September 28th 2016
I know I will never have to make this decision, but if I ever had to pick my single favorite exercise to school, it would be the shoulder-in. The shoulder-in makes its debut at Second level, but is a required movement all the way through Intermediate I. Learning to ride a good shoulder-in is a goal that all riders should have. It helps to develop control of the shoulders, engage the hind leg and create better connection with the outside rein, which will improve many other aspects of training. See how important is? This week, we are going to concentrate on your horses shoulders. Shoulder control is a bit like an onion, just when you think you have it, theres another layer to develop. Now that statement can sound motivating or depressing, depending on how you look at it! Don’t think of it as something that is never fully attainable, but something that can be chipped away at in small bits until you start to feel the improvement and can begin making bigger steps towards more influence on your horses way of going. Even the top horses and riders in the world work on improving the shoulders, so this should be an on going goal for everyone as you move up the levels.
Intro: I think a lot of Intro riders hear the term “shoulder control” and they think that this must be too advanced for the stage of training that they are currently in, but this is not true! There is a reason we need good shoulder control at the upper levels. As your horse develops in good training, the activity and engagement of the hind leg should increase. With that increase, a rider will have more energy coming up into the bridle and without good shoulder control, you will feel that you are fighting with that energy (where it goes, how much is brought into the bridle, rebalancing it back onto the hind leg…ect). So, if you think about the long term reason we need shoulder control, you can see how import the beginning of this process is. The first step to shoulder control is not actual in front of you, but behind you. Think of your horse as a VW Beetle… their engine is in the trunk. If that engine is never turned on, there will be no energy sent into the bridle and no reason to control the shoulders. The goal for this week is turning your horses engine on and feeling the subsequent energy move into the bridle.
This exercise can be done in all gaits, but I suggest beginning by riding a medium walk on a 20m circle. Find a rein length that establishes a solid connection to the bridle (not too tight, but short enough that there is no slack in the rein). Once you find a good spot, take a moment to establish a solid rhythm in your walk with that rein length. Next, slowly begin lengthening your reins (equally) by about one inch. As you do, softly close your lower leg asking your horse to step a little deeper with the hind leg and fill in that little extra rein length. It is best to start off a little bit at a time. If you give your horse more rein length than he/she will match with the hind leg, you will lose the connection, so take baby steps. Think of your horse earning a longer rein by reaching deeper with the hind leg. The goal is that if you lengthen the reins by two inches, your horse steps two inches deeper behind, ultimately lengthening the entire topline as they reach to maintain the connection. As you ride this exercise, remember to keep your hips soft to allow your horse room to swing in the back and be purposeful with the amount you lengthen or take up the reins. Not only will this exercise help bring the energy from the hind leg better into the bridle for future shoulder control, but it will also improve your stretch work.
Training/First: Shoulder control is very important as you move up the levels. It is what helps an engaged hind leg to send a horse uphill rather than on the forehand and becomes more and more necessary as lateral work is introduced. Just because there is no lateral movements in the Training level tests does not mean that you can’t begin developing shoulder control. First level is where you see the first lateral movement, the leg yield and if you wait until you want to compete at First level, you will not be as prepared as you can be. When beginning leg yields, many riders are told by their instructors to be careful not to pull the horses neck to the inside during the leg yield. This is true, as too much bending to the inside unbalances the shoulder alignment and puts the horse in a position to drift side ways instead of remaining parallel to the rail. So unfortunately, in an attempt to not over bend their horse to the inside, riders avoid contact altogether. During the leg yield, your outside rein is as important as your inside leg (the one asking for the leg yield). It aids in maintaining alignment and prevents your horse from becoming to concave around your inner leg.
As a rider, there are several things to keep in mind when schooling leg yields. Think about maintaining a long leg during the exercise. When a horse does not respond correctly or enough during a leg yield, it is common for a rider to begin drawing that leg up higher or back further. Don’t let this happen to you! The best spot to ask your horse to yield is only slightly behind the girth and if you strive for a long feeling in your leg, your leg will be in the best “zone” and you will prevent crookedness from creeping into your position. It is also best to practice leg yields by feel instead of riding them from point A to point B in the beginning. Once you are capable of repeating balanced, responsive leg yields regularly, then add the goal of riding them to or from a specific letter or point in the arena. This week, whether your horse is a pro in the leg yield department or just starting them, the exercise will be started by turning down centerline in either medium walk or working trot. Chose the direction you are going to ride the leg yield in advance, so you have time to organize your aids. From the centerline, begin asking for the leg yield with your inner leg, paying special attention to maintaining alignment with your outside rein. When you have reached the quarterline, ride straight ahead by straightening any extra flexion out of the neck and applying equal pressure with both legs. It is only a small amount of leg yielding, but this exercise is going for quality over quantity. The reason I use leg yielding as a part of a shoulder control exercise is that in order to maintain a well balance leg yield, the rider must use half halts on the outside rein to prevent the outside shoulder from popping out of alignment. If you are wondering how often or how much to half halt, unfortunately there is no exact science for that. It is up to you as the rider to listen to your horses body and gain awareness of the difference between when things are maintaining well and when things are beginning to become dislodged. Horses are brutally honest and have no problem telling you if you are half halting too much or not enough, so listen to them. If you make a mistake, take a deep breathe and ride it again. Be tactful and really feel what you are riding and most importantly… enjoy the journey!
