Shouldering the Collected Trot

Second Level dressage is a funny place your first time through. The work is more advanced, and often something you haven't felt before as a rider. The concepts seem ridiculously finicky, and often impossible. It's a difficult dance to figure out what's-what.

Nothing is harder to determine than when you've achieved a "collected" gait, as opposed to a working one. No drastic change can be felt, no one cheers, and absolutely no balloons fall from the sky (thank god, can you imagine?). So, how does a new rider even realize that she's riding a collected gait if she's never truly felt one before?

Enter the shoulder-in. The gloriously elusive training movement, the one everyone thinks they know but most people aren't doing properly. The one I've come to see as the defining pinnacle of Second Level training, summarizing the balance, feel, and strength that Second Level is striving to show off, and the one that can only truly be executed if your horse is capable and showing a collected trot.
Lilly and Darius show off the shoulder-in during a Nancy lesson.
So, let's start off with a definition. The shoulder-in is a movement collecting suppleness, straightness and strength together. It is shown by bringing the horse's shoulders to the inside of the hindquarters' line of travel, so that the horse's footfalls form three "tracks" when viewed from directly in front or behind, with the inside foreleg on one track, the outside foreleg and inside hind leg on the middle track, and the outside hind on the last track. The horse is to bent slightly to the inside, using his abdominal muscles to hold the bend on the inside, but lengthening them to continue moving laterally down the track and maintaining straightness through the neck. The shoulder-in can be shown on either a circle or the straight track, with the circle being easier and the straight track requiring more gymnastic suppleness from the horse.

Whew. Got that? 

In theory, the shoulder-in sounds simple. You just ask the horse to sort of come off the track and keep moving straight. In reality, the movement requires a lot of strength from your horse. Often this means that they will try to evade the movement in a myriad of ways. The rider must stay supportive with the aids and balanced with her weight, or the horse cannot maintain his balance and will not be able to show the movement properly.

In addition, the way the inside hind leg must step under and forward in the full shoulder-in is so dynamic, it is impossible for many horses to maintain without conditioning and work in the collected trot. So, going out and asking your average training level horse to shoulder-in isn't going to go well. I like to compare this to asking an average person to go out and do 10 pull ups. The ability is in the person, but the strength just isn't there. Just like the person, horses must be gradually strengthened and suppled for the exercise to be able to be executed.

The shoulder-in will test your contact, and your horse's response to your outside rein. It will quickly tell on you if you rely on the inside rein, or if you are uneven in your seat or legs. It's a barometer of training like nothing else I've come across, and a foundation for the lateral movements in the upper levels.

Now, I'm not just going to sit here and wax rhapsodical about the movement (well, I am today). I think it's important to share the beginnings of the training, and how its progression feels. It's such a difficult movement to truly get, and one that sets the stage for your horse's training further on. So, I'm starting on a series on the shoulder-in. Next up is the shoulder-fore and the aids for both. See you tomorrow?


  1. Great post! I agree that shoulder-in is the key to ... pretty much everything. haha.

  2. Awesome post! I thought I was doing it right but wasn't and had a long lesson in which my trainer mostly got through to me, but had to accept it wasn't going to happen perfectly that night. Haha. It's hard!

    1. It really is! It's so easy to feel like you have it, then you realize somehow your horse is actually not at the right angle at all. Ack!

  3. At the clinic this past weekend, Christian CONSTANTLY asked me to think about shoulder in. He didn't expect it, but he wanted me riding with that in mind, always. :0)

    1. A lot of horses tend to travel with their shoulders to the wall, and their haunches in. Thinking shoulder-in can really help you straighten. Guinness travels like this to the left, so I'm almost constantly riding him in a shoulder-fore to get him straight!


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