by Mairi Mackay
Teaching your horse shoulder in can have loads of benefits. All horses are ‘sided’ ( i.e. in very basic terms they have a rein that they find it easier to bend/balance on.) and shoulder in is a basic lateral exercise that can help your horse improve straightness. This has a myriad of benefits and books have been written about it! Shoulder in is also a great gymnastic exercise to help your horse become more flexible, strengthen his hindquarters (as it is a bit like a weight lifting exercise targeting each hind leg) and develop balance.
One of the best ways to describe shoulder in is to imagine your horse walking along the side of the arena with the wall or rail on one side. It will look like your horse’s shoulders are coming away from the wall at a small angle and the inside hind leg steps deeper underneath the body. To help visualise this, many people recommend thinking of the horse taking the first step of a 10-metre circle and carrying on straight along the wall holding this shape.
If you are standing in front of a horse performing shoulder in you will see the horse’s hooves moving on three tracks: The inside front foot is on one track, the outside front and inside hind on the middle track and the outside hind on the other.
One of my goals this year is to teach Gilly more lateral work in-hand for all the above benefits, and so in a recent in-hand session I started working on the basics with him. My equipment was a lunge cavesson and lead rope and a schooling whip.
We started off by working on improving his walk to halt transition. I walked in front of him backwards and gradually slowed down, lifted his head gently asked him to transfer his weight onto the hind legs as he halted. Starting with a simple exercise like this seemed to help him focus his attention and ease us into the rest of the session.
The next exercise we practiced before moving on to teaching shoulder-in was turn on the forehand. It helped Gilly understand that he needs to do something with the hind leg I touch him on with the whip which provided a building block for shoulder-in aids later.
I started attempting shoulder in by walking along the rail of the arena holding Gilly’s head straight and then putting my hand on his shoulder. This focused my attention on angle my body forms with the line of Gilly’s travel. I then asked him to bring his front end off the track a little using my “cavesson hand” (the hand I held lead rope with) and tried to assume correct angle myself while pointing the whip towards Gilly’s inside hind leg which he needed to engage more underneath his body.
One of the things I noticed as a novice to in-hand work, is that I find it quite difficult to know when the horse is correctly performing shoulder-in.
If you are lucky enough to have a mirror in your arena, start practicing walking towards the mirror and look for the ‘three tracks’. If you don’t, then it can really help having someone else who knows lateral work to watch and help you adjust.
You could also ask them to do it with your horse and video them – a reference can really help with things like where to position your body in relation to the horse to communicate what you want.
I’m going to keep practicing this as I think it will take a while to develop my feel for when Gilly is doing it right. But in the short term, one of the benefits in the saddle is that when Gilly falls in and out on circles a bit of shoulder in feel can encourage him to correct his bend and redistribute his weight so he is more balanced.