Second: At Second Level, you are required to ride 10m circles and three track lateral work (shoulder-in, travers, renvers) in competition, but you should be schooling more that what is required in your tests. This exercise will help you to develop better control of the angle and “tracks” of your shoulder-in. The “track” of a shoulder-in is referring to the line that each hoof is traveling on.
- In a shoulder-fore, you are only riding the shoulders very slightly to the inside. It is often referred to as “threading the needle”, because the outside front leg should be positioned just between the tracks of the hind legs.
- In a three track shoulder-in, the outside hind leg remains next to the rail, while the outside front leg should be traveling on the same track as the inside hind leg and the inside front leg is on a track just to the inside of that.
- In a four track shoulder-in, each leg has its own track. The hind legs will remain traveling straight on the rail, while the outside front leg will be on a track just to that of the inside of the inside hind leg and the inside front leg will be on the track furthest to the inside.
Every shoulder-in has a certain size circle that corresponds with the angle, so during this exercise, we are going to use three different shoulder-in /circle combinations. First, ride collected trot through the short side and position your horse in a shoulder-fore as you begin the long side, lets say near F (when traveling left). Think about the description of threading the needle as you ask for the slight positioning to the inside. At B, ride a 15m circle maintaining the same position. Once the circle is over, continue back down the rail in shoulder-fore. Ride this several times, checking that the angle and bend remains the same as you ride from shoulder-fore through the circle and back to the shoulder-fore. There should be no straight moments between the shoulder-fore and the circle or back again. The angle from the shoulder-fore should continue throughout the circle and back into the shoulder-fore down second half of the long side. Just like last weeks exercise, you ultimately decide on the angle by using your inside seat bone, maintaining a certain bend and half-halting with the outside rein. If you feel something change during this exercise, check to make sure that your aids are remaining consistent.
The next step will be combining a three track shoulder-in with a 10m circle and then a four track shoulder-in with a less than 10m circle. My clients know that I do not like to using a lot of really small circles, because if they are not ridden really well, it can be very easy to make an already difficult movement even more taxing on your horses joints. So when you start schooling circles smaller than 10m, keep in mind that removing only 1m from the circles circumference makes it noticeably more difficult for your horse. When I say to combine a “less than 10m circle” with your four track shoulder-in, just ride a circle that is slightly smaller than 10m, but not so small that your horse is struggling. This exercise is mainly focused on the shoulder-in and if you ask for too small of a circle, you can quickly give yourself an extra issue to work on (who needs that??) :) These exercises will help you develop greater control of your horses shoulders, which will prepare you for half-pass in the future.
Third & Above: This exercise is one of my favorites! It is a great way to introducing half-pass and will continue to improving your half-pass all the way to Grand Prix. This exercise is based a lot off of your feel from the saddle, so it is very flexible in the amount you ask for and how long you stay in it.
*For anyone recording their rides, place the camera at either A or C and ride the exercise both coming towards and heading away from the camera.
This exercise can be ridden in all three gaits. Begin by riding a shoulder-in to the right on the long side. You will want to start near the beginning of the long side to give yourself enough space for this exercise. In your shoulder-in, pay special attention to the softness of the inside jaw and relax your inside seat bone down to the right (inside) of your horses spine. These two elements are important in achieving some lift on your horses inside shoulder. Once the shoulder-in feels balanced and flexible, ride several steps in half-pass right toward the quarterline. For horses still green in the half-pass, three or four steps may be all they can do and thats fine! For more advanced horses, continue riding the half-pass right until you begin to lose the lift you had in the inner shoulder. At this point, ride forward out of the half-pass on a track parallel to the rail and return to shoulder-in right. This second shoulder-in is very important, because this is where you will fix anything that was lost in the half-pass (stiffness in the inside jaw, dropped inside shoulder, lost activity in the outside hind…ect) and regain the correct positioning for more half-pass. After a few steps of shoulder-in, return to half-pass right. It is best to begin and end with a few steps of good shoulder-in, so give yourself a little space before you come to the next short side to finish the exercise. Once you are finished with one side or in one gait, move on to the next. Like I said before, this exercise should be ridden by feel, so you can feel when and what is lost in the quality of the half-pass, use the shoulder-in to improve that and continue on. As you progress, you should need less of the shoulder-in, less often. The benefits of this exercise are far reaching and not only improve your half-pass, but can prepare you for the steeper half-pass required as you move up the levels and the half-pass zig zag. Have fun with it and ride every step!