Have you ever read "insufficient bending" on your test and score sheet for the shoulder-in? Your horse’s forelegs may be displaced to the inside and its head may bend, but your horse doesn’t bend enough from poll to tail.
The problem is that your horse is actually not performing the shoulder-in. Shoulder-in without proper bending is like performing leg-yielding while staying on the main track. And that’s not what is asked in your elementary/medium test, and it doesn’t yield a high score.
Don’t mistake the leg-yielding aids for the shoulder-in aids
What’s going wrong is that shoulder-in and the leg-yielding aids are often confused. For leg-yielding, you place your leg one hand behind the girth in order to move the hindquarters as well. Only a slight flexion of the head is asked.
The shoulder-in most common mistake
When you horse is not sufficiently bent laterally, you are technically riding “ass outside”. This is a very common mistake even seen in advanced medium and higher categories! Shoulder-in is one of my favorite exercise, whereby the horse really learns to bend around the inside leg, to move with more expression, from back to front without getting strong in the hands.
Increased engagement of the inside hind leg
Shoulder-in is an exercise whereby you can exert significant influence on your horse’s hind leg. You control completely its shoulders. If you perform shoulder-in correctly, the horse becomes more obedient to your leg aids, engages its inside hind leg further underneath its body, and will move with more expression.
Wrong aids for shoulder-in
I often see riders asking for shoulder-in by asking a flexion of the head to the inside with their inside rein. The outside hip and outside leg push forward and the inside leg is placed backward to push the hindquarter. This is not the correct way to set up shoulder-in. The inside leg is working against lateral bend. The inside hip is pushing backwards and is actually preventing the horse to engage its inside hind leg further underneath its body. That way, you can never ride a good shoulder-in with sufficient lateral bending.
Your horse is not obedient enough to your aids and inside leg
It is interesting to see where the cause lies. Why gives the rider the wrong aids instead of the correct ones? The main cause is that the horse “sticks” to the rider inside leg. The horse is not moving sideways (leg-yield) because of the pressure, but it leans against the pressure. If you remove the pressure of your inside leg, your horse is moving from itself to the inside away from the main track. It is essential to learn your horse to “stay away” from your inside leg. The horse is not allowed to fall to the inside when it gets difficult; it needs to learn to carry itself. You teach him that by teaching him not to stick to your inside leg when you place it by the girth, not to put its weight to the inside, but to neatly distribute it on both shoulders.
Control of the horse’s shoulders is very important for riding shoulder-in. When you have control over the shoulders, you also have more influence on the engagement of the inside hind leg.
Correct aids for shoulder-in
The correct aids for shoulder-in are as follow:
Seat aids: inside hip forward in the direction of the horse inside shoulder. You sit more on your inside sit bone. You sit straight, shoulders low and pointing toward the horse’s inside ear. Be careful not to collapse to the inside and sit crooked.
Leg aids: inside leg by the girth, driving when the inside hind leg is off the ground. That way you can ask with your inside leg the inside hind leg to move inside-forward and to engage more underneath the horse’s body. Your inside leg is the leg the horse is bending around. The inside leg prevents the horse to fall in. The outside leg is placed one hand behind the girth and maintains the lateral bend. Your thighs are loose and you let your knees unclenched dropping down.
Rein aids: you place both hands slightly to the inside, so that the shoulders move to the inside under the pressure of the outside rein against the neck. Keep both hands relaxed along the withers, the inside hand may come slightly further to the inside. Do not pull on the reins or lift your hands, otherwise you may get a rhythm disturbance.
In short; shoulder-in is an exercise that allows you to increase control over the shoulders and the inside hind leg of your horse. It will become more obedient and supple and its gaits will gain more swung and expression. The most common mistake is an insufficient bend caused by an inside leg behind the girth. By a correct use of the weight, leg and rein aids, the horse will carry itself during the exercise with a nice bend from the poll to the tail.
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