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Do we need to rethink our aids for shoulder-in?

From my coaching experience, shoulder-in is probably one of the hardest dressage exercises for riders to get their head (and body) around. The horse is bent in one direction, travelling in another, there is a lot of coordination required as well as feeling what is happening underneath us and adapting our aids accordingly. On top of that, if we reach for riding manuals for help, we often find contradicting information which makes learning the shoulder-in really confusing for us and our horses.

While the aids for the shoulder-in include the use of reins, legs and weight, in this blogs I am going to focus on the use of the rider’s weight. Let’s look at examples from some of the many dressage manuals I have acquired over the years.

Shoulder-in aids explanations

Version 1: Rider should sit to the inside

This is the most frequently taught version of weight aids.

“The inside rein maintains position and the outside rein defines the degree of the position and leads the horse in the desired direction. The riders inside leg is applied on the girth and maintains the inside bend of the horse’s body from head to tail. […] The rider’s weight must be shifted on the inside seat bone.”

– Alois Podhajsky

Version 2: Rider should sit centrally

“The rider asks for the shoulder-in by increasing the aid with the inside leg and outside rein, turning the upper body in slightly inwards on the circle. […] Essentially, you are pushing the horse along the track from your inside leg into the outside rein. It is important to sit centrally in the saddle.”

– Arthur Kottas

Version 3: Rider should sit to the outside

“The outside rein presses softly against the neck. […] The opening inside hand moves slightly to the side. […] The inside leg drives the horse sideways and the outside leg prevents the shoulders from escaping. […] You sit in the direction of the movement – this means sitting to the outside in the shoulder in.”

Anja Beran

Version 4: Rider should sit to the inside first then centrally or to the outside

“Some untrained horses will benefit from the rider giving a slight weight aid with the inside leg/seat bone initially to encourage them to bring the forehand away from the track. But the weight will then need to be centralised when the horse has responded. Sometimes a slight weight aid to the outside will reinforce the pushing aid of the inside leg to encourage the horse up the track. Obviously the rider needs to be able to feel the reaction of the horse and respond instantaneously otherwise the horse will be confused.”

-Anne Wilson


Wait, what? I am confused!

I don’t blame you. In general, the rider is expected to shift their weight in the direction where they want the horse to travel. But, according to the majority of riding literature, shoulder-in is an exception to that rule as more weight should be put on the inside (i.e. not in the direction of the travel). From a horse training perspective, having an ‘exception to the rule’ can create a great deal of confusion for the horses. How can they tell that they should follow the rider’s weight on one occasion but not on the other?

What does the science says about shoulder-in?

I only found one study (De Cocq et al. 2010) looking at shoulder-in and rider’s weight aids in which 11 riders (competing at least at intermediate level) were evaluated with the help of pressure pads under the saddle. The study concluded that riders tended to put more weight on the outside seat bone in order to execute the shoulder-in movement (although the difference between inside and outside was small). So from the rider’s perspective, it seems that although riders are taught to put more weight on the inside seat bone, they actually resort to the opposite strategy while riding through the movement. This could, again, lead to frustration of the rider learning to ride shoulder-in if they are not getting the ‘results’ they expected despite using the ‘correct’ signals.

So which one is correct?

Based on the study above and from my personal experience of coaching riders, I am leaning towards the weight more on the outside seat bone. However, I usually teach the movement in two parts:

  1. I get the riders to initiate the shoulder-in as if they were to start a 10-meter circle so shifting their weight slightly to the inside.
  2. As soon as the horse responds and moves slightly off the track, I get my riders to move the weight back more over the outside seat bone because we want the horse to travel in that direction while keeping the angle of the body (with shoulders off the track) with the outside rein

This often achieves better results that keeping the weight on the inside seat bone.


I hope you find this blog about shoulder-in useful. Remember to check out my other dressage related posts:

Getting started with lateral exercises: Leg yielding

Leg-yielding exercises for increased suppleness

3 Exercises for riding better circles


Do you want to give dressage a go? Book your first lessons now with an experienced dressage instructor in Hertfordshire.

For more horse and rider training and tips, visit my blog or follow my page on social media.


Reference:

De Cocq P, Mooren M, Dortmans A, Van Weeren PR, Timmerman M, Muller M, Van Leeuwen JL. 2010. Saddle and leg forces during lateral movements in dressage. Equine Veterinary Journal Supplement 42(Suppl. 38):644-649 

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