. The horse does not want to take the outside rein contact and stretch the right side. Often these horses will accept the left outside rein contact more easily as the left side is more supple and stretches more easily. Riding the shoulder-in along the wall will help the horse to stretch the right side and accept the outside contact. In this situation, once again it is counter-intuitive that the rider should not let the horse determine that the rider pulls the inside left rein, but should get the horse to give the ribs over to the left leg. This kind of stiffness can be very prominent in horses off the track as they may not have been ridden in a way that makes them symmetrical.