Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Put your left shoulder-in, put your left shoulder-out..."

I'm stuck at home today, as the 5" of wet snow froze overnight, making side roads impassable ice traps. I hope you all are out there riding, so I can live vicariously through you! I hate going a full weekend without seeing my horse!

If only the shoulder-in was as simple as the Hokey Pokey!

As I discussed yesterday, the shoulder-in is an extremely influential and important movement in the development of the dressage horse. But, it's a movement that requires a build up of strength and balance. So, how do we get started introducing the movement to our horses and ourselves?

Hello shoulder-fore! 

Think of the shoulder-fore as a mini shoulder-in. It introduces the idea of the movement to your horse, asks more out of your connection, but doesn't require the dynamic level of hind leg support that a full shoulder-in does. A good way to think about the shoulder-fore, is riding the horse's shoulders just slightly off the rail. Your horse won't be moving on three tracks, but he'll still be starting to flex his abdominal muscles and learning to flex and respond to your inside and outside aids without losing his balance. In addition to helping develop the shoulder-in and collected gaits, the shoulder-fore is an amazing tool to help straighten your horses. This is especially true at the canter!
Lilly and Tessa show a slight shoulder-fore. Note how the shoulders are off the track, and how Tessa is stepping laterally with her inside fore. Tessa's neck is straight, but she has a slight bend to the inside. At this angle, her inside hind is not having to step under her with as much power as required in a full shoulder-in. Click here for a for another look at the full shoulder-in.

The aids for the shoulder-fore are the same as for the shoulder-in, but you will not require the same amount of angle as in the shoulder-in. When learning this movement, it's important to keep your horse fresh. This is hard work, so praise a step or two of correct work and let him rest and think. It's not going to be feasible to achieve more than couple of correct steps in a row at first, and that's totally normal.

Let's break the whole thing down!

To ask for the shoulder-fore/shoulder-in, you want to make sure that your horse first understands the lateral leg aids. Does he move away from your inside leg, and into your outside rein? Can he leg yield and maintain contact through your outside rein to keep himself straight? Can you, as a rider, keep your weight balanced and both legs and reins on during lateral movements? If yes, then you are ready to start. (If no, is your name Austen?)

The easiest way to see and make sense of the shoulder-fore/shoulder-in is along the long straight wall of the schooling arena. Here your horse is helped along in his straightness by the wall, and his angle is easier to judge.

Think of riding the movement the same way you would ride a circle. You want to ride the horse forward, with both legs on. You'll catch the outside shoulder with your rein, and move it off the track, as if you were going to make a 15m circle. Your shoulders should turn slightly with the horse's, allowing you to keep a straight line of communication through the bit. Your abdominal muscles will start to mirror your horse's contracting on the inside and stretching on the outside, as you keep your hips facing forward and asking the horse to move forward and straight along the track. Your eyes and head face forward, looking at your direction of travel.

When starting the movement, I often visualize myself picking up my horse's front end and placing it on the inside track. Meanwhile I keep my hips grounded and sitting, pushing him forward. Be sure to keep your contact light. Pulling back on the outside rein will cause your horse to slow, and the forward momentum is what will keep you from fishtailing all over the place. Keep your leg on and your hands forward and supportive. I often find it helpful to vibrate my outside rein to keep my horse mouthing the bit, instead of leaning into it. Your inside rein should stay passive. You do not want to pull your horse's shoulders over to the inside. That will completely destroy his balance. Instead think of pushing him over with your outside rein against his neck, and supporting him with your seat, thighs and shoulders.

I find it useful to feel my inside thigh lying flat on  the saddle, shifting my inside hipbone forward (as if slamming a drawer when my hands are full -- thanks Nancy!).That hip pressure keeps the horse's hind end straight and pushing forward. The hip movement should follow the movement of the hind leg, encouraging the horse to step forward and under himself. Make sure you do not collapse your inside hip and core, as this will weight the horse's inside hind and keep him from being able to step forward and under.

At first, your horse is going to feel stuck to the wall. This is common. It's so much easier for the horse to go along the straight track with his haunches slightly in and his shoulders sliding along the wall. Coming off the wall is hard for him, so make sure to reward any effort by him to move off your outside aids and bring his shoulders to the inside. If you're getting a really stuck feeling, I find it useful to add more inside leg to push the horse more into the outside rein. You want to be careful that you aren't always riding the movement by pushing the haunches out, as that won't give you the same gymnastic effect as moving the shoulders in. Instead, you'll be disengaging the hind end. However, for a horse that really doesn't get the aid, it can be helpful at first.

I also find it useful to ask a sticky horse to do a 10m circle from the wall, then try to keep the circle's bend for a few steps along the straightaway. Be very aware of how your hips guide the movement here. On the circle, your hips should guide the horse between your arms to move into the angle you set with your shoulders. Once you get back to the wall, you'll want to keep your hips moving straight, against the angle of the shoulders.

Give it a try! Tomorrow we talk about common evasions, and their causes and fixes. Do any of you have anything to add? Anyone use different aids?

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